Across most of the Republican political spectrum, astonished panic is setting in over the increasingly likely prospect that Donald Trump —Donald Trump! — will roll right along to win the GOP nomination, especially following another gravity-defying performance on Super Tuesday. For the moment, I’ll leave it to others to argue about the degree to which panic over a Trump nomination is warranted.
But there are a couple of factors that should — perhaps — temper that panic for the moment. In particular, there is a barely-discussed pattern developing in the election results so far that might be highly predictive of the results of the remaining primaries, and it does not bode well for Mr. Trump: Yes, Trump has rolled through primaries and caucuses which are “open” (or semi-closed); but he has underwhelmed in the handful of “closed” primaries/caucuses that have taken place so far.
Although labeled “Republican primaries,” the “Republican” adjective describes the candidates, but not necessarily the voters. In a closed primary, only voters registered as Republicans are allowed to vote; in open primaries, however, voters of any affiliation may vote, including Democrats and Independents. In semi-closed primaries, anyone not registered with another party may vote, such as Independents.
So far, 15 states have voted, and Trump has won ten of those contests, mostly convincingly. Ted Cruz has won four, and Marco Rubio one. But breaking down those primaries and caucuses according to whether they are open or closed, something striking emerges: Trump has won all but one of the ten open and semi-closed primaries and caucuses, but he has been victorious in only one of four closed contests, losing three times to Ted Cruz.
Granted, that’s a pretty small sample size. But it still may be highly meaningful. As the race continues, an increasing number of primary contests are closed; only registered Republicans will be voting.
I don’t doubt that plenty of rock-ribbed Republicans are actively supporting Trump. The question, though, is who else is supporting him, and in what numbers. There is one big clue worth noting: the number of voters in the Republican contests has exploded relative to previous years, shattering records in state after state. Super Tuesday, where only three smaller states have closed contests, provides a good illustration: in 2008, there were 5 million Republican voters on Super Tuesday; in 2016, 8.2 million. And the number of voters in the Democratic primaries has plummeted: in 2008, there were 8.2 million Democratic voters on Super Tuesday; in 2016, 5.5 million. (As there was an incumbent running unopposed in 2012, it does not provide a good comparison.)
There are certainly plausible reasons for this. After all, the electorate is not happy with the Democrats after eight years of the Obama administration, and there are only two Democratic candidates — one of whom is too far left even for an increasingly left-leaning Democratic Party, and one who few voters seem to actually like. But a swing of some 3 million votes out of a total of 13-14 million means something more is going on. That something may well be the decision of many Democrats and Independents to vote Trump.
If so, it’s making a huge difference. Trump received 2.9 million votes on Super Tuesday (34%); Ted Cruz, 2.4 million (29%); and Marco Rubio, 1.8 million (21%). I doubt many crossover votes went to Cruz; perhaps some went to Rubio. But it is safe to assume that Trump gained a disproportionate fraction of that vote. With only 450,000 votes separating Trump and Cruz, that vote matters. A lot.
That vote will matter even more when it isn’t there — in the closed primaries. This weekend will provide an interesting test, as four states are voting — all in closed contests. Next week are four more contests, two open and two closed. The following week, five states vote, one closed (Florida, a big prize), three semi-closed, and one open.
And then things get really interesting. Beginning March 22, the remaining 19 states begin to vote. Twelve of those contests are closed; five are semi-closed; and two are open. Importantly, the five biggest of those states all have closed primaries (and four of those are winner-take-all).
A candidate needs to win 1,237 delegates to clinch the nomination. Those five closed primaries alone award 447. (California, one of those primaries, by itself accounts for 172 winner-take-all delegates.)
Obviously, this is a highly fluid situation. It has been only a week since candidates have seriously unloaded their opposition research against Trump. We have only started to hear about Trump University and the consumer fraud lawsuits against it, the failed Trump Mortgage company, formed at the top of the housing bubble in 2006, Trump’s failed marriages and admitted adulterous affairs (such charges may not have hurt Bill Clinton, but Trump is running as a Republican), or what may be lurking in Trump’s still-undisclosed tax returns. We don’t yet know if or how any of that might move the needle.
And Trump’s unpredictability, which may have been a strength up to this point, could yet be his undoing. Live by personality, die by personality.
But all through this campaign, conservative pundits and Republican political figures have been mystified by just who these Trump voters are, and how any truly conservative voters can back him. Perhaps, looking at the numbers above, the answer is not so complicated: Trump has been drawing heavily from Democrats and Independents in open primaries. As the calendar takes away that advantage, his winning the nomination may not be so inevitable, after all.
Abe Katsman is an American attorney and political commentator living in Israel. He serves as Counsel to Republicans Overseas Israel.