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Clinton Moves a Little Closer, Trump a Bit Back

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Tuesday was a good day for Hillary Clinton, even though her delegate lead is a bit smaller. Donald Trump's lead is a bit larger, which made Tuesday a little disappointing. Delegate math is weird. Here are the details.

Bernie Sanders won landslides in the Utah and Idaho caucuses; Clinton’s solid win in the Arizona primary wasn’t enough, this time, to give her a delegate victory on the day. Nevertheless, Sanders did nothing to change the situation: He can’t win primaries in large, ethnically diverse states, and if he can't do that, he can’t come close to the nomination.

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There’s essentially nothing that Sanders has done to this point to give him even a hint of a chance of catching up in pledged delegates, or of eating into Clinton’s decisive lead in superdelegates. The only question remaining is how long Sanders will stay in, and whether he can find a way to do something constructive with the enthusiasm he has generated.

Trump won solidly in winner-take-all Arizona, but Ted Cruz had an even larger win in Utah -- with more than 50 percent of the vote, he takes all of the delegates there. That gave Trump 58 for the day, Cruz 40, plus 9 uncommitted delegates from American Samoa.

Trump therefore did take slightly more than half of the delegates at stake. But Arizona was projected as a very good state for him, and there was at least a decent chance that he could have taken a few delegates in Utah (by holding Cruz under 50 percent, which would have allowed some proportional allocation of delegates) or, for that matter, in American Samoa.

Looking at David Wasserman’s delegate targets at FiveThirtyEight, Trump fell another 12 delegates below the level where Wasserman believes the reality television star should be to get on track for 1,237 delegates and the nomination. That brings Trump, overall, to 35 delegates short of the projected pace. He does have plenty of opportunities to narrow that gap, beginning with the possibility of a big victory in Wisconsin on April 5.

Trump did gain a bit of ground on Cruz, making it a bit more likely that Trump will have the most delegates after the final primaries on June 7.

And yet, Cruz’s big win in Utah today could be meaningful. Here are the list of Republican presidential candidates who have reached 50 percent of the vote in one or more states -- as well as Puerto Rico -- in open nomination contests (that is, without an incumbent president) beginning in 1980:

2016: Ted Cruz (2); Marco Rubio (1)

2012: Mitt Romney (more than 10); Rick Santorum (1, plus a non-binding “beauty contest” primary.

2008: John McCain (more than 10); Mitt Romney (6); Mike Huckabee (3)

2000: George W. Bush (more than 10); John McCain (6)

1996: Bob Dole (more than 10)

1988: George H.W. Bush (more than 10); Bob Dole (2); Pat Robertson (1)

1980: Ronald Reagan (more than 10); George H.W. Bush (4)

Trump came close but fell short in Arizona. Yes, it is in some senses a meaningless statistic, dependent on how many candidates are running and how many of those are contesting various states. And it’s possible Trump that will just romp the rest of the way, hitting 50 percent in most of the 20 remaining states.

But he hasn’t shown that he can do it, and it's quite remarkable that the clear vote and delegate leader can't crack 50 percent of the vote anywhere so far.

One more major theme of Tuesday’s events was early voting. A lot of Republicans voted early in Arizona, and a lot of them were Marco Rubio supporters -- and fact, more than 18 percent of the vote went to Rubio and others who had dropped out by the time of the actual primary day.

In most elections, I have no objection to early voting. Sure, someone who votes in the general election in mid-October may miss out on information that only comes to light in late October, but most voters, early or not, don’t actually decide based on the kind of information that can be late-breaking.

And yet: the presidential nomination process is a sequential system, in which states take turns over a multi-month primary and caucus season and in which the results of previous events can change the playing field.

Most notably, candidates drop out. And that’s not all. The sequential system dictates that candidates and their campaigns move from one state to the next, meaning that Arizona voters who voted a month ago did so largely without experiencing much of a campaign in their own state.

Basically, a sequential primary system along with significant early voting just doesn’t make much sense.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net