Memo to Republican leaders: Be careful what you wish for.
Hoping to avoid a repeat of the messy fight for the Republican nomination in 2012, the party drew up a calendar and delegate-selection rules intended to allow a front-runner to wrap things up quickly.
Now, with Republicans voting in 11 states on Tuesday, the worst fears of the party’s establishment are coming true: Donald J. Trump could all but seal his path to the nomination in a case of unintended consequences for the party leadership, which vehemently opposes him.
“Trump has significant advantages, and that’s the way the system is designed,” said Joshua T. Putnam, a political science lecturer at the University of Georgia with an expertise in delegate selection. “It’s right in line with what the folks designing these rules wanted. It’s just not the candidate they preferred.”
As the calendar flips to March, a whirlwind of states vote on the same days and in quick succession. By the middle of the month, 58 percent of the total delegates will have been awarded, and Trump could be unstoppable in getting the 1,237 needed to clinch the nomination.
With the exception of Texas, the home state of Sen. Ted Cruz, recent polls show Trump leading in the so-called Super Tuesday states that vote this week, including Alabama, Georgia, Massachusetts and Virginia. Though Texas has the most delegates of states voting on Tuesday, 155, they all award delegates proportionally, so that Cruz will most likely have to share the haul.
The Southern states, with their many evangelical Christians, have been the linchpin of Cruz’s strategy. But after Trump trounced him in South Carolina on Feb. 20, winning all 50 delegates, Cruz’s prospects are not as bright. Trump carries “enormous momentum,” Cruz admitted Friday, and if he sweeps Super Tuesday, when more delegates are awarded than any other day, “he could easily be unstoppable.”
For Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who ferociously challenged Trump last week in a debate and on the stump, mocking the real estate mogul’s “spray tan” and calling him a “con man,” the path forward is also narrowing.
The Rubio campaign is hoping for several things in the coming weeks: that Cruz will withdraw after a poor finish on Super Tuesday; that Rubio will carry the moderate states of Minnesota and Virginia that day; and that on March 15 — the first day of voting in big winner-take-all states — Rubio will sweep the 99 delegates in his home state of Florida.
The likelihood of Rubio or Cruz holding a winning hand after Super Tuesday depends on many wild cards built into the delegate rules.
A majority of the 595 delegates at stake that day are awarded by congressional district, with the stinger that, in some circumstances, only the top two finishers receive any at all. The winner of each district gets two delegates, the runner-up gets one and everyone else goes home like Charlie Brown after Lucy has yanked away the football.
This rule was intended by party leaders to turbocharge the campaign of a front-runner. In effect, a candidate who wins a district with a plurality of only about 33 percent, as Trump has in earlier states’ primaries, ends up with 66 percent of the delegates.
Rubio could be all but shut out in Texas if he does not finish higher than third in any of its 36 districts, and if he also falls short of 20 percent of the vote statewide, which he needs to qualify for at-large delegates.
The high threshold of 20 percent for at-large delegates also applies in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. If Trump and Cruz do well in those deeply conservative states, they could deprive Rubio of much-needed support.
That inhospitable math has left Rubio hunting for delegates in select congressional districts that favor his center-right conservatism, such as the affluent suburbs of Nashville, Tenn.; Atlanta; and in northern Virginia, where he campaigned on Sunday.
Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio and Ben Carson, a retired surgeon, could be entirely shut out from many Super Tuesday states. Kasich hopes to hold on until Ohio’s winner-take-all primary on March 15, a state that Rubio also covets.
“The quest for Rubio or Cruz is to keep Trump’s delegate lead below 200 to 250” on Super Tuesday, said Putnam, the University of Georgia lecturer. “If they can do that, a scenario where Rubio is able to sweep both Florida and Ohio — that’s 165 delegates — really cuts into a 200-delegate lead and may flip the narrative.”
Conversely, he added, “If Trump is pushing a 300-delegate lead after Super Tuesday, he’ll have a better chance in Florida and Ohio and make it that much more unlikely another candidate will sweep those states.”
The rules this year, intended to bring the race to a relatively swift conclusion, emerged from the ashes of Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat. Republican officials said the candidate’s campaign had been damaged by too many debates and by a drawn-out nomination fight that kept alive the hopes — and the attacks — of underfunded challengers.
In 2014, the Republican National Committee rolled out changes compressing the primary calendar and moving up the date of winner-take-all primaries to March 15. Many states, eager for a place in the spotlight, rushed to hold their votes in the first two weeks of March, when delegates are awarded proportionately.
Republican leaders were trying to satisfy two wings of the party: In theory, a shorter calendar favors a well-funded establishment candidate, while proportional delegate selection can bolster a grass-roots conservative.
Above all, party officials hoped to avoid an underdog challenger hanging on until the national convention in July and stealing attention from the presumptive nominee. Paradoxically, this may be the fate of Rubio, who said on Saturday that he would remain in the race all the way. “If I have to, I will get in my pickup truck” and drive to all 50 states to defeat Trump, he said.
“This whole thing is a really messy mixture of unintended consequences,” said Benjamin L. Ginsberg, a Republican lawyer in Washington who was national counsel to the Romney campaign. “The RNC put in a system that was designed to let either an establishment figure or a very popular conservative grass-roots figure wrap up the nomination early. And Donald Trump rewrote the rules.”
The intense stop-Trump sentiment in the party establishment, along with a possibility that a front-runner might fall short of the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, has raised the once-remote possibility of a contested convention.
“I think the establishment will do anything in their power to try to stop Donald Trump at the national convention,” said John Patrick Yob, the former delegate strategist for Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on Feb. 3.
That could include changing rules that bind delegates to candidates, said Yob, who recently published a book titled “Chaos: The Outsider’s Guide to a Contested Republican National Convention.” One of the first orders of business at the national convention in Cleveland in July will be a meeting by the rules committee to determine guidelines for the proceedings.
Delegates may not personally support the candidates they are bound to represent, based on their state’s primary or caucus results. If they are “unbound” by a rule change, or after a first ballot in which no candidate wins a majority, the nominating fight could crack wide open on the convention floor.