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Tonight's results will determine whether Trump takes a near-insurmountable lead

Today — Super Tuesday II — is one of the most important days of the entire presidential primary season. Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina are all holding primary contests for both parties, and there's a huge amount at stake for every remaining candidate.

But for Republicans, the stakes are particularly high. Today is both the biggest single-day delegate haul remaining in the GOP race and the first day that states are permitted to hold winner-take-all contests, allotting all their delegates to the first-place finisher even if he gets a mere plurality.

Because of this, today's results will determine whether Donald Trump leaps out to an enormous delegate lead over his rivals (which would set him on track for a majority), or whether the vote will split several ways (which would make a contested convention more likely to happen).

The other big question about today is how the GOP field might be reshaped. Both Marco Rubio and John Kasich are in danger of losing their home states to Trump, and each would find it quite difficult to remain in the race if that were to happen.

So after today, we could be looking at a new two-way GOP race between Trump and Ted Cruz, or perhaps a three-way race between Trump, Cruz, and one of the others (likely Kasich, barring a big surprise from Rubio). Here are three possible ways things could play out.

Scenario 1: the Trump sweep

According to polls, Trump could well win all five states voting today — the billionaire has led the latest polls in all of them except Ohio, and some Ohio polls show him tied with Kasich. Given delegate allocation rules, this would mean:

  • Trump gets all Florida and Ohio's delegates (which are allotted winner-take-all statewide).
  • Trump gets most of Missouri and Illinois's delegates (which are mostly allotted to the winner of each congressional district).
  • Trump gets 40 percent or so (or whatever his final vote total is) of North Carolina's delegates, since it's a proportional state.

If this happens, Trump's delegate total would soar to around 760, and his closest competitor, Ted Cruz, would be down around 390 or so. And Rubio and Kasich would likely drop out after losing their home states.

This would set up, at long last, a two-way contest between Trump and Cruz. However, Trump would have an enormous lead and would only need 46 percent or so of the remaining delegates to clinch the nomination. Cruz would likely stay in the contest for some time in case things change, but the political world would likely conclude that Trump has won.

Scenario 2: Trump wins, but doesn't crush it

So let's say Trump only wins the three states he's led most comfortably in polls — Florida, Illinois, and North Carolina — and wins them narrowly. Then Cruz wins in Missouri and Kasich wins Ohio.

  • Trump would still get all 99 of Florida's delegates, since it's a winner-take-all state.
  • But in Illinois, most of the delegates are directly elected winner-take-all in each of 18 congressional districts. Let's assume Trump only comes away with about half of them (35), and Kasich and Cruz split the rest.
  • Then Trump nets a few delegates from North Carolina, but not too many, since it's a proportional state.
  • Kasich gets all Ohio's delegates.
  • And Cruz wins Missouri, which is mostly winner-take-all by congressional district — let's assume Cruz gets 42 delegates there and Trump just gets 10 (two districts' worth).

If this happens, Trump would still expand his delegate lead — he'd be up around 650, with Cruz still well behind him with 440 or so. Then Rubio and Kasich would end up with about the same amount of delegates, even though Kasich would likely stay in the race due to winning Ohio and Rubio wouldn't due to losing Florida.

Trump would still be the clear leader in this scenario, but the losses in Ohio and Missouri would hurt his efforts to meet his delegate target. He'd need 55 percent of the remaining delegates to get there — doable, but not as easy. The big question going forward would be whether Kasich's continued presence in the race helps Trump by making it easier for him to keep winning plurality victories, or hurts Trump by drawing votes away from him in the Northeast and Midwest.

Scenario 3: Trump yugely disappoints

The polls surely aren't pointing this way, but let's imagine what would happen if Rubio makes a comeback and wins Florida, Kasich wins both Ohio and Illinois, and Cruz wins both Missouri and North Carolina.

Trump would likely still end the night in the lead, because his nearest competitor, Cruz, wouldn't pick up anything from Ohio or Florida. But his lead will have narrowed significantly, and he will have fallen far behind what he needs to win an outright majority. Indeed, he'd need about two-thirds of the remaining delegates to get to the magic number of 1,237, and that's far behind his pace so far.

Of course, all of Trump's rivals would be even further away from that number, especially because in this scenario today's gains are spread among Cruz, Kasich, and Rubio rather than benefiting just one of them. So these results would clearly point toward everyone failing to reach a majority, meaning a contested convention, where no one candidate has a giant advantage over the others, would likely ensue.

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