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Super Tuesday 2016: What to expect on the Republican side

Mark Wallheiser/Getty

Super Tuesday has finally arrived. And if the polls are anything close to right, Donald Trump is poised to clean up.

Today is an enormously consequential day for the Republican presidential race. Eleven states, mostly in the South, are holding primaries or caucuses. Nearly a quarter of the party's total delegates are at stake — the most on any single day this year.

And Trump is leading nearly all these states in recent polls. Indeed, the only Super Tuesday state that's been polled in the past three weeks where he's consistently trailed is Texas, which is, of course, Ted Cruz's home state.

So there's a very real possibility that Trump could rack up an impressive string of victories and a serious delegate lead today. He won't come close to clinching the nomination yet — only 29 percent of overall delegates will be allotted by the time the votes are counted, and they'll mostly be allotted proportionally to several candidates.

But Super Tuesday also matters because it's day one of a rapid-fire 15-day phase of the GOP contest — a phase that could effectively determine who wins. In the two weeks following today, 13 more states (and a few territories) will vote, and by the time the dust settles on March 15, about 58 percent of delegates will already be bound to one candidate or another. If Trump wins big today, as he's expected to, he'll have big momentum going into those contests.

Though primaries will stretch on for nearly three months afterward, into June, so many delegates are allotted by the Ides of March that if Trump has racked up a big lead by then, he could be all but impossible to catch. So GOP elites' time to stop the mogul is rapidly running out.

What to expect on Super Tuesday

The states voting today are, overall, a favorable lineup for Trump, who has been polling particularly well in the Deep South and the Northeast:

  • Seven are from the South: Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arkansas will all hold primaries.
  • Then there are four others: Massachusetts and Vermont will hold primaries, while Minnesota and Alaska will hold caucuses.

But Trump's rivals can't hide behind the calendar – Trump is winning nearly everywhere we've seen a poll lately. Indeed, barring a massive polling error, the biggest question appears to be whether he will merely win most of these states or whether he'll win nearly all of them. It's not even unthinkable that he could win all 11.

Texas currently looks like the best bet to stop Trump from running the table, as favorite son Ted Cruz has consistently led polls there. (It may seem unimpressive for a presidential candidate to lead his home state, but Cruz deserves some credit, since polls show his rivals Marco Rubio and John Kasich currently trailing Trump in Florida and Ohio, their respective home states.) However, even in Texas a few polls show Trump quite close behind Cruz, so the outcome can't be taken for granted.

Beyond Texas, the map looks grim for Cruz. He had once hoped the South would power him to the nomination, but he now appears to be trailing Trump across the region. Instead, he's stuck battling Marco Rubio for second, according to recent polls of states including Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. Perhaps Cruz has a shot of winning the remote Alaska caucuses, where there's been little polling and his organizing could carry him, but that's a small delegate haul.

As for Marco Rubio — who GOP elites have thought was their best chance of stopping Trump — Super Tuesday looks quite grim for him too, as he's not viewed as likely to win any of the states up for grabs today. Now, Minnesota hasn't been polled since January, so perhaps Rubio could pull off a surprise there that would make for his first victory.

If Rubio fails to win a state outright, though, it seems his best hope is a string of his classic "second-place victories" — which, though they've been much mocked, would help him pick up delegates. Furthermore, if Rubio consistently beats Cruz and Ben Carson in the South and Kasich in the Northeast, perhaps those candidates will drop out and clear the way for a head-to-head Rubio/Trump face-off. But if Cruz wins Texas, Kasich ties Rubio in the Northeast, and Rubio fails to win a state, the field will likely remain crowded for a bit longer, precisely when Rubio needs it to clear.

Overall, Trump's rivals really have to hope the polls are wrong or that they haven't caught some late shift in the race. Because as things look now, the billionaire looks really formidable.

Super Tuesday delegate math, explained

Besides the competition to win states, there's the competition to win delegates — and the latter is the one that will actually determine who wins the GOP nomination.

Nearly a quarter of the Republicans' total delegates — 595 — will be bound to one candidate or another based on the results of today's contests. Now, these delegates will all be allotted proportionally in some way, based on the results in each state. But there's a good deal of variety in state rules, and the upshot is that some states actually end up sending a disproportionate amount of delegates to whoever finishes first and second.

Virginia, for instance, is the closest we get to a truly proportional state today. The percentage of votes candidates get statewide is the percentage of delegates they end up getting — it's that simple. (Though there is rounding involved.)

But the other states voting today set thresholds that require candidates to get a certain percentage of the vote (either statewide or in a congressional district) before qualifying for delegates. Massachusetts uses a very low threshold, just 5 percent. But the four biggest delegate prizes of the day — Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama — set a quite high 20 percent threshold. The other states set thresholds in between those two poles. If a candidate falls just under them, he misses out on that particular delegate pool.

To complicate things even further, most states voting today allocate some of their delegates according to the results in each of their congressional districts. More specifically, they allot three delegates according to the proportional results in each district. But since it's hard to split just three delegates proportionally, several states — including, again, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama — have decided that the winner in a district should get two delegates, the second-place finisher should get one, and everyone finishing third or below should get nothing. (Oklahoma has the more egalitarian rule that the top three finishers in a district get one delegate each.)

Then there are a few more weird tricks. Some states say that if a candidate gets the top 50 percent of the vote statewide, he gets all the statewide delegates. That doesn't seem likely to happen very often in a five-way race. But then there's what Frontloading HQ's Josh Putnam calls a "backdoor winner-take-all threshold": Some states with high thresholds say that if only one candidate crosses the threshold (either statewide or in a congressional district), that candidate gets all the relevant delegates. (Others throw a bone to whoever gets second.)

The point is that the precise margins candidates get could matter a great deal in some of these less proportionate states. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Texas has 155 delegates up for grabs, a quarter of the day's total. But Texas has a 20 percent threshold and allots congressional district delegates only to first- and second-place finishers in those districts. So if Marco Rubio gets third place with 19 percent of the vote there (about where he's polling recently), both statewide and in every congressional district,he'll get a disastrous zero of Texas's 155 delegates. In reality, there will likely be some regional variation that would let him come in second in some districts and pick up a few delegates. But as Putnam has written, "third place is a bad place to be" in states with these rules.
  • In Alabama, the most recent poll showed Trump at 42 percent, Rubio at 19 percent, and Cruz at 16 percent. Since Alabama has a 20 percent threshold and a "backdoor winner-take-all trigger," Trump would then get all of its statewide delegates if that were the final outcome.

So not all second- and third-place finishes are created equal. Much could hinge on just how well the runners-up manage to do. And as Rubio and Cruz scramble to prevent Trump from building up too much of a delegate lead, those rules could greatly help — or greatly harm — their efforts.

What comes next

Super Tuesday will be the biggest day of voting so far, but there won't be much of a respite for the candidates afterward. Four more states will be voting on Saturday, and another four will go to the polls on Tuesday, March 8.

Finally, this phase of the contest will close on March 15, when Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri all vote. Florida and Ohio are winner-take-all states, so if Trump does well in the next two weeks and then wins those states too, it could be all but impossible for any other candidate to catch up to his delegate lead afterward (even though the voting will continue for another three months or so).

So the clock is ticking on Republicans' efforts to stop Trump. Today's contests won't settle the nomination just yet, but the better the billionaire does, the better positioned he'll be to effectively wrap things up in the next few weeks.

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