In this screwball year, it’s dangerous to say anything definitively, but it sure looks like Tuesday’s Ohio Republican primary will be the make-or-break point for the “Stop Trump” movement. This is assuming that Donald Trump beats Marco Rubio in Florida, which seems a bit more likely than not. Then it comes down to Ohio, where John Kasich has been holding a modest lead in the polls.
If Kasich holds Ohio, which is his home state, the delegate climb for Trump gets very steep. Trump has won 44 percent of all delegates selected so far. Imagine a straight, diagonal line from zero delegates in the bottom left corner at the beginning of the race, up to the number 1,237 in the upper right corner, the barest majority that secures a nomination. Every week, take a look and see if Trump is above or below that trajectory to the magic number. A Trump loss in the Buckeye State would lift the share of the remaining delegates that he would need to win to almost 60 percent, a very improbable challenge. So Trump really needs Ohio. Should Rubio pull out a win Florida, where polls show a very close race, and Kasich loses Ohio, Trump would be in the same predicament. If Trump wins both, the Republican Party better get used to the idea of having the real-estate mogul and reality-TV star as its nominee.
Some political analysts reason that the chances of stopping Trump are better if he’s opposed by several candidates, each with different appeals resonating with different audiences but with the shared goal of preventing him from getting 50 percent of the delegates each week. Others fervently believe that the anti-Trump side needs to rally behind a single candidate. Both theories are plausible. What’s right in one state might not be in another.
One currently nonaligned Republican pollster, for whom I have the utmost respect, on Thursday privately differed with my conclusion that a Trump loss would be a killer for him, suggesting that if Rubio lost Florida but Kasich won Ohio, it would “not be close to the ball game.”
He suggested that if Trump arrived in Cleveland with, say 1,100 delegates, 100 to 150 delegates shy of a majority, he feared “the party breaking apart.” According to his reasoning, Republican delegates would be faced with trying to ascertain the “least-worst” option—nominating Trump and risk losing the presidential race and down-ballot contests, or not nominating him and risk a fight that would make the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago look like a kids’ birthday party.
Head-to-head polls pitting each of the Republican candidates against Clinton show the downside of nominating Trump.
In a Clinton-Cruz matchup, the March 3-6 NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll gives Clinton a 2-point edge, 47 to 45 percent. Clinton carried Democrats 88 to 9 percent, while Cruz won among Republicans (85 to 7 percent) and independents (50 to 39 percent). Last month, a CNN poll gave Cruz a 1-point edge over Clinton, 49 to 48 percent, and Fox News also had him ahead by 1 point, 46 to 45 percent.
The NBC/WSJ poll had Clinton and Rubio tied with 46 percent each, with Clinton holding 85 percent of the Democratic vote, Rubio 86 percent of the Republican vote, and independents favoring Rubio by 11 points. The CNN poll put Rubio ahead by 3 points, 50 to 47 percent, and Fox gave Rubio a 4-point edge, 48 to 44 percent.
The NBC/WSJ poll didn’t match Clinton and Kasich, but the February Fox poll showed Kasich up by 3 points, 47 to 44 percent.
By contrast, the NBC/WSJ poll showed Trump losing to Clinton by 13 points, 51 to 38 percent. In the ABC News/Washington Post survey, Clinton led Trump by 9 points, 50 to 41 percent. Clinton led among Democrats 88 to 9 percent, Trump was ahead among Republicans by a less impressive 74 to 12 percent, and Trump would win independents by just 3 points, 43 to 40 percent. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll gave Clinton a 9-point advantage over Trump, 50 to 41 percent; CNN had Clinton up by 8 points, 52 to 44 percent; Fox had Clinton up by 5 points, 47 to 42 percent.
The bottom line is that a placebo running as the Republican nominee would be extremely competitive and might well beat Clinton, but not Donald Trump.
The Stop Trump folks either need Rubio to win in Florida or Kasich to prevail in Ohio. If either wins their home states, Trump’s nomination becomes highly problematic. If both win, Trump’s balloon loses an awful lot of air. But if both lose, a Trump nomination would be all but unstoppable.