As Donald Trump attempts to box out his rivals for the Republican nomination and prevent a contested convention, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is leveraging his campaign's superior organization to undermine the GOP front-runner's efforts.
With more than half of delegates already distributed, Trump, the billionaire businessman, may fall short of the 1,237 delegates necessary to secure the nomination outright by the last GOP primary on June 7.
The nominating contests are often portrayed as a numbers game: A candidate can collect delegates en masse by winning the popular vote in a state, or a few at a time in states where delegates are apportioned. But in a contested convention, the few thousand people who serve in those roles – chosen by a complicated process that differs from state to state – will hold the power to select the GOP nominee.
See who's most likely to become the next president, according to the latest power rankings:
Presidential power rankings, 3/15
Trump holds delegate lead, but Cruz maneuvers to outflank him at convention
6. Marco Rubio, Republican, senator from Florida
Rubio's fortunes have fallen by the wayside over the past two weeks, and he has fallen the most in our rankings.
He now faces a virtual must-win in his home state that he seems destined to lose.
Polls show Rubio down nearly 20 points to Trump in Florida, a state he once guaranteed he would win. If he doesn't pull off what would, at this point, be a historic comeback, he would face mounting pressure from Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and possibly Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, to exit the race.
National polling average among Republican voters: 18% (3rd)
Super Tuesday state average: 12.9% (4th)
Last month: 3
(Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images)
5. John Kasich, Republican, Ohio governor
Kasich faces a similar challenge as Rubio: The primary in his home state of Ohio on Tuesday is do or die.
Unlike Rubio, he appears to have a shot at knocking off Trump in that state. Polls have shown him ahead of the mogul by about 4 points heading into the Buckeye State's primary as he tries to become the Republican establishment's latest (and perhaps final) weapon against Trump.
Those who talk up Kasich say he is a successful governor of a swing state with a record to point to, and clear bipartisan appeal. He also has a plethora of experience from nearly two decades in Congress, including foreign-policy areas and his time as chair of the US House budget committee.
But that same bipartisan brand has hurt Kasich with the GOP base. He is to the left of most GOP candidates on immigration reform, and he expanded the federal Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act — two issues that could doom him with hard-line conservatives.
National polling average among Republican voters: 12% (4th)
March 15 state average: 19% (3rd)
Last month: 6
(Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
4. Bernie Sanders, Democrat, senator from Vermont
Sanders not only upset Clinton in New Hampshire last month; he also achieved a gigantic, 22-point victory, a feat unthinkable to observers months ago.
He suffered a small setback in Nevada and a huge one in South Carolina, where he lost to the former secretary of state by nearly 50 points. Then he shocked again with an upset win in Michigan.
Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly clear that Sanders' path to the nomination is tightening. He faces challenging delegate math ahead, needing to win about 54% of the remaining pledged delegates to overtake Clinton.
National polling average among Democratic voters: 39.6% (2nd)
March 15 state average: 38.3% (2nd)
Last month: 5
(Photo credit MICHAEL B. THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images)
3. Ted Cruz, Republican, senator from Texas
Cruz has mounted something of a comeback over the past two weeks, becoming clearly best positioned among the Republican field to take on Trump.
He won three contests on Super Tuesday, two more on March 5, and Idaho's contest last week. The map gets more challenging after Tuesday, with April dominated by Northeast and mid-Atlantic contests more favorable to Trump.
Still, Cruz inspires a flood of enthusiasm among the GOP base, and he may be the best-positioned candidate from within the political sphere to back up the notion that he's not a typical politician, that he is the outsider the base wants despite his day job in Washington.
And his eye-popping fund-raising numbers mean he could be in the race for the long haul — perhaps all the way to the convention.
National polling average among Republican voters: 21.8% (2nd)
March 15 state average: 23.2% (2nd)
Last month: 4
(Photo by Charles Ledford/Getty Images)
2. Donald Trump, Republican, businessman
Trump has lit the political world on fire since his entry into the race last summer, and he has showed surprising staying power. We're now on month No. 10 of "The Trump Show."
He has won 15 of the 25 decided contests, something unthinkable when he entered the race in June. And he appears closer than ever to finishing off his rivals: With wins in Florida and Ohio, he could amass more than 160 delegates and would see a clear path to the 1,237 majority needed to clinch the nomination.
