ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Primary voters in five states hit the polls today in the 2016 race for president, and here by my side in the studio again as we cover results over the next few hours is my co-host for the evening, Rachel Martin.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Hello, my friend.
SHAPIRO: Hello, my friend.
MARTIN: Here we go again. Polls have now closed in North Carolina and Ohio. Polls will be closing in minutes in Florida, Missouri and Illinois. Joining us in studio now - NPR's Mara Liasson, NPR's Don Gonyea and NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, I'll start with you. What do we know at this point?
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Well, we don't know a whole heck of a lot yet at this point. We've got - the polls closed at 7:30 in North Carolina and Ohio. We're waiting for...
MARTIN: What do you wish you knew at this point?
MONTANARO: I wish I knew everything at this point.
MONTANARO: We can say that we know that no matter what happens tonight, this race looks like it's going to go on for some time, for some months. If you just look at the delegate math, no one is going to have enough delegates by probably June 7 when the very last contest goes on the Republican side because just how this will play out over that period of time.
But tonight is a really important night to set the direction. It could be a very pivotal night on either side. If Donald Trump were to run the table, you know where it's going. If Hillary Clinton winds up, you know, on the defensive again in some of these Midwestern states, there's - it's very difficult to see where she could win in a whole lot of places over the next six weeks against Bernie Sanders.
SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the Republican race. Don Gonyea, what are the states that are most important for the folks who are looking to unseat Donald Trump as the frontrunner tonight?
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Certainly John Kasich is the sitting governor in Ohio. He's popular in Ohio. And John Kasich is the underdog everywhere, right? In fact, sometimes he doesn't even qualify as an underdog he's so far down.
In Ohio, he expects to win. He needs to win, but the polls are very close. But he needs to win to go forward - similar story for Marco Rubio, the senator in Florida. He's protecting his home state turf as well. Except with polls there, he has been way down, and it looks, you know - it's problematic for him going forward as well.
SHAPIRO: And interestingly, on the Republican side, if there was any single challenger who looks like he could be second to Donald Trump, it's Ted Cruz, who, tonight, does not look primed to win any of the states.
GONYEA: No. He'd probably like to finish, you know, second place in most places, maybe sneak a win in in some place like Missouri. We'll see. But no, Cruz is not there to rack up big wins tonight. But in the states that are not winner-take-all, he can still collect a good number of delegates tonight.
MARTIN: And that's what he's expecting - right? - like, the - Mara, do you want to chime in here?
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: That is exactly what Ted Cruz is doing tonight. He's on the hunt for delegates, not for wins. And he is No. 2 to Donald Trump. He's been making the case very strongly to Republicans up and down from the establishment to the grassroots that if you don't want Donald Trump, he is the alternative.
And he's also been organizing on the delegate level just in case we do go to a convention where Donald Trump doesn't get 1,237 delegates on the first ballot. Ted Cruz wants to be there when the delegates are unbound, so he's trying to get commitments from delegates now because after the first ballot, they're not bound to the state results. They can vote for whoever they want, and he wants to be that person.
MARTIN: Are you, Don, also hearing rumblings that campaigns are starting to think about some kind of contested convention as a probability?
GONYEA: Oh, absolutely. And John Kasich talks about it openly. I mean, it is his path to the nomination (laughter). Now...
SHAPIRO: We even saw Rubio tell his Ohio supporters to vote for Kasich in Ohio (inaudible).
GONYEA: Exactly because anything that can stop Trump in any given state - and it's the argument that Mitt Romney has been making, you know, in his speech last week and on the campaign trail in Ohio this week. And Kasich says, look; the rules are the rules. If you don't have the number of votes going in, then guess what? The convention sorts it out. And he hopes the convention would turn to him.
SHAPIRO: Domenico, let's talk a little bit about the rules 'cause you have five big states voting tonight. Rules are different between Republicans and Democrats. We've heard Ohio and Florida are winner-take-all for Republicans, making them hugely important. But there are other states, and for the Democrats, these are not winner-take-all. What does the map look like tonight?
