An Open Convention is Now More Likely Than an Outright Win for Trump
Note: Nothing in this piece is an endorsement, just analysis.
For the last few months, we have held the prediction that, based on the GOP delegate math, Donald Trump would win the GOP nomination outright on June 7 (the last day of the primaries) with approximately 1,300 delegates bound for the first ballot in Cleveland (1,237 needed for the nomination). This prediction was based on several factors: the consolidation of the race (and the fact that voters did not, uniformly, back the non-Trump candidates when others dropped out), the shift towards winner-take-all (by state and Congressional District) apportionment, the sense of inevitability with Trump, and the GOP “establishment’s” apparent expenditure of all of its ammunition (as we discussed in a prior article, we saw “Peak Anti-Trump” on the day Mitt Romney gave his speech against Trump and Marco Rubio and Trump threw mud at each other at a debate later that night).
The previous theory went something like this: Donald Trump has amassed 752 delegates with 896 delegates outstanding in 17 states (with binding votes). Donald Trump would need to win 54% of the remaining delegates which is wholly conceivable given that he has won 47.7% of delegates so far. The later contests are more weighted to winner-take-all by Congressional District and Statewide than early contests (that focused on proportional allocation). This will skew delegate counts toward the winner of the popular vote.
The states remaining with binding primaries are:
April 5: Wisconsin: 42 Delegates: Winner-Take-All (CD and Statewide)
April 19: New York: 95 Delegates: Winner-Take-Most (>50% WTA, CD and Statewide)
April 26: Connecticut: 28 Delegates: Winner-Take-Most (>50% WTA, CD and Statewide)
April 26: Delaware: 16 Delegates: Winner-Take-All
April 26: Maryland: 38 Delegates: Winner-Take-All (CD and Statewide)
April 26: Pennsylvania: 71 Delegates: Loophole (54 Congressional District Delegates appear on the ballot without an associated candidate and are not bound at the convention. 17 Statewide delegates are awarded Winner-Take-All)
April 26: Rhode Island: 19 Delegates: Proportional
May 3: Indiana: 57 Delegates: Winner-Take-All (CD and Statewide)
May 10: Nebraska: 33 Delegates: Winner-Take-All
May 10: West Virginia: 34 Delegates: Direct Election (Delegates appear on the ballot with the candidate that they support)
May 17: Oregon: 25 Delegates: Proportional
May 24: Washington: 44 Delegates: Proportional
June 7: California: 172 Delegates: Winner-Take-All (CD and Statewide)
June 7: Montana: 27 Delegates: Winner-Take-All
June 7: New Jersey: 51 Delegates: Winner-Take-All
June 7: New Mexico: 24 Delegates: Proportional
June 7: South Dakota: 29 Delegates: Winner-Take-All
Donald Trump’s Prior Path to the Nomination
Our previous calculation went something like this: Trump would be competitive in Wisconsin and receive something between 12 and 20 delegates. He would then sweep into New York and pick up over 80 delegates given the 50% rule (the race having narrowed enough for him to actually get over the threshold). He would do the same in Connecticut and take all 18 delegates. He would then win Delaware and the majority of Maryland (our prediction was 32 of 38 delegates). He would take approximately 60 delegates in Pennsylvania and a plurality in Rhode Island. The model would have Trump losing Indiana to Cruz but still picking up 15-21 delegates. He would receive 0 in Nebraska but get 31/34 in West Virginia. Oregon and Washington, both being proportional, wouldn’t be big wins for Trump, but we’d assume about 33-45% of the delegates allocated to him. On June 7, we had projected Trump winning 135 or more of California’s delegates as well as all 51 of the delegates from New Jersey. We would assume Trump loses Montana and South Dakota while picking up a plurality in New Mexico.
Consequently, the previous model showed Trump on track to pick up 525 delegates of the 896 outstanding. This would give Trump a total of 1,277 as of June 7. This result means that Trump has a 40 delegate cushion over the required majority of 1,237.
Obviously these projections are subject to change… and today we are changing them.
The New Reality
Donald Trump’s campaign has begun to take on water in the past week and his momentum has slowed. There are a myriad of potential reasons for this (bad interviews, a lack of “real” news from elections, schoolyard insults, more mudslinging, etc.), but the fact remains that the only contest for nearly five weeks is set to happen in Wisconsin and Trump’s poll numbers are dropping (yes, we know his poll numbers nationally remain consistently in the mid-40s, but those polls count states that have already voted).
