Trump tests the outer limits

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 13-

This week:

  • Sanders can close the pledged delegate gap; but by how much?
  • Probably doesn’t matter because Republicans are forfeiting the election
  • Wisconsin vote will be critical for GOP race

President 2016

Democrats: Bernie Sanders won caucuses by huge margins in Alaska, Washington State and Hawaii on Saturday. If not for Republicans’ determination to throw away this election, this might actually matter. As things stand, it doesn’t. Compared to the Republicans, Democrats are sure to come out of their primary with a more united party. That has never been more obvious than it became last week. But we get ahead of ourselves.

So far in this race, Hillary Clinton has built a fairly large delegate lead — a larger one than Barack Obama ever had against her in 2008 — by running up large margins in Southern states. This the result of Democrats’ heavy reliance on black votes. In the South, where black voters seldom decide statewide elections,  have voted for her almost unanimously. But this has not been true of Northern black voters, who split their votes more evenly. This is how Sanders managed to win in Michigan and nearly pulled off upsets in Missouri and Illinois.

Here’s one way of looking at the results, with “The South” comprising the eleven states of the old Confederacy — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, both Carolinas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia:

The South

Clinton: 5,077,395

Sanders: 2,461,992


Outside the South*

Clinton: 3,886,259

Sanders: 3,989,208

Clinton’s lead in the South is also exaggerated by the fact that none of its states use caucuses, in contrast to northern states. Still, the good news for Sanders is that the South has completely finished voting now. He can look forward to more wins and a closure of the delegate gap. The lopsided victories this weekend included a 62-point margin in Alaska and a 45-point margin in Washington.

The bad news is that it almost certainly won’t be enough for him to close the gap all the way. But if Sanders were to make up gap in pledged delegates — it currently stands at less than 300 — it would be very controversial to have Superdelegates throw the nomination to Clinton.

If the Republicans weren’t basically forfeiting the election by flirting with Donald Trump, it might even matter. But it probably won’t.

Our reading of the Democratic race so far is that Northern and especially white Democrats are not at all thrilled about Clinton as the nominee. She remains a weak candidate and one that should have been beaten this year. But she is now the favorite to be the next president. Democrats will unite behind her in the fall, and women will support her in especially large numbers if Trump becomes her opponent.


Republicans: After this week, it’s 1,237 delegates or bust for Trump. Let us explain.

Trump’s supporters have seemed bewildered up to now that such large numbers of Republicans say they simply won’t vote for him in the fall if he’s nominated. Last week, Trump took a few more crucial steps to make sure the party cannot unite behind him. In fact, he gave every Republican who views him as a liability a perfectly legitimate excuse to drop him “like a hot rock” when the general election season comes around.

Before the last round of elections, John Kasich and Marco Rubio had already walked back their promise to support the GOP nominee if it ended up being Trump. Ted Cruz, however, had unequivocally maintained that he would back the nominee no matter what. That ended when Trump attacked his wife on social media last week without provocation.

This all began with a $300 (yes, that’s three-hundred dollars) online ad buy by a SuperPAC that has been around for months and genuinely has nothing to do with Cruz. A raunchy photograph that Trump sold to GQ of his then-girlfriend, now wife, was used online to discourage presumably dozens of Utah voters not to support him.

Trump, his son, and his campaign circle have made a conscious choice to use this as an excuse to launch the ugliest attack so far in a very ugly election season. Trump began with a tweet hinting that he would go after her onetime problems with depression. He then disparaged Heidi Cruz’s looks on Twitter.

At this stage, a normal Republican candidate who had won as many states and delegates as Trump would be working hard to unify the party behind him. He is clearly doing the opposite. (Ditto for his not-very-subtle attempt to fan the flames of an unsubstantiated scandal story published by one of his close friends.) Trump is dis-unifying a party which, in theory, he needs unified if he is to have any chance in November. If he is trying to make more Republicans turn to a third-party option in the event that he wins the nomination, he is doing a good job.

Exit polls from the March 15 states suggested that a large majority of non-Trump voters — 61 percent — will consider a third-party vote if Trump is nominee. As a share of the entire GOP voter base,the exact number was 43 percent in the key swing states of Ohio and Missouri, and 39 percent in North Carolina. If even half that many don’t vote for him, that’s already game over for Trump in November. And he is taking steps right now to make that number grow, not shrink.

In terms of the upcoming primaries, will Trump get away with this attack? The answer might well be yes, given his history of such unprovoked offenses. But it’s hard to say. Trump is already wearing thin with women in general, but this seems more likely to cost him the general election than the primary. Even so, it is worthy of note that before any of this happened, 47 percent of Republican women were already telling pollsters they will not vote for Trump if he is the nominee.

