Initial thoughts on Super Tuesday: Republicans. Major American parties are alliances of disparate interests. They work effectively when their coalition partners can find enough common ground to put aside their differences, and they fail when differences stand in the way of compromise. With the radicalization of a significant element of the Republican Party during the Obama years, it’s reasonable to ask whether Republicans have become two incompatible groups sharing one label: a traditional party that seeks to govern by conservative principles and a reactionary party determined to shut everything down. Evidence of this split has been apparent for several years in the inability of the Republican party-in-government to come to terms with itself. It is why Marco Rubio’s compromise immigration plan was blocked by House Republicans and why former Speaker John Boehner had to rely on a grand coalition of Democrats and non-reactionary Republicans whenever he was faced with must-pass legislation opposed by his reactionary caucus.
No place was this division more apparent on Tuesday than in Virginia, where Marco Rubio’s surprisingly strong showing was built in establishment-friendly areas of suburban Washington, while Trump dominated outside the Beltway. Now that Super Tuesday has reaffirmed Donald Trump’s dominant position in the Republican presidential contest, the reactionary/conservative division has finally been given full expression by the party in the electorate, with the reactionaries demonstrating the most fervor and unity. Conservative voters remained divided as Cruz showed strength in his home state of Texas and neighboring Oklahoma, Rubio won Minnesota and Kasich performed impressively in Vermont. But Trump was competitive everywhere. The ramifications for this type of split are profound, and we are seeing them in the emerging division between Republican elites who are rallying around the frontrunner and those who want to run as far away as possible. As Trump marches closer to the nomination, the pressure on establishment Republicans to choose sides will become intense, forcing elites to side with either the conservatives or the reactionaries. It’s hard to see how this happens under one tent. Much more on this in the days and weeks ahead.
Initial thoughts on Super Tuesday: Democrats. Feasting on a map that played to her strength with voters of color, Hillary Clinton surged ahead in the delegate count on Super Tuesday and moved into a commanding position in the race for the Democratic nomination. Her big victory was expected following her outsized win in South Carolina. She swept through the South like a tornado, winning in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia by margins of 30-40 points. Bernie Sanders contested five states and won four, losing narrowly in Massachusetts. With 70% of the delegates still to be selected, Sanders performed well enough to continue to challenge Clinton, even as Clinton pivots to a general election footing by taking aim at Donald Trump rather than Sanders. But Sanders is a movement candidate running a campaign to change the political process, and on that score his performance tonight should be understood in more than horserace terms.
Sanders has defined the contours of the race with his clear messaging about economic inequality, and the longer he runs the more he will exert a gravitational pull on Clinton and the Democratic Party. Before the February 4th debate, can anyone seriously remember the last time two leading presidential candidates argued over who was a better progressive? Hillary may not have convinced Bernie’s supporters that she is as committed as he to reining in the abuses of Wall Street, but there they both were embracing the progressive label. This is pre-Reagan era talk, from before a time when liberal was an epithet, and it speaks to a longterm and fundamental shift in the Democratic Party brought to the surface by the Sanders campaign. In state after state, a larger share of Democratic primary voters report being liberal or very liberal compared with eight years ago. Exit polls suggest that trend continued in every state tonight. It is only a matter of time before a majority of Democrats are self-described liberals.
Should Clinton become the nominee and try to consolidate the party for a fall run, she will need to figure out how to appeal to the energized voters Sanders has turned out. This remains at best a work in progress. So we should watch how Sanders conducts his campaign from this point on, and whether his continued presence helps Clinton learn how to speak to a base that looks little like it did in the 1990s. It may or may not turn out to be Sanders’ year, but he is leaving a lasting mark on the Democratic Party.
We’re adding an interactive map feature at Wolves and Sheep courtesy of our in-house graphics designer Sharon Machlis. During the election season, Sharon will be providing visual representations of abstract concepts to accompany our narrative understanding of events. The two maps below portray the states in play on Tuesday March 1 for the Democrats and Republicans. Clicking on the states tells you how many delegates are up for grabs. The darker states award more delegates.
Two things jump out: Super Tuesday is the day the campaigns pivot from the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire to the wholesale politics that will characterize the balance of the primary race; and while it is billed as a national primary day, most of the action is in the South. In fact, within two weeks of Super Tuesday the entire South will have voted, making it the first region to weigh in and offering a tremendous momentum advantage to candidates with strength there.
