By accident of timing and decisions about delegate allocation made what now seems a political lifetime ago, the results of tonight’s Republican primary election in Ohio will dictate the path of the GOP’s nomination race for the remainder of the election cycle.
In the Buckeye State, John Kasich, the twice-elected governor who also served for more than 20 years as a Congressman from a district in the heart of the state, is fighting to hold off billionaire Donald Trump. The fact that Kasich, who is extremely popular in his state, is even facing a challenge there at all is symbolic of the disarray into which Trump’s candidacy has thrown the Republican Party.
The bellicose billionaire has won the majority of states that have voted in presidential primaries and caucuses so far, and holds a 460-370 delegate lead over his nearest rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Ohio is one of a handful of states that award their delegates on a winner-take-all basis, so tonight even a plurality victory there results in all 66 delegates being bound to the winner.
Of course, Ohio is only one of two big winner-take-all states voting today. But the result in Florida seems almost certain to be a Trump victory.
If the polls in Florida turn out to be wrong about tonight’s vote and Trump isn’t the winner there, it will be hard to take primary election polls seriously ever again. Trump leads every poll, and has since August. His current average lead over his rivals is 19.1 percentage points, according to Real Clear Politics. His likely win in Florida would give Trump another 99 delegates free and clear.
He could easily bolster his lead further in North Carolina, Missouri and Illinois, which also vote today. Between them, they have another 193 delegates, and Trump is likely to win many, if not most of them.
(Missouri and Illinois, in fact, have a “back-door” winner-take-all structure that allows a candidate to collect all the delegates if they win both the statewide vote and each individual Congressional district. That’s how Trump won all 50 delegates from South Carolina, despite its supposedly “proportional” delegate allocation system.)
The bottom line is this: If Ohio’s 66 delegates go to Trump, the former reality television star might wake up tomorrow not as the frontrunner but as the presumptive nominee.
There are a couple of ways things could shake out today.
Conventional wisdom has it that, barring some sort of miracle in Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio will have to drop out of the race after today’s vote. A loss in Ohio would almost certainly end Kasich’s candidacy as well, leaving only Trump and Cruz in the race.
That would set up something of a nightmare scenario for the GOP establishment, in which the two most-virulent anti-establishment candidates in the field become the only viable choices for a non-contested convention, with Trump having the clear advantage.
If Trump wins Ohio, the results in the other states voting today will also have a significant impact on the shape of the race going forward. If he is able to collect the lion’s share of the delegates in Illinois and Missouri, Trump will almost certainly declare the primary effectively over, and try to marginalize Cruz.
He has already hinted that he sees little point in continued debates, and with a big win today he might feel empowered to skip the one scheduled for next Monday in Salt Lake City, depriving his rival of a chance to confront him directly. This would be a major disappointment for Cruz, who has long been calling for Trump to debate him one on one.
However, if Cruz is able to take one or two of the other states voting tonight and deprive Trump of major delegate hauls there, he will have a strong case that the primary is now a real two-man race and that Trump should be forced to compete with him on the debate stage. Perhaps more than once. Reportedly, the Republican National Committee has provisionally sanctioned yet another debate for next month in the event there is no clear winner by then.
There is, though, an entirely different trajectory on which this race could travel if Kasich is able to hold his home state today. He holds an average 3.7 percent lead in recent polling, though two of the four most recent surveys show the two candidates tied.
A Kasich win will almost certainly still leave Trump in a very strong position. But, aside from denying him the state’s 66-delegate prize, it would also show that he is beatable (if only by a popular governor in his own state) and make it that much more difficult for him to reach the 1,237 delegates he needs for a first-ballot victory at the Republican Convention in Cleveland this summer.
It would also throw the race into something close to stasis for weeks. After tomorrow, only Arizona, Utah, and Wisconsin vote before April 19. Of the three, only Arizona is a straight winner-take-all contest, meaning that there will be little chance for a major breakaway until things pick up again with New York allocating its 95 delegates on April 19, and Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island voting on April 26.
UPDATE: This article originally misstated the date of the next GOP debate. It is scheduled for Monday, March 21, in Salt Lake City.