Here are the reasons for our decision to amend our projection:
- There are two weeks between a Trump loss in Wisconsin and the next contest. Unless there is a considerable news story in the interim which distracts the political press, the only coverage will be on Trump’s apparent deflation. This will change his late-game numbers.
- The GOP “establishment” is working at the state-level in states were Trump won to take delegates away from him using state procedures. Despite Trump’s win in Louisiana, Ted Cruz will emerge with the delegate majority. This is less due to Cruz’s ground game and more a symptom of Trump’s seeming naivete with regard to the fact that the primary is not the end of the delegate selection process (there are one or two more stages in most states). Given that his internal campaign machine is roiling with the Lewandowski issues, there appears to be no unified control over delegate allocation to Trump. In a scenario where, quite literally, every delegate matters, this attrition of several delegates shows that Trump may not have the numbers he needs at the convention.
- Trump’s apparent lack of a ground game in previous states does not bode well for his chances in Pennsylvania where delegates are elected unbound and unaffiliated with a candidate (54 of the 71). While we remain confident that Trump will carry the state (unless John Kasich makes a strong showing or the Trump deflation is stronger than we are predicting), we are hesitant to project any more than 17 delegates for Trump coming out of Pennsylvania.
- Cruz is already microtargeting in California and the Trump campaign appears asleep at the wheel. California will be a make-or-break state for Trump. Yes, it is still over two months away, but the reality is that Trump will not win the nomination outright without winning 70% of the delegates in the state. Cruz is already looking at taking districts from Trump and is focused on those races. We have seen no evidence of Trump working to win in California.
- Trump’s appeal has stagnated. As Trump noted in the “Art of the Deal”: “You can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.” Even Trump’s strident supporters are aching for policy proposals to defend. Rather, Trump’s apparent decision to dance around national security, nuclear proliferation, and social issues leave his supporters with just innuendo and tabloid gossip being the news of the day. Certainly a course correction in the Trump campaign toward substance after a loss in Wisconsin could abruptly change the course of this decline. However, at the moment, this does not appear to be happening.
The new projection. Again, as with any projection, it is subject to change (and will likely change quite a bit):
In Wisconsin, Trump receives fewer than 12 delegates. Trump rebounds somewhat in New York and takes 72 delegates. Trump wins all 18 delegates in Connecticut and all 16 delegates in Delaware. Trump gets 29 of Maryland’s 38 delegates. Trump can only account for 17 delegates from Pennsylvania despite a win in the state. Trump gets a plurality in Rhode Island. Trump loses Indiana and gets 15 delegates. Trump gets 0 delegates in Nebraska. Trump gets 28 of 34 in West Virginia, and pluralities in Oregon and Washington. In California, Trump gets 115 delegates and wins all 51 of the delegates from New Jersey. He gets a plurality in New Mexico and nothing in South Dakota or Montana.
This projection would account for Trump getting 385 of the remaining 896 delegates (43%). He would, thus, come to the end of the primary cycle with 1,137 delegates (exactly 100 delegates shy of the nomination). Obviously, even with our rough projection, we would account for some attrition (like what happened in Louisiana). Thus, the number would likely be more like 1,125-1,130 of bound delegates when Trump arrives in Cleveland for the convention.
Now, we aren’t going to make a guess as to what happens in Cleveland (does the Party decide to coalesce around Trump or throw him to the wolves?). Given the scenario above, Ted Cruz would arrive in Cleveland with around 873 delegates and John Kasich would have 352. It will be important to watch what happens to the uncommitted or unbound delegates. We would expect the majority would not support Trump (mostly because they have been selected by the inner workings of the Republican Party who hold no love for the New York billionaire). By our count, there will be around 197 delegates that will be, nominally, unbound (states like Colorado did not hold a binding primary, there are other states that leave 3 or more delegates unbound for Party leaders to make their own decisions, and then the majority of the Pennsylvania delegation that was elected without a candidate preference). What this means, practically, is: if Trump arrives in Cleveland with 1,137 delegates and then can convince a little over half of the unbound delegates to support him, he would still receive the nomination on the first ballot.
That strategy is fraught with numerous pitfalls for Trump, but it would be his best shot at securing the nomination at the convention. We are aware of nominally Trump delegates from across the country who are bound to Trump on the first ballot by law, but are actually supporters of either Ted Cruz or establishment insiders who are planning to deny Trump the nomination on subsequent ballots (this isn’t a conspiracy theory, it’s actually the strategy that Ron Paul tried in 2012. Most of the reason these people can get these positions is because of a breakdown of the Trump campaign at the grassroots level).
Therefore, our new (obviously subject to change) projection is that the GOP nomination will be resolved at an open convention.