Palm Beach, FL – Donald Trump celebrated a string of primary wins at his Mar-a-Lago resort on Tuesday in a palatial room of white paint, gold detailing, and crystal chandeliers that looked ready for an imperial coronation.
Not quite yet, though.
Republican voters faced a choice on Tuesday between Trump and chaos. They decided to take their chances with chaos for now.
The GOP front-runner won Florida and its 99 delegates by a crushing margin, knocking rival Marco Rubio out of the campaign in his own state. But Ohio Gov. John Kasich held his home court in that winner-take-all state, denying Trump its 66 delegates.
Trump’s Ohio loss means he faces a tougher road to the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination. But it’s by no means an impossible one: Trump also added to his column North Carolina and Illinois, the site of a melee between Trump supporters and left wing activists at a cancelled rally on Friday. In Missouri, he was locked into a tight race with Senator Ted Cruz.
It will take time to sort through the results, but the net delegate haul could be enough to keep Trump on pace to win the nomination outright, especially if Kasich continues to divide his opposition.
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Nonetheless, the Ohio result heightened the odds of a contested convention in Cleveland. If that happens, his opponents have a plausible chance to wrest the nomination away, even if Trump enters with a major delegate leads, thanks to byzantine state and national party rules that could make it difficult for him to maintain support past the first ballot.
In the meantime, the campaign enters a new phase. Rubio, the establishment’s last great hope, is out of the race. Kasich won Ohio, but it’s not clear he has relevance beyond his home state and the delegate math makes it impossible for him to win by conventional means.
That means Cruz now has his best chance yet to focus the race into a one-on-one contest against Trump. The insurgent conservative has few friends among GOP elites, but with Rubio gone he offers the only plausible hope of defeating Trump without resorting to extraordinary measures like parachuting a white knight candidate into the convention.
The question now is whether voters consolidate behind Cruz in large enough numbers to reverse Trump’s momentum as the races move to the northeast in April, or whether Trump is too strong and Cruz’s appeal too narrow to change the race.
Trump, for his part, mocked predictions that he would fall short of majority support once the field winnowed.
“Someday they’re going to understand, someday when we take it all they’ll understand,” he said in his Mar-a-Lago speech. ”But it is really ridiculous.”
Trump won Florida in a landslide despite a combined $15.6 million spent on anti-Trump and pro-Rubio ads in the state. It was the most concentrated outside attempt yet to slow Trump and its failure suggests donors have yet to find an effective way to drag him down.
Trump’s campaign, by contrast, spent just $2.2 million on ads.
With the race poised to continue for months, Republicans have to wonder just how far the madness surrounding Trump’s candidacy will go before the convention, and how much worse it could get in a heated floor fight.
Trump’s rallies have increasingly featured rowdy protests and heated responses. The candidate has drawn sharp criticism for stoking the fires with his outrageous and violent rhetoric. Trump recently said he would consider paying legal bills for a 78-year old supporter who was arrested after sucker punching a protester on camera in North Carolina.
Trump was joined onstage Tuesday by his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who faces a criminal complaint from female reporter Michelle Fields, who has accused him of manhandling her at Trump’s last victory speech. Lewandoski denied the claim and called Fields “delusional,” but a Washington Post reporter who witnessed the incident corroborated her story.
“Good job, Corey,” Trump told Lewandowski at the victory rally Tuesday. Trump also called the assembled reporters “disgusting.”
Politico reported that Ben Schreckinger, its reporter covering the Trump campaign, had been denied access to the victory rally after the outlet published a story from Schreckinger detailing complaints from Lewandoski’s former colleagues that he used abusive language with women.
Trump this week threatened to direct his protestors to disrupt Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. A heckler shouted pro-Trump slogans at Rubio’s concession speech on Tuesday, but he appeared to be a prankster.
That’s all a problem for another time, however. Trump’s rivals faced a near-death experience on Tuesday and lived to fight on day. They’ll take it for now.