MONTANARO: Well - and we should say that in Florida and - in Florida already, some of the vote has come in because polls - many polls in the state close at 7 o'clock. You wait until 8 o'clock for the final results. And Donald Trump is far ahead of Marco Rubio at this point. And if that were to hold, you're looking at Donald Trump being able to pick up all 99 delegates in Florida because tonight is the first night in which the Republican rules changed.
Everything before tonight was proportional. They handed out their delegates on a proportional basis based on how you voted statewide. Tonight in Florida and Ohio, those are 165 delegates between those two states that are winner-take-all. After tonight, there are nine more states that vote that way. Some of the other states, you know, are hybrids, proportional winner-take-all by congressional district and all the rest.
Democrats, on the other hand, are all proportional, which makes it very difficult. Just imagine a scenario in which there were states like California and New York, New Jersey where they were winner-take-all on the Democratic side. You - to win 99 - a net of 99 delegates in the Democratic race would take months which is why this race is thought to potentially drag out for as long as it could.
MARTIN: Domenico, we'd been hearing for weeks that Donald Trump was up by double digits in Florida. What was the case this morning? What did we go into hear?
MONTANARO: Well, it's pretty amazing. I mean, we - pretty much the way the polls had had it is what you're seeing right now, where Donald Trump, according to Associated Press, is up 46 to 27 over Marco Rubio with some third of the vote in. And that's fairly close to where the polls had had this race.
You know, it's different in Ohio, and Don could, you know, talk about the fact that John Kasich is a governor. And there's a big difference for governors who are able to mechanize. And Florida is also a different case because it's so many different markets. It's not quite the same kind of community that Ohio is.
GONYEA: Ohio obviously has, like, different media markets - Cincinnati and Cleveland and Columbus. But John Kasich has people in every county, in every precinct. They just helped him get reelected, you know, in the midterms.
MONTANARO: Right. Marco...
MARTIN: He's got the architecture in (inaudible).
GONYEA: He's got the architecture, and he seems to be really effective in mobilizing that, at least at this point.
LIASSON: And the Ohio Republican Party endorsed him, and in Florida, that didn't happen.
MONTANARO: And Marco...
LIASSON: They stayed neutral.
MONTANARO: And Marco Rubio is a freshman senator. Let's face it. He didn't face real action so quickly. And Donald Trump has made the case that Marco Rubio (laughter) maybe isn't as liked as he was when he first started.
SHAPIRO: Mara, on the Democratic side, how likely is it that in one of these Midwestern states voting today we will see the kind of Bernie Sanders upset that we saw in Michigan last week?
LIASSON: Well, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri - those Democratic primary electorates aren't that different from Michigan. And he's using the same anti-trade deal message that worked for him in Michigan when he won that upset victory. But as Domenico just explained, last week when he won Michigan, he ended up with only seven more delegates from Michigan than Hillary Clinton.
MONTANARO: And lost the night.
LIASSON: And lost the night, but because the Democratic contests are proportional, she keeps on adding to her delegate lead. So she wins the math, but he wins the narrative - the story of the night - because he's this surging, populist campaign that can't - she cannot put him away. Primary after primary, he's still there, which means it probably will go on a lot longer, but it's still hard to see, mathematically, how he catches up to her...
MONTANARO: Well, if you get to the...
LIASSON: ...Even if he wins.
MONTANARO: But if you - there is a path. I mean, it's a...
LIASSON: Yeah, there's a path.
MONTANARO: ...Narrow path. They know that. But he'd have to win in big places like New York...
LIASSON: By big margins.
MONTANARO: By fairly big margins. I mean, but in a...
MARTIN: So much to talk about.
SHAPIRO: Big stories playing out tonight as voters go to the polls in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri and Illinois. Polls are already closing. We'll have lots more results and live coverage at elections.npr.org. Stay with us. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.