Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Numbers Games

I've heard a lot of hopeful talk today from supporters of Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz that the results of yesterday's primaries and caucuses are indicative of a shift in the momentum in the quests for the Democrats' and Republicans' presidential nominations.

On the Republican side, Cruz won the Kansas and Maine caucuses. Donald Trump won the Kentucky caucuses and the Louisiana primary. Cruz's campaign is fixated on the number of wins because it suggests a shift in momentum. And, to be sure, momentum is important in presidential politics. But that was the real value of the early contests — in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Although they were small individually, together they created a perception that benefited certain candidates heading into last Tuesday's Super Tuesday contests.

There's a big change coming, one that was designed to avoid a prolonged battle for the GOP nomination like the one in 2012. Up to this point, Republican primaries have been allocating delegates on a proportional basis — all states holding Republican primaries or caucuses after March 14 will award the delegates on a winner–take–all or winner–take–most basis.

Momentum has mostly been established now. Unless Cruz starts winning in bunches, the attention will be on delegate counts. Splitting four contests with Trump is a draw as far as momentum is concerned, and attention remains on delegates. Cruz won that battle, too, but not impressively enough. As I write this, the apparent delegate numbers from yesterday's contests are Cruz with 69 delegates, Trump with 53 delegates, Marco Rubio with 18 delegates and John Kasich with 10.

The current delegate total has Trump with 384 delegates, Cruz with 300, Rubio with 151 and Kasich with 37 — and, as I have established, Cruz gained 16 votes on Trump yesterday. The magic number for nomination is 1,237, and much of the talk is about ways to keep Trump from reaching that number.

Is it possible? Unless the race is down to Trump and a single anti–Trump, I think the answer is no. With three rivals, Trump probably wouldn't need to do as well as he has done in many states just to finish first — and, therefore, wrap up a state's entire delegation.

Rubio's home state of Florida and Kasich's home state of Ohio will vote on March 15. Winning your home state is pretty important in presidential politics. If you can't win your home state, you might as well give it up. There are 99 delegates available in Rubio's home state; while I haven't seen a poll of Florida recently, the latest one that I have seen, from Feb. 27, had Trump leading Rubio by 20 points. If that proves correct, Rubio will lose his home state and, because it is a winner–take–all state, all the delegates.

Kasich is said to be leading in Ohio, although I haven't seen any polls lately. Ohio will have 66 delegates available to whoever finishes first.

Illinois also votes on March 15 and will be awarding 69 delegates on a winner–take–all basis. I haven't seen any polls from Illinois lately, but just think. On March 15, in just those three states, more than 220 delegates will be awarded. If Trump finishes first in all three states, he will be halfway to the nomination.

A win in Ohio probably would keep Kasich's candidacy alive — but not for long unless he wins Michigan on Tuesday — or at least does well enough to grab a portion of the state's 59 delegates.

But the numbers game will be the game in the GOP a week from now with winner–take–all and winner–take–most contests coming in most of the big states — New York (95 delegates) on April 19, Pennsylvania (71 delegates) on April 26, California (172 delegates) on June 7.

It's going to be hard to deny Trump the nomination if something dramatic doesn't happen in the next week or two.

On the Democratic side, the numbers continue to favor Hillary Clinton, even though Sanders won by about a 2–to–1 margin in the Kansas caucuses, and he easily won the Nebraska caucuses. Sanders also won in Maine.

Clinton crushed Sanders in Louisiana — and Louisiana, even with the depleted black population following Hurricane Katrina, is a place where nearly one–third of the population is black. It was the Democrats' biggest single prize of the day.

When all was said and done, Sanders narrowly picked up ground on Clinton with 64 delegates to the former secretary of State's 62 delegates.

But to win the Democrats' nomination a candidate needs 2,383 delegates, and Clinton is already almost halfway there with 1,130 committed to her. Sanders has 499 delegates.

The math gets tougher for the challengers from this point on, and it looks like something really astonishing will have to happen if either Clinton or Trump is going to be denied their parties' nominations.

Something that astonishing seldom happens in American politics, and I'm guessing it won't happen this time.

But who knows? All the political rules are being rewritten this year.

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