Donald Trump

Donald Trump's Win in New York Means the GOP Primary Is About to Get Very, Very Weird

The Republican primary race we are witnessing now has little contemporary precedent. That is part of what makes this race so unsettling and unpredictable.

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Donald Trump's outsized win in New York's GOP primary sends the Republican presidential race hurtling toward a very weird place.

At this point only Trump can possibly secure the 1,237 committed delegates necessary to win the GOP nomination at the party convention in July; it is now mathematically impossible for Ted Cruz to do so prior to the convention.

But it is also now quite possible that Trump will instead end up just shy of that decisive number. And that has some strange implications for how the nominee could ultimately be decided and what the reaction might be. 

Right now, the GOP nomination looks like a very complicated overall strategy game driven by a series of state-level mini-games. There are still a handful of primaries between now and June 7, and Trump is going to try to win as many delegates as possible in all of them. That's what he did last night in New York, where he won 90 of 95 possible delegates, putting him at 845 delegates total. Several more states have primaries next Tuesday, and the ground looks favorable to Trump.

In theory, if Trump comes out of the primaries with anything less than 1,237 delegates, then he would fail to secure the nomination on the first vote at the convention, and the convention would become open, with delegates who were bound to Trump on the first vote free to vote for someone else, like Ted Cruz, who has been working to ensure that as many delegates as possible are friendly to his campaign.

But what if Trump fails to hit that threshold, yet comes very, very close—winning, something in the range of, say, 1175 or 1200 delegates? In that case, then Trump and his campaign would almost certainly use the time between the final primary day in June and the convention in July to attempt to cajole enough unbound delegates—convention voters who are not required to vote for anyone on the first ballot—to cast their votes for Trump.

In particular, Trump would likely turn to Pennsylvania, which has 54 unbound delegates. If Trump can convince enough of those delegates to put him over the threshold before the convention, then he wins on the first vote—even without having secured 1,237 bound delegates through the primary process. Trump, who is likely to win decisively in the state, could argue with some plausibility that those delegates should go his way. As Steve Kornacki noted on MSNBC last night, most of those delegates are already saying they will side with the candidate who wins their state.

But Pennsylvania isn't the only place with delegates that could be courted to put Trump over the finish line. Outside of Pennsylvania, there are more than 100 additional unbound delegates up for grabs in places like North Dakota and Wyoming—but also American Samoa and Guam.

It is possible to imagine, then, that negotiations with delegates from these places held after the end of primary voting could end up ultimately deciding the nominee.

But that is not the only possibility. What if Trump, after some negotiation, is not able to win over the delegate majority that is necessary to win the nomination on the convention's initial vote?

It's unclear how this would play out, and what the implications would be should Trump—who leads in the GOP primary popular vote as well as delegate count—get very close to a majority, and yet still not quite win the nomination.

Both Ted Cruz and John Kasich are now working towards winning on a second ballot. And if Trump doesn't get to 1,237 on the first vote, then he would lose the advantage, which is why his campaign is insisting that there will not be a second ballot. 

If there were, the convention would be open, and delegates would be free to vote as they see fit. Trump has inspired a deep antipathy even amongst Republicans, and many would be pleased to see him lose on a second or third ballot. In every technical sense, a win like this would be totally legitimate.

Yet there's little question that it would also be incredibly contentious. Trump has spent the last few weeks griping about the primary process and, in doing so, made it fairly clear that he will declare an outcome along those lines to be unfair and, essentially, illegitimate. He has already hinted darkly at the possibility of unrest at the convention should things not go his way.

Furthermore, many GOP primary voters appear to believe that Trump should win regardless of whether he achieves the necessary delegate threshold. In New York for example, 70 percent of Republican primary voters said in a CBS News poll that if no one secures the nomination before the convention, it should go to the candidate with the most votes.

As Politico reports, this is why many observers believe that Trump actually needs somewhat less than 1,237 delegates—likely somewhere in the range of 1150-1200—in order to effectively secure the nomination.

Yet given how the strength of feelings about Trump, an outcome like this would also be contentious, or at least deeply frustrating for a great many Republicans.

Part of the problem here is that there is no modern playbook for this sort of situation: The last time the GOP chose its nominee via a multi-ballot floor fight at the convention was in 1948, when New York Gov. Thomas Dewey won on the third ballot. Delegate votes these days are essentially ceremonial, with the outcomes decided in advance.

That's the norm, anyway, but the path the GOP nomination is on may well take us far beyond that, to a place where the usual norms that govern the primary process not only do not apply but do not exist. Yes, there are rules in place to govern these sorts of events, but the rules only go so far. The primary process, like most politics, is governed as much by a fuzzy sense of shared expectations and precedents as by firm rules and regulations. And the GOP primary race we are witnessing now has little contemporary precedent. That is part of what makes this race so unsettling and unpredictable. It is a journey into the political unknown, and while that makes it difficult to predict just what the ultimate outcome will be, it means that whatever happens, it's more than likely to be weird.