This is the kind of concrete prediction that comes back to haunt pundits, but I’m going to make it anyway (and if I’m wrong, nobody will be happier about it than me): Donald Trump is going to win Florida, and there’s nothing Marco Rubio or anyone else can do about it.
The collective obsession with Florida is understandable. It’s a purple state with a lot of votes and a lot of influence. Florida was responsible for all the craziness surrounding the 2000 election. It got called for then-Vice President Al Gore, which led to the networks calling the whole election for Gore, which then led to them dramatically retracting both calls when it turned out that George W. Bush actually won the most votes in Florida. During the 2012 primary, Mitt Romney’s victory in Florida after losing Iowa and South Carolina gave him the momentum he needed to eventually clinch the nomination.
Florida’s important. But it’s not that important, especially not in the 2016 Republican primary. Yes, it’s winner-take-all. Yes, it controls 99 delegates. But it’s not that important. To understand why, we just need to look at the current delegate picture in the primary.
There are a total of 2,472 delegates at stake. The winner must win 1,237 of them. As of today, Donald Trump is not even close to that. He’s not even close to half that amount. Trump has won 44 percent of delegates pledged so far, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has won 34 percent, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has won 15 percent, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich has won 5 percent. A table detailing the current delegate count is below (the “magic number” is how many additional delegates are needed for that candidate to clinch the nomination):
That table shows you how many delegates each candidate has, how many he needs to clinch the nomination, and also what percentage of outstanding delegates he needs to win in a couple of different scenarios. The data in that table are the key to understanding why the obsession over Florida is misplaced and short-sighted.
Donald Trump must win 54 percent of all outstanding delegates to clinch the nomination. If he wins Florida, even if he wins by just one vote, he’ll win each of the state’s 99 delegates to the Republican convention. And if that happens, what percentage of delegates will he still need to win? He’ll need 51 percent. Even if he wins Florida going away, he still has to win a majority of outstanding delegates, a feat he’s yet to accomplish over any sustained period of time (since Super Tuesday, for example, he’s won only 40 percent to Cruz’s 39 percent).
If Trump wins Ohio and Florida (165 delegates), he’ll still need to win 48 percent of the remaining delegates, and to date he’s won only 44 percent of them. Winning Florida helps Trump, yes, but not all that much, and not nearly as much as winning four of the other March 15 states would help him. This fact is why the Florida focus is so short-sighted.
The four non-Florida states that will vote on March 15 will award 259 delegates total compared to Florida’s 99 delegates. Of those four, three are not winner-take-all: Illinois (69 delegates, allocated by congressional district and statewide vote), Missouri (52 delegates, allocated by congressional district and statewide vote), and North Carolina (72 delegates, proportional statewide vote). Preventing Trump from racking up delegate margins in those states is far more important than making a futile last stand against him in Florida, a state where he is currently leading the home state senator by an average of 16 percentage points, a margin which has remained remarkably static over the last three weeks.
This is important because Florida’s conventional wisdom status as the most important primary state ever is leading many people to make strategic decisions that make no rational long-term sense.
The main rationale offered for why Rubio should not drop out before Florida, for example, is that if he drops out, then Trump will win Florida since so many votes have already been cast via early or absentee voting. But if Rubio stays in, the logic goes, then Rubio could win Florida and knock Trump out. This might make a small amount of sense if there were any real signs that the race is currently competitive (like the Trump vs. Kasich race in Ohio, for example, in which polling shows Kasich nipping at Trump’s heels). But Rubio is not going to win Florida. And in the process of not winning Florida, Rubio will make it that much more difficult for Cruz and Kasich to deny Trump wins in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina.
The potential spoiler effects of Rubio staying in and nonetheless losing are significant, especially at this stage of the race. Take Texas, Maine, and Idaho, for example. Rubio and his Super PACs played in those states, spending millions, and walked away with virtually nothing to show for it because he failed to meet the thresholds necessary to win a significant number of delegates.
The only consequence of Rubio’s presence in those races was to deny Cruz a majority of votes: a majority that would’ve given him 100 percent of the delegates in each state. How many delegates? According to my math, in those three states alone, Rubio cost Cruz 76 delegates. Those delegates are the difference between Trump being ahead of everyone by roughly 100 delegates, and Cruz being the delegate leader. And what did Rubio get in return for that? Five delegates. Rubio’s spoiler role gave Donald Trump 71 delegates in those three states just so Rubio could win five delegates. Rubio’s campaign is aware of how painful the spoiler dynamic can be, because it’s exactly what so many Rubio supporters attacked Kasich for doing in Virginia.
If Rubio stays in the race through Florida, the exact same thing will happen again. He will walk away nearly empty-handed, but in the process he will siphon enough votes away from the viable anti-Trump alternatives to give Trump a huge delegate victory in four states that offer nearly three times as many delegates as Florida on March 15.
Trump can win Florida and be beaten. Trump can win Florida and Ohio and be beaten. But Trump cannot be beaten if he sweeps the March 15 races due to a candidate with no chance of winning the nomination sucking up votes and delegates. Yes, Florida is important, but it makes no sense to sacrifice 259 delegates to Trump for the remote possibility that Rubio might be able to win 99 delegates in Florida.
Winning Florida for anti-Trump forces would be nice, but it’s not necessary. And sacrificing a legitimate opportunity to win the 259 delegates in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina–something that must be done to stop Trump–in exchange for the remote possibility of winning a state that doesn’t need to be won to defeat Trump? That makes no sense it all.