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Why Donald Trump is (still) the GOP front-runner

Trump is benefiting from the big GOP field. Joe Raedle/Getty Images/Getty

There is a robust debate in academia about whether politics should be taught as an art or a science. But in the next six months of the presidential race, it is all about math.

Probably the most discussed question in the 2016 presidential campaign is whether New York businessman Donald Trump could actually become the Republican nominee. Many of the arguments about Trump miss the point.

Yes, Trump is leading or statistically tied in all early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Yes, he is also a dominant front-runner in national polls. Yes, Trump has exploited the fractured relationship between Republican Party elites and the its conservative grass roots. Sure, he tends to do well with white, working-class Americans, particularly from rural areas, who were harmed during the last recession and (correctly) feel like they are financially stuck while the rich get richer.


But the biggest reason Trump is the front-runner isn’t his celebrity, his catchy slogan, or the incessant news coverage of him. Trump is the front-runner because there are so many other people running for president. He currently has 11 opponents for the Republican nomination.

Now to the basic math. Trump consistently has around 35 percent support in polls. In New Hampshire, this means that he has a nearly 20-point lead over the rest of the field. This sounds insurmountable, right? But this number also means 65 percent of Republicans aren’t backing Trump. Some of this 65 percent are backing someone else, some haven’t made up their minds — either way, they aren’t with him.

If the Republican race were immediately to become a two-person contest between Trump and someone else, it is logical to assume that the other person would have more support.

Consider the dilemma of the so-called establishment candidates. In the latest Monmouth University poll of New Hampshire Republicans, Trump got 32 percent. But if you add up the totals of similarly-minded candidates like US Senator Marco Rubio (12 percent), Ohio Governor John Kasich (14 percent), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (8 percent), and former Florida governor Jeb Bush (4 percent), the combined total is 38 percent.


Back in September, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker understood the math and issued a call to action. When he dropped out of the presidential race, he asked for others to join him in an effort to stop Trump.

“Today, I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the race so that a positive conservative message can rise to the top of the field. With that in mind, I will suspend my campaign immediately,” Walker said. “I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same so the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive conservative alternative to the current front-runner.”

The math gets more complicated — and interesting — after the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.

In the first two weeks of March, nearly half of the nation — including Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine — will hold either a primary or caucus in which delegates are distributed proportionally. Unless all but one or two candidates are significant factors, Trump could rack up delegates in this period taking full advantage of the splintered anti-Trump vote.

If Republicans want to defeat Trump, then many of the candidates will have to make some tough decisions before March 1.


Along the same lines, the Democratic contest is also about math. This week polls show US Senator Bernie Sanders statistically tied or ahead of former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders’ success aside, it’s easy to see how Vice President Joe Biden could have split up the anti-Clinton vote and caused a lot of problems for the Vermonter.

Trump’s rise marks been an important moment in American politics, and the seeds were sown for his ascendancy decades ago. But his position as the dominant Republican front-runner has largely been a factor of a huge Republican field splitting up the vote — much more so than it has been about an anti-immigrant or anti-elite sentiment.

It’s not been about whether anyone needs to learn English, but about how best to do the math.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell, or subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign at bostonglobe.com/groundgame.