Donald Trump Isn't the 'Presumptive Nominee' -- Not Yet, Anyway

Michael Barone
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Posted: Apr 29, 2016 12:01 AM
Donald Trump Isn't the 'Presumptive Nominee' -- Not Yet, Anyway
Donald Trump has declared himself, after following up his New York win April 19 with victories in five other Northeastern states Tuesday, the "presumptive nominee" of the Republican Party. Is it a done deal?

Not quite. Trump's 40 percent of total primary votes so far have yielded him 48 percent of pledged delegates -- not exactly the unfair system he's been decrying. He must win about 56 percent of those yet to be chosen to get to the 1,237 majority necessary for the nomination.

There are signs in the Northeastern primary results that he may get there. For the first time, he significantly outperformed his poll showings. For the first time, he got more than 50 percent of the vote (he came closest earlier in Massachusetts, with 49 percent).

But turnout in these primaries hovered around just 10 percent of eligible voters, lower than in any other state but Louisiana. That's partly because registered Republicans are scarce on the ground in the Northeast: 37 percent of registered voters in Pennsylvania, between 21 and 29 percent in the other closed primary states. Not coincidentally, none except Pennsylvania has come close to voting for a Republican presidential nominee in recent years.

The Northeastern results are the latest example of a phenomenon seen throughout this Republican race: Voters in one state are not much moved by the choices of voters in an earlier contest.

Donald Trump won in New Hampshire after losing in Iowa. Marco Rubio came in second in South Carolina after stumbling to fifth in New Hampshire. Trump won four of five big states on March 15 but got beat by Ted Cruz in Wisconsin April 5 -- after which, Cruz finished third in five of six states in the Northeast.

This reminds me of the 1980 Democratic race between Edward Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. Just when Carter seemed to have things wrapped up, Kennedy would get a big win. Then Carter would come back.

It was as if many Democratic voters wanted neither one to clinch the nomination. Perhaps this year many Republican voters don't relish a Trump victory or a contested convention where Cruz or someone else could win.

The next test comes in Indiana. Polling is sparse there because of a state anti-telemarketing law, with the three April polls showing Trump leading Cruz by 39 to 33 percent, with 19 percent for John Kasich.

That's not quite as unfavorable for Trump as polling immediately before Wisconsin, but it leaves Cruz within striking distance, especially if, as in Wisconsin, Kasich underperforms his poll numbers.

There's a good chance that happens, given the apparent deal by which Kasich would defer to Cruz in Indiana in return for Cruz doing so in Oregon in May and New Mexico in June. Polls suggest that Kasich's strength in Indiana, as elsewhere, is in affluent suburbs. Cruz could pull ahead if anti-Trump voters switch to him in the suburban counties around Indianapolis, which cast one-fifth of Republican primary votes.

Kasich's weak showing in the Northeast may accelerate that trend. He was supposed to be strong in affluent suburbs there, but he carried just one county, Manhattan, in those six states. Indeed, outside Manhattan and his home state of Ohio he has carried just six counties, four in Vermont and two in Michigan. Cruz has carried, by my count, 759.

Whoever carries Indiana will win the bulk of its 57 delegates, enough to counterbalance Trump's expected winner-take-all 51 in New Jersey. The yet-to-vote smaller states (except West Virginia) look like tough territory for Trump, but no one is sure how California's vote will shake out.

There 159 of 172 delegates are chosen winner-take-all by congressional district, and 24 of those 53 districts voted 65 percent or more for Barack Obama in 2012. So a lot depends on the votes of the relatively few registered Republicans in such districts, a matter on which there is no polling evidence or applicable precedent and on which smart analysts refuse to hazard a guess.

Members of the "Never Trump" group may imagine a candidate who combines Cruz's appeal to hard shell conservatives and Kasich's to upscale suburbanites: Call him Marco Rubio. But Rubio couldn't carry his home state of Florida, so Republicans are stuck with candidates who carried and embody the images of their home states, which are New York and Texas -- images repellent to many other voters.

Democrats have already settled for a presumptive nominee who is universally known with high negatives. Do Republicans -- especially in Indiana and California -- want to do that, too?