It’s getting complicated out there.
This week Bernie Sanders scored an unexpected upset to revive his campaign against Hillary Clinton. And many panicked Republicans had to face the fact that Ted Cruz, the guy whose face triggers irrational rage, is their best chance to beat Donald Trump.
To simplify things, it’s helpful to keep an eye on the delegate math. Each candidate is trying to win enough delegates in their party’s primary process to win the presidential nomination.
While the Sanders upset holds the potential to change the race—more on why after the chart—he still faces a tough uphill climb against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:
This race is about one-third complete: Sanders has won 545 delegates and Clinton has won 777, with each trying to reach the magic number of 1,014. (We aren’t talking about the controversial superdelegates right now because I expect them to follow the voters unless they are needed for a tie-breaker.)
So far, Clinton has won 59% of the delegates awarded because she has run up the score in large southern states, while most of Sanders’ wins (with the exception of Michigan) have been in smaller states.
Sanders needs to win 54% of the remaining delegates to hit the magic number, while Clinton just needs to win 45.7%.
The bottom line: more Michigan-style wins wouldn’t be enough give Sanders the nomination.
He needs blow-outs to reverse the course, while Clinton will try to keep padding her advantage.
But the dynamic of the Democratic primary may change. If Sanders can build on his surprise win in Michigan to beat Clinton in delegate-rich Illinois and Ohio—where polls already have the Vermont senator running close to the former secretary of state—he could turn the math in his favor.
This race is much trickier to forecast, since Republican contests tend to be a mix of winner-take all and proportional contests.
This chart shows why the prospect of no candidate winning a majority of delegates is such a big deal.
Donald Trump has earned 44% of delegates so far—a lead of ten percentage points over second-place Ted Cruz, and even further ahead of his other rivals. But Trump’s path to a majority of delegates—1,237—will require him to increase his appeal or see one or more of rivals drop out.
Trump needs 55% of the remaining delegates—roughly the same share as Sanders—but Trump has an easier road because some of the largest GOP primaries are winner-take-all.
The other three candidates each have even taller orders when it comes to gaining enough delegates for a majority. Ohio governor John Kasich, for example, would need to win 83.5% of the remaining delegates to gain a majority, and that just isn’t going to happen.
Three winner-take-all contests next week—Kasich’s Ohio, senator Marco Rubio’s Florida, and Illinois—will award more than 15% of the remaining delegates left in the race. If Trump wins those three states—and polls suggest he leads in each—it will be almost impossible for the party to block his nomination, even with various brokered convention shenanigans.
That leaves anti-Trump Republicans with a tough question: Is it better to unite around Cruz to beat Trump, or hope that four candidates deny him the nomination outright and that a better candidate will emerge at the Republican National Convention?