First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Last night’s “civil” GOP debate helped Trump
Individually, we get why Donald Trump’s rivals mostly backed away from challenging the GOP frontrunner in last night’s 12th -- and possibly final -- Republican debate. For Marco Rubio, who saw his fav/unfav drop eight points in the past month in the NBC/WSJ poll, the nicer debate allowed him to dial back from the nasty, personal insults that dominated the previous two gatherings. For Ted Cruz, the current status quo helps him get closer to his desired one-on-one matchup against Trump. And for John Kasich, he simply followed the same strategy he’s been using throughout this race. But collectively, backing off from challenging Trump only helps the frontrunner. Don’t get us wrong: Rubio took issue with Trump doubling down on his “Islam hates us” statement; Rubio and Cruz hit Trump over his support for normalization with Cuba; and Cruz again questioned Trump’s Republican credentials. But none of Trump’s rivals made the explicit case why the GOP frontrunner should be stopped. And folks, we are four days away from Trump having a firm grip on the Republican nomination by winning Florida and/or Ohio.
It’s on the candidate for setting the tone at his/her rallies
Now it’s time to turn to the video of that sucker punch at this week’s Trump rally, as well as the allegation (denied by the campaign) that a reporter was roughed up by Trump’s campaign manager. Asked about the sucker punch by NBC’s Katy Tur, Trump responded, “Things can happen, but we really want to be gentle, we want to be nice. Every once in a while, we have somebody that goes wild. I mean, you know, you have a protester that is out of order but we have not had a problem until this one.” Trump is maybe right that isn’t responsible for an individual’s actions. But it’s on the candidate to set the tone for his events. And if things are getting out of hand, it’s on the candidate to dial it back.
Why the 2016 primary season will likely last another three months
Both Trump and Hillary Clinton are leading their respective delegate races. But even among the rosiest of scenarios for both, it’s possible -- if not likely -- that they won’t reach their magic numbers to clinch their nominations until the final primaries on June 7. Donald Trump currently has a 95-delegate lead over his closest competitor Ted Cruz, 459-364, according to NBC’s count. If he wins both Florida and Ohio next week (and wins the other delegates at the percentage he’s currently getting), he will stand at 721 delegates, which is 516 short of the magic 1,237 number to clinch the nomination. So to reach 1,237 delegates BEFORE June 7 -- when California and four other states hold their primaries -- Trump would need to win about 80 percent of the delegates up for grabs between March 16-May 24. And that’s unlikely to happen, even under the best circumstances for Trump if he continues to have an opponent (say Cruz and/or John Kasich).
Clinton’s on path to hit magic number in May or June
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton leads Bernie Sanders by more than 600 delegates (when you include superdelegates), 1,194 to 569. That is 1,189 delegates short of the 2,383 needed to clinch the Democratic nomination. For Clinton to reach 2,383 BEFORE June, she would need to win 58 percent of the remaining pledged delegates -- her current pledged percentage against Sanders -- between now and May 17 (a total of 1,930 pledged delegates), as well as add to her superdelegate lead (with 200-plus undeclared superdelegates remaining). So clinching the nomination by May is doable for Clinton, but not if Sanders starts pulling off more surprises like his Michigan victory on Tuesday. If Clinton and Sanders split the remaining 1,930 pledged delegates 50-50, as well as the undecided superdelegates, Clinton won’t hit 2,383 until June. By the way, for Sanders to hit 2,383, he will need to win 60% of all remaining delegates, including superdelegates.
Obama: Don’t blame me for Trump
Asked at yesterday’s news conference if he bore any responsibility for Donald Trump’s rise as some critics have suggested, President Obama answered, “I have been blamed by Republicans for a lot of things, but being blamed for their primaries and who they’re selecting for their party is novel.” He added, “I don’t think that I was the one to prompt questions about my birth certificate, for example.” And: “So what you’re seeing within the Republican Party is, to some degree, all those efforts over a course of time creating an environment where somebody like a Donald Trump can thrive. He’s just doing more of what has been done for the last seven and a half years.” Also, don’t miss this troll effort by Obama during last night’s state dinner honoring Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau. “After all, where else could a boy born in Calgary grow up to run for President of the United States?” Obama asked.
On the trail
Hillary Clinton travels to California to attend Nancy Reagan’s funeral… Bill Clinton stumps in Kansas City, MO, Springfield, MO and Peoria, IL… Bernie Sanders holds rallies in Raleigh, NC, Toledo, OH, and Summit, IL… Donald Trump holds a press conference at 9:00 am ET before campaigning in St. Louis and Chicago… Ted Cruz campaigns in Florida and Illinois… Marco Rubio remains in Florida… And John Kasich stumps in Ohio.
Countdown to FL, IL, MO, NC, OH contests: 4 days