Plurality Rules

Don’t confuse Donald Trump’s slim margins with a sign of weakness. 

Donald Trump
Donald Trump leaves a news conference at his Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, on March 15, 2016. He has won “only” 47 percent of the delegates allocated so far.

Joe Skipper/Reuters

A bit of conventional wisdom was settling in on Wednesday morning that though Donald Trump enjoyed a good “Super Tuesday II,” with victories in the Northern Mariana Islands, Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, and—tentatively—Missouri, he may not have done well enough to ward off a contested convention. John Kasich’s win in his home state, Ohio, deprived Trump of a juicy 66 delegates, and he has still not shown that he can claim a state with anything greater than a plurality of the popular vote. By the Associated Press’ latest estimate, he’ll need to win 54 percent of the remaining delegates to secure the nomination by the end of primary season on June 7.

As the AP notes, Trump has won “only” 47 percent of the delegates allocated so far. “That’s not good enough,” the story continues, since “it takes a majority of delegates to win the nomination, according to party rules.” This doubtful forecast—that Trump’s state performances will have to improve—was also posited by NBC News’ Chuck Todd on Tuesday night: 

This line of thinking seems to conflate a majority of votes in any given state with a majority of that state’s delegates—something that might make more sense in the early stage of the primary and its many proportionally allocated delegate contests. With a few exceptions, those contests are over.

Though there aren’t too many “pure” winner-take-all contests like Ohio and Florida remaining—those are the primaries in which the state’s popular vote winner takes all of the state’s delegates—there are still some, including Arizona, Delaware, Nebraska, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota. And there are plenty of “hybrid” winner-take-all states that award some delegates to the overall state winner and others to the congressional-district winners. In these states, a candidate can rack up most of a state’s delegates with thin but consistent pluralities, especially if he or she can draw support from a broad geographical base. Significant states like Wisconsin, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and California—each with its own set of quirks—award on a hybrid basis. There are 380 delegates in all to be had in those five primaries.

Consider the results of two of these hybrid contests held Tuesday: Illinois and Missouri. Cruz hoped to be competitive in these two states, and he was—but not competitive enough. That makes all the difference.

Trump won Illinois with a 39 percent plurality to Cruz’s 30, but Trump is going to come away with considerably more than 39 percent of the state’s 69 delegates. (Although since Illinois selects its congressional-district winners by direct election of delegates, there’s room in the final count for some, let us say, twists.) But as of Wednesday afternoon, Trump had won 51 of Illinois’ delegates to Cruz’s nine and Kasich’s five. That’s already 74 percent of the state’s delegation in Trump’s favor—again, with only a 39 percent statewide popular vote plurality.

The results in Missouri haven’t been officially called yet given Trump’s slight lead statewide, which right now rests at a mere 1,726 votes. Trump has a 40.9 percent popular vote plurality to Cruz’s 40.7 percent. If that result holds, Trump will get the state’s 12 statewide-winner delegates and then five per congressional-district win—and he will win most congressional districts. He has already been awarded five districts to Cruz’s one, with two outstanding. That amounts, already, to 37 delegates—or 71 percent of the total delegation. With a 41 percent statewide popular vote plurality.

What makes Trump so strong in these hybrid contests is the strength of his pluralities across the map. In Illinois, he built up wide pluralities in Chicago and its suburbs, while also performing well in more rural counties in the eastern, western, and southern parts of the state. Cruz had him beat only in the central parts of the state surrounding Springfield and Peoria. Missouri’s map was similar. Cruz took the areas surrounding Kansas City, Columbia, and (Missouri’s) Springfield. But Trump crushed in rural counties and also took pluralities in St. Louis City, which has a negligible number of Republican votes, and its surrounding counties, which have many Republican votes. If you’re winning pluralities in both large rural expanses and urban areas, you’re going to win a lot of congressional districts’ winner-take-all delegates, even if the margins are slim.

Kasich’s Ohio win, in the long run, may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to Trump. It keeps Kasich in the race and prevents the anti-Trump vote from coalescing around Cruz, the only candidate with the slightest chance of catching up to Trump. In red states, this makes it easier for Trump to win his pluralities in over Ted Cruz; in blue states, he’ll be able to do the same over Kasich.

Trump is in decent shape to reach 1,237 before the convention as long as the field remains split and he can keep taking his statewide and congressional-level pluralities. We know, we know, it would be fun to start daydreaming about a contested convention right now. But the race is still in Trump’s tiny hands.