The impulse of people who watch elections is to declare them over too soon. We’ve been hearing over the past week that Hillary Clinton is guaranteed to be the Democratic presidential nominee and that Donald Trump is the sure winner of the Republican nod.
Both assessments may be premature.
On the Democratic side, Clinton certainly has a big lead. She’s won 577 delegates from primaries and caucuses, while Bernie Sanders has won 386. That gives the former secretary of state 24 percent of the 2,383 delegates she needs to be nominated. When you add superdelegates — Democratic elected officials and party leaders who are automatically given delegate seats — Clinton’s delegate lead explodes to 625 from 191, giving her nearly 44 percent of the votes needed to be nominated.
Politically, Clinton is the prohibitive favorite. Sanders now needs to win 60 percent of the remaining delegates to capture the nomination, while Clinton needs to win only 41 percent. But looming over the Democratic race is something that goes beyond delegate math. It’s an FBI investigation.
Most pundits do not believe Clinton will be indicted or even implicated in any criminal activity related to her emails. Even if the FBI finds that the law was broken, they believe the Justice Department won’t act.
But the decision to indict — be it political or legal — may not be such a slam dunk. Charles Lipson, the director of the Program on International Politics, Economics and Security at the University of Chicago, thinks it’s likely that the FBI will recommend felony charges. If that happens, he recently wrote, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, President Barack Obama and his closest adviser, Valerie Jarrett, “will have to decide which is worse, indicting their party’s presumptive nominee or risking their own Watergate?”
If legal action is taken before the July Democratic convention, the political question then becomes: Will Clinton stay in the fight, as Clintons usually do, or would she drop out of the race, effectively handing the nomination to Vice President Joe Biden or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren?
Of course, nobody knows.
On the Republican side, Trump has accumulated 319 delegates –– which is 47 percent of those selected so far. To secure the nomination, he now needs to scoop up 52 percent of the remaining delegates, which is easier than the 57 percent Ted Cruz needs or the 63 percent Marco Rubio would have to get.
While Trump is the clear frontrunner for the GOP nomination, he doesn’t have it locked up yet. In fact, there is ample evidence from Super Tuesday’s returns that Trump’s support has softened since his clumsy handling last weekend of the David Duke story that ignited a media firestorm.
Exit polls from Tuesday’s primaries indicated that late-deciders went against Trump. A comparison of pre-primary polls to the actual ballots cast show Trump’s slippage: The last two polls taken in Virginia gave Trump an average 14-point lead. On primary day, he won by a mere three points. The last two polls in Oklahoma gave Trump an average lead of 13 points. In actual voting, he lost by six points. The last three polls taken in Texas gave Cruz an average lead of five points. On primary day, Cruz beat Trump by 17 points.
Winning seven of the 11 states on the block this week was a big accomplishment for Trump, no question. But his performance did not swell his delegate lead the way many had expected. Of delegates selected on Tuesday, Trump won 237, compared with 325 for his combined opposition.
Nonetheless, if Trump wins the bulk of the states voting between now and March 15, especially the big home states of two rivals — Rubio’s Florida and John Kasich’s Ohio — he may then be unstoppable. In total, 714 Republican delegates are on the line during the next week and a half.
On Saturday, Louisiana goes to the polls with 46 Republican convention votes at stake. In addition, there are three GOP state caucuses this weekend. On Tuesday, voters in Michigan, Mississippi, Hawaii and Idaho go to the polls. On March 15, Florida, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri will vote.
If you had to bet today on who will become the standard bearers of the two major parties, put your money on Clinton and Trump. But if you can wait a while, do it.
An author and political analyst, Ron Faucheux publishes Lunch timePolitics.com, a daily newsletter on polling, and he runs Clarus Research Group, a nonpartisan market research firm that has conducted polling for The Advocate and WWL-TV. He is a former Louisiana legislator from New Orleans.