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Marco Rubio: 'You Don’t Win The Nomination By How Many States You Win'

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 24/02/2016 Jason Linkins
ATHENA IMAGE © Spencer Platt via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

With four Republican nominating contests in the books, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has managed to earn finishes ranging from second to fifth place.

These would be great results if Rubio were the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team. Unfortunately, Marco Rubio is a candidate for the GOP's presidential nomination. Does he know what that entails?

Based upon an interview he gave to Fox News on the Wednesday after the Nevada caucus, it's an open question.

As Talking Points Memo's Caitlin MacNeal reported:

"You don’t win the nomination by how many states you win," Rubio responded before adding that he will have to win some winner-take-all states in March.

Earhardt then asked Rubio which states specifically he could win.

"Well, we feel great in every one of those states. We’re going to pick up delegates in all of them," he said, adding that he doesn't want to offer specific predictions.

Hey, Rubio is right about one thing: You actually don't win the nomination by how many states you win. But for the moment, you have to win at least eight of them to qualify to be the nominee. And merely winning those states is just the first step. 

Most of the time, when we're focusing on delegate math, we think about the big number: 1,237. That's the number of delegates that you need to win the GOP nomination. Right now, reality TV star Donald Trump has got a jump on the field -- he's hauled in 81 delegates to Rubio's 17. (Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also has 17.)

But the rules of the Republican Party -- specifically Rule 40, as it's currently written -- adds another magic number to the mix. To be the GOP's nominee, you must win the majority of the delegates available in eight states. Which means you have to prevail in the winner-take-all states, or win the other states by pretty decisive margins. That's a high bar. Trump himself has actually failed to do this in two of the states he's won -- New Hampshire and Nevada.

Nevertheless, he's one state (South Carolina) closer to qualifying than Rubio is. And Rubio's not going to close that gap by merely "pick[ing] up delegates in all" the rest of the states.

The good news for Rubio is that Rule 40 is something that the party can change at will. In fact, it wasn't until 2012 that the Republican Party raised the bar to this eight state qualification prerequisite -- at the time, they did so in an effort to sandbag convention delegates who backed former GOP candidate Ron Paul.

As RealClearPolitics' David Byler pointed out in December, "In the week before the 2016 convention, the delegates will have multiple opportunities to change it, so no GOP presidential campaign has to worry about getting delegate majorities in at least eight states."

That is a thin bit of good news for Rubio, I guess. Still, it seems that any change to this rule would come about only if there is some robust competition between candidates, with multiple contenders constantly vying for state delegate majorities. Per Byler:

This will depend on what happens during the primaries. For instance, suppose that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio secures enough delegates to win the nomination (1,237) as well as a majority in 20 different states, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is second in the delegate count and holds a majority in 10 states. In that scenario, the convention delegates might make the threshold 15 states, thus disqualifying Cruz and avoiding a convention where a large number of Republicans vote against their nominee. Or imagine a scenario when no candidate has the crossed the 1,237 threshold heading into the convention but each of the leading candidates – say, Rubio, Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Donald Trump – has a majority of delegates in seven states. Realizing that a floor fight is inevitable, the delegates could decide that the best thing to do is reduce the state minimum to seven, thus managing the fight in a way that gives each of the leading factions a voice and decreases the risk of anyone bolting the party.

It probably matters a lot that Byler was contemplating all of this in December 2015, because if you're looking at the state of play right now, neither of these relatively rosy scenarios (that is, "rosy" from Rubio's perspective) seems likely. In which seven states -- let alone 20 -- is Rubio going to win a majority of the delegates, exactly?

And as Frontloading HQ's Josh Putnam points out, there's another flaw in Byler's thinking:

One of the shortcomings of Byler's otherwise excellent piece at RCP is that it does not consider the possibility that Rule 40 works as intended; that only one candidate gets majority control of delegations from at least eight states and receives a majority of the 2470+ delegates available in the Republican presidential nomination race.

Barring a run of miraculous finishes by his competitors, Trump is the only candidate who's set to win the majority of delegates in any state. If that ends up being the case, the GOP would have no real reason to change the rule.

If we're hearing Rubio's strategy correctly when he says he intends to "pick up delegates" everywhere he can, it would seem as if his current plan is to compete long enough and well enough to keep Trump from getting the 1,237 delegates he needs to win on the first ballot at the convention. That could trigger the "contested convention" scenario in which delegates, unbound to their candidate after the first ballot, would be free to vote for any qualified nominee.

That is, perhaps, Rubio's best shot at the nomination. But it assumes that a majority of convention delegates would then suddenly swarm to Rubio's side. There's really nothing that suggests Trump couldn't prevail, even in a contested convention scenario.

So, hey, all things being equal, Rubio had better plan to start winning some states.

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Jason Linkins edits "Eat The Press" for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast "So, That Happened." Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

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