There's a weird insecurity that lingers around state parties in primary season, a political thirst for recognition and attention. Iowa and New Hampshire overdose on the stuff. South Carolina and Nevada this year hit the sweet spot of a lot of attention over a short period of time. States like California and New York, confident in themselves, are happy to go later on. Smaller states, though, are in something of a bind if they don't get in at the front end. How do you get candidates to pay attention to you if you're an Arkansas or a Minnesota?
Taking inspiration from the strategy employed by the Food Network and VH1, such states have a perennial solution: bundling, a.k.a. Super Tuesday -- a day where so many votes are at stake that it becomes important in and of itself, regardless of whether an individual state has much to offer.
This year, Arkansas and Minnesota are the remoras on the shark that is Texas, the hangers-on as the attention goes to the big state. This is a bit unfair -- Texas is five times the size of Minnesota but has only four times as many delegates -- but it's to be expected.
Texas also dwarfs Minnesota this year for another reason: What happens in the state on Tuesday could provide a great deal of insight into what happens next in the Republican nomination contest.
It seems likely that Ted Cruz will win his home state. A few polls showed Donald Trump close to him or ahead of him last week, but the average of a slew of recent polls shows Cruz with a pretty big lead. He's also spent a lot of time in the state over the past few days, in the way that losing armies entrench within their borders for one last stand.
A nine-point lead should be more than enough to feel secure as polls close. But the scale of that lead is important.
What counts in the nomination contest isn't winning states, it's winning delegates -- and Texas's delegate math means that a closer race will result in fewer delegates for Cruz, who needs them desperately.
Cruz won in Iowa on the strength of his turnout efforts in the state, something we can assume he's got locked down in Texas as well. (After all, he won a statewide election there three and a half years ago.) We can also assume that Trump -- who's surging nationally -- could overperform in the state based on the enthusiasm of his supporters. So let's assume that the nine-point gap between the two could move five points in either direction.
If Cruz gets 37.2 percent and Trump 28.2 percent -- where they are in the polling average -- Cruz would get 26 at-large delegates to Trump's 18.
If Cruz gets 39.7 percent to Trump's 25.7 (a 14-point gap), Cruz would get 27 to Trump's 17.
If Cruz gets 34.7 to Trump's 30.7 (a four-point gap), Cruz gets 24 to Trump's 20.
Context is important. Trump had a net gain of 50 delegates in South Carolina, and because it was winner-take-all, Cruz got zero. He can lose by 14 points in the vote and only be down 10 in the Texas at-large delegate count.
Most of Texas's delegates, though, are divvied up at the congressional district level. There are 36 congressional districts, each of which gives out three delegates. But here, the margins don't matter. If Cruz comes in first and Trump comes in second in all of them, Cruz gets two delegates in each of them to Trump's one. That's 72 delegates for Cruz and 36 for Trump, even if Cruz wins by 14 points. So the net gain for Cruz in his giant home state would be plus 46 delegates -- fewer than Trump won in South Carolina.
That's assuming Trump and Cruz are over the 20 percent threshold, which is a fair assumption. They need more than 20 percent statewide and/or in congressional districts to get any delegates. Which is the big question for Marco Rubio, as the graph above makes clear. If he doesn't get to 20 percent support, he doesn't get delegates. The end. If he barely gets across the 20 percent threshold and Trump and Cruz hit their polling average marks, Rubio would pick up nine at-large delegates to Trump's 15 and Cruz's 20 -- and no others, if the same margins play out at the congressional level.
The math is complicated, but the implications are pretty clear: Cruz probably isn't coming out of Texas with a massive delegate advantage, thanks to the way the rules are articulated.
What Texas reveals, more than tweaks to the delegate math, is how Cruz and Trump compete on the most favorable possible ground for Cruz. That the race is as close as it is is a problem for Cruz; if the enthusiasm for Trump's campaign makes the race much closer -- or if Trump were to win -- it's hard to see how Cruz could win anywhere else. Trump has already devoured Cruz's base of support nationally. A CNN/ORC poll released Monday showed Trump gaining ground with evangelical and tea party voters since a month ago.
If, instead, Cruz dominates Trump -- and particularly if he wins in one of the other southern states with similar demographics (a test he failed in South Carolina) -- it could suggest that Cruz's base of support is coming back home. He wouldn't win many delegates, still, but he'd be able to make the argument that he should continue in the race.
If Rubio can't hit the 20 percent mark and gets shut out of at-large delegates, he's got a problem. Cruz may only pick up 46 delegates on Trump in the scenario above -- but he'd gain 99 more than Rubio in the state. Even if Rubio does well in Arkansas and Minnesota (the latter of which could happen), he's not making up a 99-delegate gap. Even if he hits the 20 percent threshhold, the situation is bleak if he can't pass Trump, but a bit less so -- in part because it looks like more of a failure than coming away with something. (All other Super Tuesday states aside, the new delegate totals in the Rubio-hits-only-20-percent scenario above would leave Trump at 133, Cruz at 109 -- and Rubio at 25.)
The stakes for Trump are the lowest. Running close to Cruz in Texas is impressive, despite Trump's obvious desire never to lose. That's unless Cruz vastly outperforms Trump, which would raise new questions about his ability to get people to the polls. If that happens, though, the damage will probably be more widespread than just Texas.
Texas, in other words, is the state where there's a real fight. It's a state that shows how the battle for a few delegates can reveal a lot more about the state of the race than just a delegate total.
Which is not the case for Minnesota and Arkansas. But, hey. At least we're talking about them.