As the primary calendar shortens with each passing week, the Republican race for the White House sharpens its focus to three candidates:  Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.  The raucous and ugly debates have been a crucible for the campaigns and have negatively impacted each candidate.  So where does the race stand and what is the path to the nomination?

The Primary Process

First, let’s review the arcane Republican primary process to provide some guidance on how it works and what we can expect.  To win the nomination before the convention, a candidate must gain 1,237 of the 2,472 delegates available from the primary or caucus voting in each state or territory. Remember, state primaries are run and funded by the state government, while caucuses are run by the parties.  Primaries have larger turnouts versus caucuses, as they require a longer time commitment than just voting for a candidate (additional party business like selecting issues for the party platform, for example.)  Based on the results of the primaries and caucuses, the delegates of all the states are bound to the candidates chosen. The entire process begins in February and ends in June.

From the Iowa caucuses until the March 15th primaries, the votes are mainly proportional (it’s complicated).  On March 15th, the votes become mainly winner take-all (it’s complicated part 2).  The Republican National Committee decided on this format to speed the nominating process and eliminate a drawn out fight amongst the candidates.  This is why there is such intense focus on the beginning of the primary/caucus season.

Current Totals

 delegates won

 Source AP

 As of March 9th, billionaire Donald Trump has the highest delegate count at 458, second is Texas Senator Ted Cruz at 359 third is Florida Senator Marco Rubio at 151 and fourth is Ohio Governor John Kasich at 54.  Per the AP graphic above, there are 1,435 delegates remaining in the contest.  On March 15th, there will be 358 delegates at stake in Florida (99), North Carolina (72), Illinois (69), Ohio (66) and Missouri (52).  This will mark the halfway point for the Republican primary season and we should have a clear picture of who will win.  While many candidates have dropped out prior to March 15th, the general consensus is that Kasich and Rubio will come under intense pressure to leave the race if they can’t win their home states of Ohio and Florida.

Who’s the likely winner?

At this point, the race to the nomination boils down to two candidates:  Trump and Cruz.  Prior to the convention in July, these are the only ones that are likely to win enough delegates for an outright win.  At this point, Trump appears to have a substantial lead that will be difficult for Cruz to overcome, but not impossible.  If Trump is not the outright winner, then the nomination process moves to the arcane rules of the Republican convention.

To be on the first ballot at the convention, a candidate must win a minimum of 8 states (rule 40).  This would mean both Trump (14 states) and Cruz (7 states, needs 1 more) would likely make the ballot, but not Rubio (1) or Kasich (0).  For the first ballot, the bound delegates (95% of total) must vote for the candidate they are bound to.  However, the fun starts when no candidate secures a majority.  Then, it gets complicated, as each state’s delegate selection process and rules for bound and unbound delegates are different.  Generally, the bound delegates are released to vote for whomever they prefer in a second round of voting.  This is where you’ll hear a lot about a “brokered” convention, which means that there are Republicans at the convention attempting to create a consensus around their candidate.

What does this all mean for voters?

The bad news is that there is a potential for the Republican primary to end without a candidate chosen and this means intense media coverage detailing every nuance of what can happen.  (My condolences to readers who are already tired of the situation.)  This aside, it means tremendous political uncertainty for Republicans in Congress and the Republican Party in general.  Typically, the presidential nominee sets the tone and policy platform for the party as they enter into the fall elections.  If there is a protracted fight or a battle that tears apart the party, it could wound the Republican brand and potentially cost the party races critical to securing majorities in both the US House of Representatives (not likely) and the US Senate (very likely).  Stating the obvious, it could also gravely hurt whomever the Republicans eventually choose as their presidential candidate.