Donald Trump continued to beat the GOP field on Tuesday night, winning contests in Florida, North Carolina and Illinois, but dropping Ohio to John Kasich and struggling against Ted Cruz in Missouri.
The loss in Ohio makes it extraordinarily difficult -- Trump will need some 60 percent of the delegates left -- to get the 1,237 delegates he needs to lock up the nomination without a floor fight in Cleveland, which will host the Republican Convention in July. And that makes stopping Trump all the more doable.
A handful of states, including delegate-rich New Jersey, have winner-take-all primaries, and others, like New York, award most of their delegates to the winner. They will help get Trump where he needs to be, but it will still be a tall order after Ohio.
If Trump has the nomination wrested from him, it will not because he lacks support, but rather that he has engendered too much opposition. He has virtually swept the South, won every state in the Midwest save for Minnesota and Ohio, where he was beaten by the popular governor, and even ran away with Massachusetts and New Hampshire. If he ultimately loses, it will be because enough Republicans came to believe that Trump had gone beyond the pale of American politics -- or, perhaps more pragmatically, that he couldn't win a general election.
Earlier Tuesday, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican with a finely tuned political antennae, told reporters in the Capitol -- unprompted -- that he had just spoken with the GOP front-runner. "Donald Trump called this morning, and we had a good conversation," McConnell said. "I took the opportunity to recommend to him that no matter who may be triggering these violent expressions or conflict that we've seen at some of these rallies, it might be a good idea to condemn that and discourage it, no matter what the source of it is."
The source is not a mystery. At a November rally, Trump said of a black protester who'd been beaten, "Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing."
In February, he told his supporters at a rally, "If you see somebody who's getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of him, would you?"
"Seriously," he added, "I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise."
If you see somebody who's getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of him, would you? Donald Trump
Later that month, at another rally, Trump talked about a protester being taken out "on a stretcher," and said, "I'd like to punch him in the face.
Just this month, as a protester was being taken out, Trump said, "Try not to hurt him. If you do, I'll defend you in court, don't worry." He has since floated the idea of paying the legal fees of a man arrested for sucker-punching a black man at a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina. On Tuesday night, he easily won the state, and his supporters have only rallied to him in the wake of the violence.
Stopping Trump in Ohio has been an essential part of the GOP’s effort to block him from the nomination. But there are no good options ahead for Republicans, as underscored by Tuesday's exit surveys.
A slim majority said they would be satisfied with Trump as the GOP nominee, while four in 10 said they'd give serious thought to a third-party candidate if Trump were carrying the Republican banner. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that Cruz would win against Trump if the primary narrowed to the two of them.
"The only person I know I'm not going to vote for is Hillary Clinton. Call me after our convention, and I may add to that list," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters on Tuesday, condemning his own party for allowing Trump to get this far. "Our party leadership's been light on Trump. Now everybody's up in their game? Is it too little, too late? I don't know."
Princeton professor Sam Wang calculated the effect on the race of Trump winning or losing Ohio. The results show that if everyone else stays in the race, Trump fares better, paradoxically, with an Ohio loss. But even under that unlikely scenario -- impossible now that Rubio has officially quit -- he still winds up short of the majority he'd need for the nomination.
PredictWise, which aggregates betting markets for politics and other topics, shows that bettors think there's about a 50/50 chance of the Republican convention needing two or more votes to select a nominee.
Trump's stronger than expected performance in Illinois and Missouri may make up some of the delegates he's losing in Ohio. "Trump could still remain on pace for the 1,237 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination after tonight’s primaries, even after losing Ohio and its 66 delegates to Kasich," writes David Wasserman on the blog FiveThirtyEight.
While Trump on his own may not win enough delegates to secure the nomination, an intriguing possibility is unfolding: Cruz, who is reviled among the establishment, and Kasich together could be able to collectively beat Trump, setting up a Kasich-Cruz, or Cruz-Kasich, ticket.
Kasich campaign chief John Weaver said in a memo Tuesday night that the path ahead was wide open for Kasich as the contest moves away from the South and toward states where Kasich is stronger. Weaver said internal polling suggests most Rubio voters -- such as they were -- will break for Kasich, giving him a good chance at racking up a majority of the roughly 1,000 remaining delegates.
Natalie Jackson contributed reporting.
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