Donald Trump comes out of Super Tuesday with the clearest path to the Republican presidential nomination, but the complicated delegate math suggests there's still a decent chance of denying him the delegates needed to become the GOP standard bearer.
To be sure, unless the race changes dramatically, it's very unlikely that Sens. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Gov. John Kasich or Ben Carson could win the nomination outright. This means that the most plausible path for beating Trump involves a contested convention in which the primaries end without any candidate having secured the required majority of delegates. At a convention, after the first or second round of voting, most delegates become unbound and can vote for any candidate – and it doesn't have to be anybody from the current field of contenders.
But that path largely hinges on Trump losing both Kasich's Ohio and Rubio's Florida. Were that to happen, not only would it become more difficult to rack up and the field remaining crowded enough to prevent Trump from racking up big delegate victory margins.
After taking into account his Super Tuesday haul, Trump now has 316 delegates compared to 226 for Cruz and 106 for Rubio, according to the Associated Press. (Note: You may see different delegate estimates, but generally they're all within this basic range, so it doesn't significantly affect this analysis.)
That leaves him 921 delegates short of the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, with 1,715 delegates still to be awarded in the remaining contests. Trump has won half of the delegates already awarded, and without the winner take all states of Florida (99 delegates) or Ohio (66 delegates), Trump has to win nearly 60 percent of all other delegates, thus greatly outperforming his current showing.
It's true that the later nominating contests make it easier for the winner to pick up lots of delegates. But it's also true that after March 15, the allocation of delegates is much more spread out. The biggest thing working against opponents of Trump has been time. But the race slows down considerably after the middle of this month.
Rubio only started aggressively going after Trump in the past week, and it's in that time that an anti-Trump movement has begun to coalesce. There are signs that this led to Trump underperforming in several states, and late-deciding voters went against Trump. Additionally, anti-Trump donors are preparing to actually fund a campaign against him.
No doubt, it could be too little, too late. But consider this: in the first two weeks of March, 1,357 delegates will have been awarded. But in the remaining two weeks of the month, just 116 delegates will be awarded. In the whole month of April, just 357 delegates are awarded. In May, it's only 199.
Put another way, Trump would have to win nearly 90 percent of delegates in the next 50 days or so to wrap up the race before April 26, and about two-thirds of delegates to wrap it up before June 7, the final day of the primaries when the big prize of California votes along with other substantial states.
That would provide three months for opponents to keep on mercilessly attacking Trump, for opposition to his candidacy to build, and for super PACs to bombard the airwaves with attack ads.
This is no doubt a wild strategy. It doesn't take into account that the states considered friendliest to Cruz have now already voted; that eight states vote between now and Ohio and Florida, allowing Trump to gain more victories and momentum; that there's already been early voting; and that Trump has led polls in Ohio and Florida. If Trump beats Rubio and and Kasich there, not only does he win the state's 165 delegates, but he likely knocks both candidates out of the race, leaving the race one between him and Cruz as the race moves to states less fertile for the Texan.
It's also a strategy merely to deny Trump a majority of delegates. He's still poised to go into the convention with more delegates and states won than any other candidate. If he were denied the nomination, the convention would be chaos, as he'd stir up his passionate supporters. It would have the look of the party elites overruling millions of voters, poisoning the well. And Trump would almost definitely run as an independent – even if it meant he'd have to run as a write-in candidate due to ballot access issues.
On the other hand, by denying him the nomination, Republicans would be taking a stand against Trumpism. And given the currently unquantifiable number of people promising to defect if Trump is the nominee – a list that already includes a sitting U.S. Senator – it seems a third party may be inevitable. So the only real question may be whether that manifests itself in conservatives heading for the exits to avoid nominee Trump. Or whether it comes after party regulars block Trump from hijacking the Republican Party.