Michael Barone: Can Trump be stopped? Maybe
The Republican race goes on after Super Tuesday. In ordinary years, Donald Trump’s wins in seven of the 11 Super Tuesday contests after three out of four wins in February, together with his delegate lead, would make him the nominee. Politicians would hurry to back the apparent winner.
But, thanks to Trump, this is not an ordinary year, and his extraordinary campaign seems to leave many Republican politicians and voters not eager to join his campaign but desperate to stop it.
Which is another way of saying he must earn the 1,237 votes needed for the nomination in the primaries and caucuses. Getting near that threshold doesn’t get him over it. It’s hard to see how any of his remaining rivals — Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich — could accumulate 1,237 himself. But it’s possible they could at least get enough to block Trump.
That’s partly because of Trump’s disappointing delegate haul from Super Tuesday. As in February, Trump underperformed as often as he over-performed his poll numbers. Most of his voters have supported him for months, while late deciders have been going to Cruz or Rubio. The current count (subject to slight change) has Trump with 237 Super Tuesday delegates, Cruz with 209 (99 from his handsome victory in his home state, Texas) and Rubio with 94.
Trump had hoped for 300. Sixty-three is a big shortfall on a day when one-quarter of delegates were selected.
Trump got 39 percent or more of the votes in four states Tuesday. Looking ahead, he runs as well in polls conducted this year in only three states: tiny Rhode Island and West Virginia, which vote in May, and huge Florida, whose winner-take-all primary for 99 delegates is on March 15.
For Florida’s Marco Rubio this is obviously a must-win state. Trump has double-digit lead in four recent polls, and the elderly have been leaning toward Trump. But Cruz and Kasich aren’t likely to invest in a hugely expensive state with an effective two-candidate race.
Florida is tailor-made for barrages of super PAC negative ads, such as those that derailed Newt Gingrich in 2012. And, as Rubio and Cruz made clear in the Feb. 25 debate, there’s plenty of raw material.
March 15 is also the date of Ohio’s winner-take-all primary for 66 delegates. In the single recent poll John Kasich trails Trump by just 5 points. Kasich may gain if Rubio and Cruz mostly stay out and concentrate on winning delegates that day in Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri.
A Kasich victory would make him a placeholder — or kingmaker — with 66 delegates. Recent surveys show him in single digits in every recently polled later-voting state but Rhode Island.
Ted Cruz’s problem is that few states with later primaries have such large proportions of evangelical and “very conservative” voters as those that just voted. If Rubio and Kasich lose March 15, it will certainly be the two-candidate race Cruz described Super Tuesday night.
But Trump will be 165 delegates closer to 1,237.
On Tuesday night Trump argued that he is the Republican most likely to beat Hillary Clinton in November: the electability argument.
On the basis of current polling, that’s absurd. The RealClearPolitics averages of recent polls on each month’s first day show Rubio’s lead over Clinton rising from 1.6 percent in January to 3.6 in February and 5.0 in March. Cruz rose less, from -0.6 to +1.7 and +1.5. Trump remains behind: -4.8 in January, -3.5 in February and -3.0 in March. Recent target-state polling is consistent with these numbers.
These aren’t huge differences and don’t suggest that Trump would get a Barry Goldwater/George McGovern 38 percent. But they do show him as a weaker candidate by a margin that could make the difference in a close election.
Trump’s answer on Tuesday night is that he would bring more people to the polls. He correctly noted that turnout in Republican contests (exception: tiny Vermont) is sharply up and Democratic turnout sharply down.
Perhaps the initial screening questions asked by pollsters are screening out Trump voters who wouldn’t bother voting if another Republican is nominated. I’m dubious; first-time primary voters have been far from unanimous for Trump.
In any case, “Never Trump” Republicans will do all they can to stop him, less out of fear for their party than out of the belief that he’d be a disastrous president for the nation. It’s one more way Trump has made this election an exception to the ordinary rules.