If Saturday’s South Carolina results are any indication – and they are – Hillary Clinton stands to accumulate a significant delegate advantage in primaries across the deep South, driven by her strength among African American voters. Bernie Sanders will look to be competitive in the northern tier of states, notably Massachusetts, Minnesota, Colorado and his native Vermont (where we could declare him the winner today). His challenge will be to win these states while holding Clinton’s overall delegate advantage to a manageable number.
On the Republican side, Super Tuesday’s Southern tilt would be expected to give a boost to Ted Cruz, but if Donald Trump continues to cut into Cruz’ evangelical support like he did in South Carolina, Cruz is going to have difficulty winning outside his home state of Texas. But Texas is the big prize on Tuesday with 155 delegates at stake, and Cruz Read More
Following Donald Trump’s resounding double-digit victories in Nevada, South Carolina and New Hampshire, party leaders are urging Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and John Kasich to drop out in order to clear the field for the inevitable nominee and allow him to concentrate his fire on Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, his two potential general election opponents.
Wait. They’re not?
The whole point of compressing the primary schedule and backloading it with winner-take-all contests was to accelerate the momentum of a nominee with enough appeal to win in New England, the deep South and the Mountain West, then permit him to seal the nomination early and pivot to the general election. The Republican Party has found that candidate. So where are the cries for everyone else to stand down? If Rubio had just completed Trump’s trifecta, every Republican within earshot would be saying it’s over, and the media narrative would write itself.
Trump, however, poses a grave threat to the Republican Party that goes well beyond his prospects in the general election. Short on ideological fealty and long on ego, Trump as standard-bearer threatens to reshape the party in his image, to the lasting detriment of economic and social conservatives. Trump has been all over the place on gut-level issues like abortion and gay rights and has shown no inclination to shrink the federal government to the size where you can drown it in a bathtub. But what he lacks in issue consistency he more than makes up for in his ability to give voice to the darkest inclinations of a reactionary id. We don’t know what a Trump administration would do about health insurance costs, but it isn’t too difficult to imagine what his inaugural address will sound like.
For Republicans, this would be a bitterly ironic conclusion to the post-Romney period, which began promisingly enough with a report of the RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project – widely referred to as the “autopsy” report – designed to ameliorate the unpleasant radical edges of Obama-era conservatism and liberate the party to compete in a 21st century electorate by embracing a tone of inclusion, tolerance and respect for emerging groups. But the party’s most vocal stakeholders responded to a more nativist message, so party leaders jettisoned the tolerance and accrued Read More
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz came out swinging at Donald Trump in Thursday’s brawl of a Republican debate, giving worried party leaders what they have been craving, but at the cost of allowing Trump to define the party in his image. Much more on this later today.
Last weekend, I joked that Jeb Bush achieved half his goal of “losing the primary” to “win the general” election. Actually, what he said is that the Republican Party needs to nominate someone who can “lose the primary to win the general election without violating [his] principles.” At face value this statement is just plain silly because, as Jeb acknowledged by suspending his campaign, when you lose the primary you don’t get to compete in the general. But underneath his contorted logic, Bush was articulating the core Republican dilemma: how can a traditional conservative win the party’s nomination without succumbing to the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racially insensitive sentiment prevalent among the party base and avoid setting himself up for failure with a diverse general electorate? Jeb discovered the hard way that he can’t.
And he wasn’t alone. For months, Republican elites have been at a loss to figure out how to counter Donald Trump’s appeal to the Republican rank-and-file. Waiting for him to fade under the weight of his political inexperience has proved futile. Painting him as a liberal hasn’t worked because Trump’s appeal is not ideological. Money, normally the can’t-fail political resource of choice, has proved ineffectual. No one threw more money at the problem than Bush.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who in her state’s primary put her full weight behind Marco Rubio’s successful quest to become first-among-also-rans, diagnosed the problem last fall:
“You have a lot of people who were told that if we got a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate, then life was gonna be great,” she said in an interview Thursday. “What you’re seeing is that people are angry. Where’s the change? Why aren’t there bills on the president’s desk every day for him to veto? They’re saying, ‘Look, what you said would happen didn’t happen, so we’re going to go with anyone who hasn’t been elected.’ ”
This sense of betrayal is understandable, considering the same party leaders desperate to stop Trump have Read More
With the departure of Jeb Bush from the Republican field and Marco Rubio’s top-tier finish in South Carolina, the path is now clear for Rubio to claim the establishment mantle, not because he is a particularly strong candidate but because he will be the last acceptable candidate standing after every other option fails. Rubio’s disastrous New Hampshire debate performance and his subsequent lackluster primary showing would have meant the end of his candidacy in a typical year. Instead, he was able to rally the support of the South Carolina Republican establishment because there was no other realistic place for them to turn.
