DeSantis and Haley need to win early, or it's over

Our new delegate benchmarks reveal each Republican's path to the nomination.

January 11, 2024, 11:14 AM

The 2024 Republican presidential primary is not currently competitive. Former President Donald Trump leads national primary polls with 60 percent of the vote, according to our average.* His closest rivals are 50 percentage points behind: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis polls in a distant second place with 12 percent of the vote, roughly tied with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. All other candidates are currently polling below 5 percent. According to my modeling, those numbers give Trump at least a 9-in-10 chance of winning the nomination, if past polling patterns hold. (Of course, history is not a complete guide to the future, so there's always a small chance something unprecedented will happen.)

But although I've just quoted national polls at you, the presidential primary will not play out nationally. Nor will it even, technically, be decided by popular vote. The GOP officially selects its nominee at the Republican National Convention in July, where delegates elected via nominating contests in each state and territory will cast ballots for their respective candidates. So in order to know who is winning, you have to track how many delegates each candidate has relative to what they need to be on pace to win the nomination.

At the end of the day, every candidate needs a majority of delegates — 1,215 out of 2,429 — to win. But their paths to get there are different. Candidates whose base is evangelical voters, for example, need to do well in states with a lot of evangelical voters. Moderate candidates need to do well in states with more moderate electorates. As a result, one way to figure out whether a candidate is likely to win a majority of delegates is to look at who ends up winning more than they "should" have, on a contest-by-contest basis, based on those patterns.

That's where our new Republican delegate benchmark tracker comes in. Based on polling and demographic and political characteristics in each state and territory, we've calculated how many delegates Trump, DeSantis, Haley and the other GOP candidates need to win in each contest to be on track for the nomination. Throughout the primary, we'll be tracking whether each candidate has hit or fallen short of their delegate benchmark in each jurisdiction. As a result, it'll quickly become apparent who is on pace for the nomination — and who is falling perilously behind.

DeSantis and Haley need a strong early start; Trump is strongest after Super Tuesday

Let's take a quick look at these benchmarks for key contests. In the Iowa caucuses next Monday, 40 delegates are up for grabs, and DeSantis and Haley need to win 22 and 26, respectively, in order to be on track for an overall delegate majority. If that sounds like a lot, that's because it is! Iowa allocates delegates to candidates proportionally, so these numbers effectively say DeSantis and Haley need to win 55 percent and 65 percent of the vote, respectively. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire on Jan. 23, our benchmarks say that DeSantis needs to win 7 of 22 delegates (or 32 percent of the vote) and Haley has to win 22 (100 percent!).**

Such strong performances are, of course, unlikely — to put it mildly. But the reason DeSantis and Haley have such high benchmarks early on is that we expect them to perform worse in later-voting states. Or, to put it differently, Trump is expected to run the table after Super Tuesday. Of the 197 delegates available in January and February, our model says Trump needs to win just 53 (27 percent) of them to be on track to win the nomination. (DeSantis and Haley need 62 percent and 76 percent, respectively.) After that, in the first four days of March, 134 delegates will be awarded, of which Trump needs 49, or 37 percent.

Things really take off on March 5 — Super Tuesday. Of the 874 delegates that will be up for grabs that day, we estimate Trump will need 474 (54 percent) to be on track for the GOP nod. And after March 5, there will be 1,082 bound delegates available the rest of the way. We reckon Trump will need 640, or 59 percent, of them, reflecting his current strength in polls of later-voting states.

It is possible for Trump to hit such numbers because of the winner-take-all nature of most GOP primary contests. Out of 52 total contests with delegates up for grabs,*** as many as 38 could award all their delegates to the winner of the primary, caucus or convention. In some states, such as Florida, the plurality winner simply takes all of the state's delegates; in others, such as Texas, delegates are allocated proportionally unless a candidate wins a majority of the vote statewide, in which case they earn all of the state's delegates.

Trump will be tougher to beat than his polls suggest

So, how does Trump's national polling lead translate to delegates? In a word, commandingly. If all states voted today, our model suggests the former president would win roughly 2,210 delegates out of the total 2,287 that could possibly be allocated to him. That is nearly 97 percent. We estimate he would hit the majority threshold in every single winner-takes-all state or territory, thus taking all of their delegates, and would win a minimum of 52 percent of delegates in contests with proportional rules. He would perform worst in Iowa and New Hampshire, but even in those states we'd still expect him to snag a majority of delegates.

If, somehow, DeSantis and Haley manage to exceed expectations in the coming weeks, that will affect their benchmarks in two ways. First, it will cement their performance in contests that have already happened; what's done is done, and we can't reallocate won delegates to other candidates in simulations where they've already been taken. More importantly, their upsets would give them a boost in the polls, which in turn will shape our projections for how many delegates they need to win in future states. We will update our tracker with new data weekly, or whenever we get a big dump of new delegate estimates from our partners at ABC News.

Footnotes

*All numbers are as of Jan. 11 at 11 a.m. Eastern.

**New Hampshire awards delegates only to candidates who win at least 10 percent of the vote. That means Haley's 100 percent implied vote benchmark is only among candidates who cross that threshold. (This would still be quite a feat.)

***There are 56 states and territories (including the District of Columbia), but Guam, Montana, New Mexico and South Dakota will not allocate any delegates based on the results of their primaries or caucuses.