Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Why even a big night for Donald Trump could lead to a tighter GOP race

Super Tuesday is getting a great deal of hype, what with its bounty of almost one-fourth of the delegates to the GOP convention this summer and its regional flavor as the so-called SEC Primary. But there's a possibility, maybe a strong one, that Donald Trump finishes the night both closer to winning the nomination and with a smaller lead over his rivals -- giving him less margin for error as the race enters the winner-take-all phase in two weeks.

Georgia offers a good example of what I'm talking about. I looked back at the results from 2012, when Georgia had a clear front-runner in Newt Gingrich, a clear "establishment" favorite in Mitt Romney, and a candidate making his pitch to evangelicals in Rick Santorum. Gingrich won 47.2 percent of the vote here, Romney 25.9 percent and Santorum 19.6 percent -- with Ron Paul getting 6.6 percent and the rest going to other candidates no longer operating campaigns by that point.

One difference this year is that there are five candidates still in the running. Let's say for the sake of argument that Trump hits 40 percent (I will actually be a bit surprised if it's that high), with the other 7.2 percentage points of Gingrich's share going to Ben Carson; Marco Rubio matches Romney's share; Ted Cruz more or less hits Santorum's share but actually hits 20 percent (this is important, as you'll see shortly); and John Kasich gets Paul's share. Don't get caught up in whether Gingrich is actually similar to Trump, or Paul similar to Kasich. The point is that the proportions of the vote for each pairing seem about right. You could argue Cruz will finish higher than Rubio, but for the purposes of this exercise it doesn't really matter. Let's also assume that, with an additional person in the race, no candidate gets 50 percent in any single congressional district, a bar Gingrich cleared in five of 14 districts last time.

The Nitty Gritty

Here are the delegate-allocation rules for Georgia's GOP:

  • 42 of the state's 76 delegates are divided up by congressional district (two for the winner and one for the runner-up, although a winner who clears 50 percent gets all three);
  • 31 are divided proportionally among those candidates who receive at least 20 percent of the vote (as I referred to earlier);
  • the other three go to the overall statewide winner.

In 2012, Gingrich won 12 of the state's 14 congressional districts and finished second in the other two. So, with our assumption about no one clearing 50 percent in any district, Trump would get 26 delegates that way. Rubio, following Romney's lead, would win the other two districts and finish second in eight others to claim 12 delegates; Cruz, filling in for Santorum, would nab the other second-place prizes to get four delegates.

Again using 2012 as our guide, with the aforementioned modifications -- especially the one about Cruz hitting the 20 percent threshold -- the 31 at-large delegates would be divided as follows: 15 for Trump, nine for Rubio, seven for Cruz. Then give three more to Trump as the overall winner.

The Bottom Line

In this scenario, Trump would end up with 44 of Georgia's delegates, or 58 percent; Rubio 21, or 28 percent; and Cruz 11, or 15 percent (percentages don't add up to 100 due to rounding). Pretty good for Trump, right?

That depends on how you look at it. Through the first four states, here are the percentages of delegates won by those three (Kasich and Carson also have delegates, so these percentages don't add up to 100, either):

  • Trump 66 percent;
  • Cruz 14 percent;
  • Rubio 13 percent.

In other words, Trump's percentage lead over his closest rival could actually shrink tonight. With Cruz expected to win in Texas and perhaps Arkansas, and with Rubio making a run at winning Minnesota and maybe Virginia, and with Oklahoma looking like it could yield a fairly even three-way split, the delegate race might tighten a good bit. And that's before we get to the winner-take-all states, amid a potentially smaller field depending on how each campaign assesses its chances Wednesday morning. At that point, anything can still happen.

I don't know if that 2012 comparison will bear out; that's why we count the votes. But if it does, it goes to show how the complicated delegate math in these proportional states could keep Trump from breaking away from the pack just yet, fueling hope that he can eventually be stopped.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.