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Donald Trump's had a rough few weeks — but he's still winning

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty
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.

Donald Trump's loss in Wisconsin's primary on Tuesday has been called a "meltdown," a "stunning blow," and a potential "turning point" in the Republican race.

Indeed, Trump's press lately has been dreadful, his campaign has been abysmal at the delegate selection game, his chances in prediction markets have dropped, and his general election polling has grown more dismal than ever.

But let's be clear — in the primaries, as of now, Trump is still winning. He could end up losing. Yet there are many reasons to believe he is still in a very good position going forward.

The most obvious reason Trump is winning is, of course, is the delegate count, where he has a lead of about 250 delegates over Ted Cruz.

And there's more.

First, unlike Ted Cruz and John Kasich, Donald Trump still has a plausible path to winning an outright majority of delegates before the convention.

Second, even if he falls short of that majority, he's very likely to finish the primary voting season with the most delegates.

And third, the most plausible ways Trump could lose the nomination at the convention if he comes in with the most delegates are not popular among Republican voters.

Indeed, it's telling that the campaign's main drama is now about whether Trump will finish the primary season with that outright majority of delegates or just a plurality that puts him ahead of everyone else.

Yes, the latter scenario would likely lead to a contested convention where Trump may seem at a disadvantage. But he would go into that convention with a lead in delegates and with a stronger claim to being the choice of GOP voters than Ted Cruz (who will have won fewer states and delegates), John Kasich (ditto), or someone who didn't run at all.

Trump still has a path to a delegate majority

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty

First of all, it's still perfectly plausible that Trump could lock up 1,237 delegates from the remaining contests. And his path to a majority doesn't even require any absurd assumptions like those required to construct a "Sanders passes Clinton" scenario. Let's go through the math.

Trump currently has about 757 delegates, so he'd need 480 more. The first step toward getting there would be a near sweep in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

  • 318 delegates remain at stake in those states, and Trump is expected to do quite well in them. (In all of the states that have been polled recently here, Trump leads.)
  • Several of those states are winner-take-all (Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey), while others have triggers allotting most or all of their delegates to a candidate who tops 50 percent of the vote (New York, Connecticut), which looks plausible for Trump in at least New York based on current polling. Only Rhode Island is proportional and triggerless.
  • Pennsylvania has odd rules: It allots 17 delegates winner-take-all but elects its other 54 delegates separately on the ballot — even though the ballot doesn't even tell voters which presidential candidate those delegate candidates support. No one quite knows how this will play out, but conservative activist Phil Kerpen is tracking information on these delegates, and thinks Trump's team may have done "a better job filing Pennsylvania delegates than Cruz."

Overall, though, due to the rules and based on Trump's past performance and his home state advantage in New York, it's easy to imagine the billionaire coming away with 260 or even more of these 318 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic delegates.

This would put him around 1,017 delegates — meaning he needs 220 more. Where would they come from?

  • They seem very unlikely to come from Montana, Nebraska, and South Dakota, which are all winner-take-all states and look like Cruz country.
  • Washington, Oregon, and New Mexico together have 96 delegates allotted proportionally, so Trump will come away with some even if he loses — let's say 35.
  • West Virginia also oddly directly elects many of its 34 delegates in a confusing system, but it does at least list which candidate those delegate candidates support on the ballot. Trump is reputed to be popular there, so let's say he comes away with 25.

Finally, there are two states that look really up in the air that I haven't yet mentioned: California (with 172 delegates) and Indiana (with 57). In this scenario, Trump would need to cobble together 160 of these 229 delegates to reach his majority.

Both of these states award some delegates winner-take-all statewide and the rest winner-take-all by congressional district. So if Trump wins both states he'd likely get enough delegates to reach that majority. And even if Cruz wins Indiana, Trump could still get the delegates he'd need from just California — though he'd have to do extremely well across nearly all of California's varied districts. (Trump has led every recent California poll, though a couple have been close, and one new one shows him trailing Cruz in some regions of the state.)

Now, a lot of things have to go right for Trump in this scenario, and he could well fall short. But this is a perfectly feasible way things could play out based on the delegate rules, state voting patterns so far, and polls in future states.

It would be really hard for Cruz to pass Trump in delegates

Joe Jaszewski/Idaho Statesman/TNS via Getty

Furthermore, even if Trump doesn't get that delegate majority, he remains highly likely to finish with more delegates than Cruz.

Cruz currently has 504 delegates — 253 fewer than Trump. So, realistically, to pass Trump he needs to nearly double the billionaire's haul among the 874 delegates that haven't been allotted yet or are uncommitted.

The problem for Cruz is that there are relatively few states remaining that seem like easy wins for him. Really, it's just Nebraska, South Dakota, and Montana, all winner-take-all states that are worth 92 delegates combined.

Beyond that, things get tougher. Cruz's prospects look grim in the many Northeastern states voting this month, especially New York, a state whose "values" the Texan famously derided during a January debate. Cruz is polling in third place there, and the best he can hope for is that he and Kasich limit Trump's gains (by holding him under 50 percent statewide and in congressional districts).

If most of the Northeast remains out of reach for Cruz, the only way he'll have even a prayer of passing Trump is if he wins the vast majority of California's 172 delegates (meaning that he wins most congressional districts in the state). And again, Trump has led every recent California poll— though some have been close, there were some promising regional signs in one new poll for Cruz, and perhaps Cruz would have a better chance if Kasich drops out by then.

In addition to that, Cruz would have to haul in delegates in states like Indiana and Pennsylvania, perform respectably in West Virginia and the proportional states, clean up at the Colorado and Wyoming conventions, and win lots of the uncommitted delegates.

It's not quite impossible yet, but a lot would have to go Cruz's way. Which means that Trump remains the clear favorite to finish with the most delegates.

Republican voters think the person with the most delegates should win the nomination

Javier Zarracina / Vox

If Trump falls short of a delegate majority, Republicans would likely have a contested convention. And many commentators assume that given party resistance to Trump and his own campaign's incompetence at the delegate selection game, a contested convention would mean a Trump loss.

But we have no recent precedents to guide us about how a contested presidential nominating convention would play out under modern conditions.

Four decades of primary voting have established a norm that the voters, not party elites, get to choose presidential nominee. And if Trump finishes in first place in the delegate count, he would have a stronger claim to being the voters' choice than Cruz, Kasich, or some politician who didn't even run.

Indeed, a recent Vox/Morning Consult poll found that 55 percent of Republican voters reacted negatively to the idea that the first-place finisher from primaries and caucuses wouldn't end up the nominee, compared with only 35 percent who reacted positively.

It's fun to game out what the delegates could conceivably do, since they do have a whole lot of power. But it's important to keep in mind that this wouldn't be a true closed-door, backroom convention like those of the past. It would be a media circus, and the delegates would be getting a ton of feedback from voters back home in their states, many of whom voted for Trump.

Perhaps enough delegates will feel empowered enough to vote to hand the nomination to someone else, even though it might cause a firestorm that could tear the party apart. But perhaps they'd instead back away from the brink and agree that the first-place finisher should win. We don't yet know.

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