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by Chris Talbot

Donald J. Trump has taken some ugly pot shots at Senator John McCain, but McCain could end up with the last laugh. In an odd twist of fate, if Trump somehow loses the GOP nomination it would be John McCain who’s responsible for his undoing.

Back in 2008, McCain’s easy and early victory in the GOP primaries (and subsequent general election loss) led party planners to modify the GOP nominating process. By changing the calendar and pushing early states to switch from winner-take-all contests to proportional delegate splitting, they intentionally made it more difficult for an early front-runner to quickly lock up the nomination. As the GOP’s top counselor Ben Ginsberg wrote this January, it’s very difficult to see a nominee emerging in March due to the changes enacted after McCain’s 2008 run. Those changes are the only reason Trump hasn’t locked up the nomination already.

After Tuesday’s results Ginsberg seemed to change his tune, but as smart as he is I actually disagree with what he was saying on television that night. Trump could still lose this thing.

He’s the lead horse for sure, but he hasn’t shown he can pull away from the pack: he’s still not winning states with a majority of the vote. He’s getting 30-40% and letting the other candidates split the remainder.

Contrast that with Hillary Clinton, who racked up an absolute majority of the vote in 7 out of 11 states on Super Tuesday—including 5 where she topped 65%. Trump broke 40% in exactly 2 states last night. Consider that fact: in 9 out of 11 states, more than 60% of Republicans voted for someone else.*

Nor will Trump benefit from the traditional boosts a big primary winner usually enjoys: more fundraising? Trump doesn’t need the money, or use it to good effect. More earned media? For the Donald? It’s not like his campaign has suffered from lack of exposure….

And then there’s the math. The so-called “dark arts” of delegate counting, as MSNBC called it last night: it’s really just a matter of counting to a majority of delegates and understanding where you can lock them in. Trump sits at 319, barely a quarter of the 1237 needed to win the nomination (again, compare that with the lead for Hillary Clinton, who is almost halfway to the delegates necessary for her party’s nomination).

Yet the even bigger concern for Trump is not how he’s winning, but where: due to the GOP’s post-McCain primary changes, the delegates from nearly all of Trump’s early wins have been split: instead of taking all of Virginia’s 49 delegates, he got just 17. Marco Rubio got 16. Back in 2008, Virginia was still a winner-take-all primary: John McCain won—and took home all 60 of its delegates. When you add things up after Super Tuesday, the tabulations show this: Trump has less delegates than the combined total of his two closest challengers, Rubio and Ted Cruz.

All of this points to something we’ve never seen in modern American history: a brokered convention. Trump’s lead makes it hard to imagine any other candidate winning the required 1237 delegates through the remaining primary season, but it also appears reasonable, even likely, that Trump won’t reach that total either.

We’ll probably know for sure in the next two weeks. March 15th features two separate blockbusters: winner-take-all contests in Florida (99 delegates) and Ohio (66).** If Trump can sweep the two he probably rides to the nomination, but he faces stiff challenges in both, where Rubio and John Kasich will pour all their resources into homestate campaigns. At the same time, the winner-take-all nature of each contest will keep other candidates from wasting their time and money campaigning there, meaning that Trump is likely to face the kind of consolidated opposition he’s yet to encounter.

* And what might that 60% do, if and when their preferred candidate drops out? A CBS News poll asked exactly that: the news was not good for Trump: https://twitter.com/CBSPolitics/status/704892853529485313

** The next key winner-take-all contest after the 15th? That’s March 22nd in Arizona, homestate of Senator John McCain.

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