A peculiar pattern started to develop last fall, as once-heralded prospects exited the stage while inexperienced candidates soared. Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal – all governors of states with significant populations, all touted at one point as the future of the party – were out before the balloting began, while Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina took turns dominating the conversation. Then Chris Christie fell after New Hampshire and Bush exited tonight. Kasich is finding little traction outside New Hampshire; when he leaves, a field once crowded with governors will have none. Who else is left as an alternative to Trump and Ted Cruz?
Choosing a candidate because he is the least worst choice is as problematic as selecting a candidate based on electability, because eventually the flaws that prevented that candidate from emerging on the merits will make themselves known. In the near-term, establishment Republicans will get the winnowing they were denied after New Hampshire, setting up a three-way race with a true believer (Cruz) and a mouthpiece for the angry and disaffected (Trump). This is a necessary but far from sufficient condition for preventing a Trump or Cruz nomination. Rubio remains vulnerable on immigration, the animating issue for a large portion of the Republican electorate, and he can look frightened and weak when attacked. At some point it will be helpful for him to actually win somewhere. And let’s not forget that Donald Trump won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries by double-digit margins. Let me say that again: Donald Trump won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries by double-digit margins. Had Rubio pulled this off, the calls for everyone else to withdraw would be deafening.
Three-way contests can be unpredictable, but after many inconclusive months the contours of the Republican race are starting to take shape. The real test of how well the Republican Party can endure its own nominating process will be what happens when the sizable but incompatible factions represented by these candidates have to come together in the end.
Following Hillary Clinton’s overwhelming defeat in New Hampshire, a loss in Nevada would have unleashed a torrent of potentially self-fulfilling stories about her failings as a candidate. That she was able to escape Nevada with a 6-point victory protected her campaign from a downward spiral just as the primary calendar turns friendly. That she was expected to run away with Nevada just a few weeks ago mattered little, because Bernie Sanders made a strong play for the state and appeared to be within reach of winning. Expectations are funny things.
If Sanders demonstrated in New Hampshire that he could convert crowds at large rallies into voters, Nevada illustrated the challenges he faces in a more diverse electorate. Everything accelerates once the candidates leave behind the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire, leaving little time to change minds, and Sanders – like the broader progressive movement – needs to bring voters of color into his coalition. Entrance polls suggest Hillary cleaned up with African American voters; Super Tuesday will be just plain Tuesday for Bernie if that happens again ten days from now.
But to understand what happened in Nevada in terms of the campaign that Sanders is running, think about it from an establishment-outsider perspective. Sanders is betting his candidacy on the assumption that there is enough rot at the core of the Democratic Party establishment for it to fall over if pushed hard enough by his supporters. He fails if he is unable to assemble a broad-based coalition or if elites are resilient enough to resist the coalition he assembles. In New Hampshire, Bernie’s supporters were an overwhelming force. But Nevada is an organization state, and Hillary succeeded in mobilizing Las Vegas casino and hotel workers with an assist from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who while officially neutral made sure that Culinary Workers Union employees would get paid time off to attend the caucus, a move that boosted her prospects. This time, conventional politics proved strong enough to turn back Sander’s insurgency.
Clinton’s Nevada victory sets her up well for the mad dash ahead. But Sanders has enough resources to keep going, and he continues to drive the message of the campaign. This is an interesting dynamic, because while Nevada leaves Hillary poised to win delegates and states at a substantial pace, the Nevada result has not diminished Bernie’s ability to challenge the status quo and shape the party’s future.
Jeb Bush said he was going to “lose the primary to win the general.” He went one for two.