Supporters wave American flags at a rally for Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on March 1, 2016.
Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC

First Read: As Republicans feud, Clinton pivots toward November

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.

As GOP race gets nastier, Clinton pivots to the general election

In one of the least eventful weeks of the 2016 campaign in recent memory – due to the tragic terrorist attacks in Belgium and the lack of primary contests – two important developments took place. First, the Republican race got nastier (if that was possible) after Donald Trump and Ted Cruz battled over their wives. “Donald, you’re a sniveling coward, and leave Heidi the hell alone,” Cruz said after Trump retweeted an unflattering photo of Cruz’s wife. Still, Cruz didn’t answer the question from NBC’s Hallie Jackson if he’d support Trump as the GOP nominee after this episode. “Donald Trump will not be the nominee,” Cruz maintained. And consider that Trump vs. Cruz, as well as the “Stop Trump” effort, is going to last another FOUR months until the Republican convention in July. The second development that took place this week was that Hillary Clinton started pivoting heavily toward the general election after her primary victory in Arizona. Note her public events since Tuesday: a counterterrorism speech at Stanford after the attacks in Belgium, and then a homeland security forum at the University of Southern California. And today, per NBC’s Monica Alba, Clinton surrogates like former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will hold a conference call contrasting her foreign-policy/national security approach with the Republican candidates. Now that pivot could be somewhat risky for Clinton, given that Bernie Sanders will likely close his delegate deficit in this weekend’s three Democratic contests. But the trends are unmistakable: Democrats are turning to the general, while Republicans are likely bracing themselves for another four months of what we saw this week.

Trump’s woman problem: 70% of female voters have a negative opinion of him

Trump and Cruz battling over their wives exposes one of Donald Trump’s chief weaknesses if he becomes the GOP nominee – his problem with women. As one of us wrote yesterday: “Trump’s favorability with women overall is a dismal 21 percent positive/ 70 (!) percent negative [in this month’s NBC/WSJ poll]. With men, it’s 28 percent positive/ 59 percent negative… In [a] hypothetical matchup, just 31 percent of women said they would chose Trump, while 58 percent said they would chose Clinton. That’s a net advantage of 27 points for Clinton. In 2012, Barack Obama bested Mitt Romney by far less – 55 percent to 44 percent – among female voters.” Let us repeat: Trump trails Hillary Clinton by 27 points among female voters in the NBC/WSJ poll, while Romney lost them to Obama by 11 points in 2012.

Help me, Obi Wan Cruz. You’re my only hope

It’s amazing to think how Ted Cruz – he of the 2013 government shutdown – has become the Republican establishment’s last best hope to stop Trump, especially after Jeb Bush endorsed him earlier this week. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza put it well: “If I told you at the start of the 2016 race that Mitt Romney would vote for Ted Cruz in the Utah caucuses and that Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham would endorse the Texas senator’s presidential campaign, you would have laughed. Probably loudly.”

Trump’s contested convention strategy

NBC’s Katy Tur and Ari Melber with the scoop: “While Trump publicly dismisses talk of a battle in Cleveland, he is quietly assembling a team of seasoned operatives to manage a contested convention. Their strategy, NBC has learned, is to convert delegates in the crucial 40 days between the end of the primaries and the convention - while girding for a floor fight in Cleveland if necessary.” Phase One, Tur and Melber write, consist of trying to persuade a fraction of the unbound delegates if Trump is just short of 1,237 delegates. “You still have a chance to put together 50 or 75 delegates to win on the first ballot,” Trump adviser Barry Bennett says, “that’s Phase One.” Phase Two is battling for a majority on a second ballot – by negotiating and horse trading. “It’s everything from, ‘Come campaign in our state,’ or ‘Do a fundraiser for a state party,’ or ‘Put stronger language about right to life in the platform,’” Bennett adds. “Or all kinds of crazy things that are important to whoever the delegate is.”

But is Cruz already outmaneuvering Trump in the delegate hunt?

So that’s Trump’s strategy. But here’s what’s already happening: Cruz’s campaign appears to be outmaneuvering Trump in the delegate hunt. The Wall Street Journal: “Donald Trump beat Sen. Ted Cruz earlier this month in Louisiana’s Republican presidential primary by 3.6 percentage points, but the Texan may wind up with as many as 10 more delegates from the state than the businessman. Mr. Cruz’s supporters also seized five of Louisiana’s six slots on the three powerful committees that will write the rules and platform at the Republican National Convention and mediate disputes over delegates’ eligibility this summer in Cleveland… Those panels would become critical in a contested convention, which would take place if no candidate wins a majority of delegates on the first ballot. The rules panel will determine which candidates are eligible to be nominated for president, the platform panel will write the party’s agenda, and the credentials panel will mediate disputes about which delegates can be seated.”

Breaking down the GOP delegate math: Here’s where the GOP delegate race currently stands:

  • Trump holds a 281-delegate lead over Cruz
  • Trump 749 (48% of delegates won)
  • Cruz 468 (30%)
  • Rubio 172 (11%)
  • Kasich 143 (9%)

Trump needs to win 54% of remaining delegates to reach 1237 magic number.

Cruz needs to win 85% of remaining delegates to reach 1237 magic number.

Kasich needs to win 122% of remaining delegates to reach 1237 magic number.

Sanders is expected to win – and win big – in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington this Saturday. But it likely won’t change the overall delegate math

As we mentioned above, Hillary Clinton is already making a strong pivot to the general election. But Bernie Sanders is likely to rack up some delegate gains in Saturday’s three contests in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington state. Indeed, there will be 142 delegates at stake this weekend – 16 in Alaska, 25 in Hawaii, and 101 in Washington state. Sanders even declared last night that he would have a “road to victory” if he performs well in these three contests, per NBC’s Danny Freeman. But here’s the reality: Even in Sanders nets, say, 30 to 40 delegates combined from these three contests, Clinton will still have a pledged of more than 250 delegates, which is larger than the advantage she held before March 15 (which was 213 delegates). That is Sanders’ math challenge, especially when all of the delegates are allocated proportionally. Speaking of, here is our current delegate math on the Democratic side:

In pledged delegates, Clinton holds a 294-delegate lead over Sanders

  • Clinton 1217 (57%)
  • Sanders 923 (43%)

In overall delegates, Clinton holds a 709-delegate lead over Sanders

  • Clinton 1657 (64%)
  • Sanders 948 (36%)

Clinton needs to win 34% of remaining delegates to hit 2383 magic number

Sanders needs to win 66% of remaining delegates to hit 2383 magic number

On the trail

Sanders campaigns in Oregon and Washington… And Ted Cruz makes three stops in Wisconsin.

First Read: As Republicans feud, Clinton pivots toward November