There's a clear appetite among Republican primary voters for someone like Trump, who entered the race to controversy surrounding his position on illegal immigration. Business Insider discovered more of that when we followed him on the trail for a week.
National polling average among Republican voters: 36% (1st)
March 15 state average: 38% (1st)
Last month: 2
(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
1. Hillary Clinton, Democrat, former secretary of state
She suffered a setback last week in Michigan but still ended that night with more pledged delegates than Sanders. The delegate math is on her side going forward.
The long-presumed Democratic nominee, Clinton has been a shakier-than-expected candidate. But she has a clear look at the nomination, and she would enter the general election with a slight advantage over the likely Republican nominee of Trump or Cruz.
National polling average among Democratic voters: 51% (1st) March 15 state average: 54.3% (1st)
Last month: 1
(Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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Several hundred delegates will head into the July 18 Republican National Convention uncommitted, either because they were initially pledged to a candidate that has since dropped out of the race, or because they're from states like Colorado and North Dakota that don't require their delegates to commit to a candidate.
All three remaining candidates are assiduously courting those unbound delegates, and their success could determine whether Trump, who has a wide lead over Cruz in the delegate count, sews up the nomination on the first ballot in Cleveland, or whether the convention turns into a contested free-for-all.
For Trump, maximizing his pledged delegates as the remaining states cast their primary votes could make all the difference. Despite his lead, most analysts calculate he'll end up just shy of the 1,237 delegates, based on his prior performance in earlier contests and the electoral profiles of the states still to come in the campaign.
Barry Bennett, a former Ben Carson operative now in charge of Trump's delegate strategy, told NBC News that the campaign has already rolled out a massive effort to reach unpledged delegates and secure commitments from them in advance.
"You've got 40 days between the last primary and the convention to go woo the appropriate number of unbound delegates," Bennett said. "You still have a chance to put together 50 or 75 delegates to win on the first ballot. That's Phase One."
Imperiling this strategy is the convoluted way the state parties choose the delegates to send to Cleveland. Many states have multiple selection levels at which potential delegates are winnowed down from a pool – chosen from lists submitted by the candidates and active members of the local party – into the representatives who will eventually travel to Cleveland.
Trump's campaign is working to shore up commitments from the delegates they believe they already have, which would be crucial to building support in the event of a second ballot, when many delegates are free to switch their votes.
But Cruz, whose campaign has shown a knack for targeting small pockets of voters in the primaries to help drive up his delegate total, is putting its knowledge of the inside game to good use.
In at least two states, Louisiana and Georgia, Team Cruz has improved its position by getting its people assigned to key committees that could play an outsize role in an open convention.
On Thursday, Cruz's Louisiana supporters secured five of the state's six spots on the three committees responsible for writing the convention rules, shaping the party platform, and handling eligibility disputes in Cleveland, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Cruz and Trump both netted 18 delegates in the state's March 5 primary, in which Trump edged Cruz by 3.6 percentage points.
But the five delegates Florida Sen. Marco Rubio earned are free to back another candidate, and state party officials say they expect them to line up behind Cruz in July. If the state's five unbound delegates follow suit, it could hand Cruz a 10-delegate advantage over Trump, even though he lost the state.
A similar scenario in Coweta County, Georgia, last week exposed the relative inexperience of Trump's delegate team.
Trump won the county by 12 points in the Super Tuesday primary, but Cruz's supporters had secured a majority of positions to the county convention during precinct meetings before the voting even took place.
Cruz's allies from the county will outnumber Trump's about 9-to-1 at the district convention on April 16, and while those who end up in Cleveland will still be bound proportionally to Trump, they are almost certain to switch to Cruz in the case of a second ballot.
Nevertheless, Trump has expressed confidence in his ability to clinch the nomination by June, and will almost certainly come into the convention with more pledged delegates than either Cruz or Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who's running a distant third to Trump and Cruz.
Trump threatened "riots" if convention rules end up allowing another candidate to swipe the nomination from him, a statement he later walked back. But in the end, if that happens, he may have no one but himself – and his lack of a robust campaign organization – to blame.