New Yorkers head to the polls today, with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton widely expected to win contests that will have much less impact than you’ve been led to believe. The simple fact is that Trump and Clinton might be able to turn the narrative of the campaign back in their respective favors tonight, but neither can win a victory that will give them meaningful separation from their nearest opponents in the only way that truly matters at this stage: delegate math.
Let’s look at the Republican side first. New York offers 95 delegates in a proportional format — 14 statewide, three apiece in the state’s 27 congressional districts — with two important caveats. First, if a candidate clears 50 percent either statewide or in any single district, he gets all the related delegates. Second, in the event delegates are available proportionally (because a candidate didn’t clear 50 percent), one must clear the 20 percent mark to win any statewide delegates and finish second in a given congressional district to win one of its delegates.
Those thresholds matter, because polls in the Empire State have consistently shown Trump just about the 50 percent mark statewide, with John Kasich just above the 20 percent level and Ted Cruz almost always just below it. If Trump underperforms his poll numbers by even a few points — which he has done on occasion in other primaries — he could leave the door open for Kasich and Cruz to claim a handful of delegates here and there. But that’ll matter more if both of those men clear the 20 percent bar. If they do that statewide and also keep Trump below a majority in the congressional districts, he could win everywhere by double-digits but come away with just two-thirds of the state’s delegates. That would be only an incremental improvement in his march toward 1,237 before Cleveland.
But let’s say Trump smashes the others and wins all 95 delegates. And then let’s say he sweeps the other East Coast states that vote next Tuesday, winning the maximum number of bound delegates possible (something like 115 delegates). He’d be getting mighty close at that point to 1,000 — only to watch the nominating contest move back toward the west, and regions where he’s been far less successful. Indiana, Nebraska, West Virginia, Oregon and Washington are the only states that vote in May, and based on the results in similar states we might expect Cruz to experience another resurgence in them. That would leave Trump needing perhaps a sweep in winner-take-all California on the final voting day of June 7 to clinch the nomination. And that will be awfully difficult, considering a) the vast majority of California’s delegates will be awarded by congressional district, and b) Cruz is nipping at his heels in polls of that state.
In short, the math just doesn’t support the hype surrounding New York’s GOP primary. In a race where voters have refused to rally ’round the leader, this fight appears destined to go the distance.
Now for the Democratic side. New York offers 247 pledged delegates, but they’ll be awarded proportionally. If I understand the rules correctly, the current polling average in New York would result in Clinton winning 131 pledged delegates and Bernie Sanders taking 116. The superdelegates will almost certainly pad Clinton’s lead, but once again Sanders will walk away with reason enough to stay in the contest and keep Clinton from turning her focus to this fall.
From there, we’ll get the same kind of path as on the GOP side, except that it’s far from clear Clinton will sweep the East Coast states the way Trump may. What polling we have shows Clinton ahead in Maryland and Pennsylvania, but with the race narrowing. And, like the Republicans, Democrats have not allowed Clinton’s lead to deter them from showing up for Sanders in a big way. If Clinton continues to pick up delegates at the same rate as I outlined above in New York, then even if she claims every remaining superdelegate she can’t clinch the nomination until mid-May at the earliest. She has to either pick up the pace or be willing to fight until the end, or darn close to it.