One real consequence, though, is that Cruz, who responded by calling Trump “a sniveling coward,” is no longer promising to support Trump in November and probably cannot do so without losing all of his dignity. It also means there will be no Cruz-Trump deal of any kind, if that was ever on the cards in the first place.

It might also result in further problems for Trump’s already astronomical unfavorable ratings, which far outstrip both Clinton’s and Cruz’s.


Poll Trump Clinton Cruz
Fox News 65% 58% 53%
Bloomberg 68% 53% 55%
Quinnipiac 61% 56% 47%
CNN/ORC 67% 56% 54%
Monmouth 60% 51% 43%
CBS/NYT 57% 52% Not published


The idea that Clinton is a weak nominee — one to which we continue to subscribe — matters only if Republicans don’t nominate someone even weaker. In other words, that assumption is out the window if Trump becomes the GOP nominee.

No one with numbers like Trump’s above can win a general election. It’s simply impossible to consider. In no way do his primary victories up to now provide any consolation on this score. Trump has won 37 percent of the GOP primary vote so far, and that is no indication that he would be competitive in a general election.

Trump’s current head-to-head polling shows him far behind Clinton (in contrast to both John Kasich and Ted Cruz). Although these polls are obviously very early, they can be viewed as more reliable than usual given his 100% name identification. As we have previously noted of Clinton, Trump has no upside, no opportunity to introduce himself to voters who haven’t heard of him or know little about him. In a race against someone else very unpopular, like Clinton, voters are more likely to gravitate toward her as the lesser of two evils.

With negative ratings this high, Republicans have nothing to lose by depriving Trump of the nomination, even if it causes significant rancor within GOP ranks. With the election probably lost already, the choice in that event would be between a dignified loss that keeps the House in GOP hands and a total rout that gives Democrats a free hand to pass the next Obamacare.

But as for “1,237 or bust,” there’s one more important data point that has nothing to do with weighing public opinion or making projections for the future. Cruz and Kasich are simply out-hustling him in the states where he already won.

What does this mean? Well, even though delegates are “pledged” on the first (and maybe even the second or even the third) ballot at convention, they are chosen in many states through other processes. Cruz and Kasich have been on the ball in making sure that “Trump” delegates from states like South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana are really their supporters, ready to abandon Trump as soon as they become unpledged.

Cruz especially has worked to get his own “in pectore” Trump delegates elected to the convention’s rules committee, which — provided Trump doesn’t get a majority — could make sure the rules don’t help him seal the deal.

Trump supporters might view this as an attempt to steal the nomination. But if Trump gets a majority, he will have the nomination, and he simply isn’t entitled to it if he doesn’t get the majority. The important point is that he’s unlikely to last beyond a first ballot, so he needs to get that majority before the convention.

This is the price of being a candidate and running a campaign that is unacceptable to such a large number of rank-and-file Republicans.

Upcoming races: Gov. Scott Walker has announced his intention to endorse Cruz after Easter. For once, a gubernatorial endorsement could actually help a Republican in this race. Cruz already leads in Wisconsin, according to two different polls taken recently ahead of the April 5 contest.

(Incidentally, the strong turnout seen in GOP primary races up to now could help Walker’s appointee to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Rebecca Bradley, who will be on the ballot the same day against a liberal challenger. Were Bradley to win, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court would be set up with a 5-2 conservative majority.)

The presidential race in Wisconsin will be critical. It is another “winner-take-most” contest, except even more so than Illinois. The statewide winner gets 18 at-large delegates, plus three for each of the eight congressional districts he wins.

In theory, Trump could split the opposition, but in this case he appears to be getting the short end of the contest. If the Republicans who oppose him unite behind Cruz instead of splitting their votes between him and Kasich, Trump could be completely shut out in Wisconsin. More likely, he comes away with a few delegates.

Wisconsin will be an important test of Cruz’s data-focused campaign and its ability to find votes in the right places where it meant he could pick up a delegate or (in this case) three. If Trump loses Wisconsin, anti-Trump Republicans’ hopes remain alive. If he pulls out a win in Wisconsin, there’s probably no stopping him.

* Note on the Democratic vote chart: The total for Iowa’s precinct caucuses is excluded here — based on information provided by the state Democratic Party, it is unclear how many caucusgoers voted for each candidate, or even whether Sanders didn’t get more than Clinton. However, this would not make a substantial difference in the total.)