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Super Tuesday delegate math: Marco Rubio is in deep trouble

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Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Super Tuesday was bad for Marco Rubio, but the political world still hasn't absorbed just how bad it was.

According to our delegate count estimate, it was absolutely brutal.

With about 29 percent of delegates already allotted, Rubio is so far behind that it's hard to see how he can win the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination on the first ballot. Indeed, he'd need to win nearly two-thirds of all remaining delegates to pull that off — a highly implausible feat.

Votes are still being counted in some places, and delegate allocation is still being determined, so these numbers are somewhat subject to change. But if the current vote tallies hold true, the below chart — based on estimates for some states by Frontloading HQ's Josh Putnam, and estimates for the other states by Vox — is pretty close to where we are:

Other analysts who are doing their own estimates, like the Cook Political Report's David Wasserman and @Taniel, have come up with similar results. We'll update the above graphic as things change.

Rubio did so badly mainly because of delegate allocation rules in Texas and Alabama. I wrote last week that these states had two rules that could hurt Rubio badly if both Trump and Cruz ran strong, and that's just what seems to have happened.

  • First, Texas and Alabama had 20 percent thresholds. Candidates with less than 20 percent of the vote statewide get none of the delegates being allotted statewide, and the same holds true in congressional districts. Rubio appears to have just missed that threshold in Texas, where he got 18 percent, and Alabama, where he got 19 percent.
  • Second, they both had what's effectively a 2:1 congressional district rule. In addition to those statewide delegates, those states allotted three delegates "proportionally" according to the results in each of their many congressional districts. But there's little true proportionality to be found — in each district, two delegates go to the winner, one goes to the runner-up, and anyone finishing third or below gets nothing. Rubio appears to have gotten third in 33 of 36 districts in Texas and six of seven districts in Alabama.

So while Ted Cruz will come away with about 103 delegates in Texas, Donald Trump will come away with around 49 — and Rubio will win around three. (Some current tallies that show Rubio winning six Texas delegates appear to be due to a counting error by one district.) In Alabama, Trump will win about 36 delegates, Cruz will win about 13 — and Rubio seems to have gotten just one.

Rubio needs to win an absurd number of the remaining delegates to reach the magic number

To put Rubio's challenge even more starkly: He needs 1,237 delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot, but has only 109 or so. And there are only around 1,744 unallotted delegates left.

That means that to reach that magic number of 1,237, Rubio needs to win about 64 percent of all remaining delegates in the GOP nomination contest. That's a share that seems absurd based on his tallies to date — he's won just about 15 percent of delegates so far.

And while there are some big winner-take-all states later in the calendar, there likely aren't enough to save him. Some supposedly winner-take-all states like California in fact allot most of their delegates to congressional district winners — so if there's regional variation, as is likely there, the delegates would be split. And other winner-take-all states, like New Jersey and Arizona, seem like strong states for Trump.

The "stop Trump" strategy is shifting toward denying him a delegate majority

Less than two weeks ago, Republican elites' best hope to stop Trump was to winnow the field down to just the billionaire and Rubio. Then, they hoped, the Florida senator would beat him in a head-to-head contest.

But that strategy seems to have been overtaken by events. Ted Cruz and John Kasich both got pretexts to stay in the race on Tuesday. And Cruz in particular is running second in delegates, well ahead of Rubio, and has won four states in total to Rubio's one. So he's not going anywhere anytime soon, which means the Trump/Rubio showdown certainly isn't happening before more than half of delegates are allotted, and may never happen.

Might GOP elites shift to backing Ted Cruz as their best chance to stop Trump? The above delegate tally can be read to suggest Ted Cruz is in a surprisingly good place. He's in second place and only 100 or so delegates behind Trump.

But I don't think so. Cruz looks good for one major reason: Texas. He won 44 percent of the statewide vote there and won nearly two-thirds of the delegates allotted by congressional district. He'll come away with 103 or so delegates from Texas, which is about 43 percent of his total delegate haul so far.

But Cruz hasn't done anywhere near as well as that in any other state, and there are no more Texases waiting on the calendar to provide him another similar haul. Furthermore, many of his other delegates are from the South, and there aren't all that many Southern states left to vote compared with other regions where Cruz is running weaker.

Instead, GOP elites' strategy seems likely to shift to denying Trump the 1,237 delegates he needs to win the nomination on the first ballot — and forcing a contested convention.

And it does appear to be plausible that Trump could fall short. Despite all Trump's wins, he's only 27 percent of the way to that magic number so far. He needs to win a little more than half of the remaining delegates to get there — which is a tall order in a split field, but isn't anywhere near as implausible as what Rubio needs given Trump's performance so far.

But this will be a dangerous game for Republican elites to play. If Trump wins a clear plurality of delegates, his supporters will be infuriated if the nomination were "stolen" from him by backroom elites. Any brokered nominee would seem illegitimate to a huge amount of the party's base. And that's not even to get into what the famously vindictive billionaire himself would do. Still, after Rubio's flop, this may be the best chance anti-Trump GOP elites have left.

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