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The state of the Republican presidential race, explained

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

Is Donald Trump really going to be the Republican presidential nominee?

After his victories this week, this once-unthinkable outcome looks more likely than ever, and Republican elites are increasingly resigning themselves to it. But he hasn't clinched it yet.

Trump has built up such a lead in the delegate count at this point that he's all but assured to finish with more delegates than any of his rivals. By our count, he has around 990 delegates, which places him very far ahead of Ted Cruz and John Kasich:

Indeed, both Cruz and Kasich have been mathematically eliminated from getting enough delegates to win on the convention's first ballot, under the party's current rules.

So the main drama now is not over whether Trump will get the most delegates, it's about whether he'll win an outright majority of delegates — 1,237, the magic number he needs to clinch the GOP nomination on the first ballot.

Right now, Trump has about 990 delegates. So he's 247 or so away from the magic number, with 581 delegates still uncommitted or at stake in future primaries.

The upshot is that Trump needs to win just 43 percent of the remaining delegates to clinch his majority.

But even if he falls a bit short of that majority, he now seems clearly on track to get very close to it. And the closer he gets, the more difficult it will be for the party to justify denying him the nomination.

California and Indiana are the most important remaining states to watch

The delegates that are still up for grabs fall into two main groups. There are about 500 delegates in the 10 states that haven't voted yet, and then there are about 80 delegates who are uncommitted and free to support whomever they choose.

The next state to vote is Indiana on this coming Tuesday, May 3, with 57 delegates at stake. In my view, this is the second most important state remaining, because it's winner-take-all (partly statewide, partly by congressional district) and has still seemed like it could tip to either Trump or Cruz. Most media commentators and politicos are interpreting Indiana as a must-win for Cruz at this point — if he loses it, his campaign will be deemed entirely dead rather than just mostly dead.

Four more states then vote in the remaining weeks of May. Of them, Nebraska is expected to give all its delegates to Cruz, West Virginia is expected to go strongly for Trump (though it has odd delegate allocation rules that could depress his total somewhat), and the candidates will split Oregon and Washington's delegates due to proportional allocation.

All this leads up to the final day of GOP primary voting: June 7, when five states will vote.

  • New Jersey is a winner-take-all state that Trump is expected to win easily.
  • South Dakota and Montana are also winner-take-all states, and are expected to go to Cruz.
  • New Mexico is another proportional state where the delegates will be split.

But the day's biggest prize, and the state that will likely determine whether Trump clinches his majority, is California. There are 172 delegates at stake there, and 159 of them will be allotted winner-take-all on the congressional district level (three delegates in each of the state's 53 districts) — which means that broad strength across the state will be necessary to pick up most of its delegates.

If Trump doesn't manage to hit his magic number by June 7, however, he'll still have some time before the mid-July convention. And in the interim, he'll work to win over those uncommitted delegates to try to get him over the top. (They're from various states and territories due to quirks in local rules, including North Dakota, Pennsylvania, American Samoa, and Guam.)

Trump could also try to peel some unbound delegates who have endorsed Cruz away from him, perhaps arguing that the party should avert a divisive and damaging contested convention. According to a tally by PhD student Daniel Nichanian, Cruz has 24 of these delegates. (Trump has been endorsed by 30 or so unbound delegates that could in theory defect from him, too.)

Convention shenanigans to block Trump are possible theoretically but a tough sell practically

So, you may be wondering, is the Republican Party really stuck with Donald Trump as its nominee? Can they really do nothing to stop him?

In fact, the 2,472 delegates who go to the convention have a great deal of power — so much so that they probably could prevent Trump's nomination if they really, really wanted to.

The problem is that this would badly flout the modern norm that a party's voters determine the party's presidential nominee, and would cause a tremendous backlash — a backlash for which the party doesn't appear to have an appetite.

First of all, if Trump doesn't lock down that majority of delegates on the first ballot, then he doesn't become the nominee just yet. Multiple rounds of balloting will ensue, and more and more delegates will become freed up to vote for whomever they want.

But what would happen after that isn't clear. Many have argued that since Trump has done a bad job of ensuring his supporters are installed as his delegates, party support would surely swing elsewhere as a second ballot. Yet polling shows that Republican voters think the candidate with the most delegates from primary voting should get the nomination. So it's possible that the delegates would be hesitant to defy what they perceive to be the public will to nominate the candidate who came in second or someone who didn't run at all.

Javier Zarracina / Vox

Second, even if Trump does get an apparent delegate majority before the convention, there are various ways the delegates could, theoretically, change that. Most of these would involve changing the convention's rules to tip the balance against Trump, which the delegates are perfectly free to do should they so desire — they have a lot of power!

Yet the delegates will know full well that the more they actually use these powers to sway the outcome, the greater the backlash they'll provoke. If current trends continue, Trump will have won the most delegates in primaries, the most votes, the most states. If GOP delegates change the rules at the last minute to block his nomination, it will (accurately) appear that they were trying to "steal" the election from Trump, and infuriate his many supporters.

Recent evidence has pointed toward the party starting to resign itself to the inevitability of a Trump nomination, rather than gearing up for an intensely controversial effort to block him:

So that's where we appear to be — Trump is doing well enough, and his rivals have been doing poorly enough, that while it's still unclear whether he'll get his delegate majority, it's tougher than ever to imagine the Republican Party stopping him.

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