Trump vs Hillary

photo composition by Thursday Review

Clinton, Trump Have Wide
Paths to Nominations

| published February 23, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Despite months of wildly unpredictable outcomes, raucous debates, and shocking words spoken, the conventional wisdom is now almost unified. We can pretty much take to the bank those best guesses as to who the two major party’s candidates for President will be.

A little over a year ago the smart money said Democrats would choose Hillary Clinton. That smart money, as it turns out, is still the smart money—despite Benghazi, Servergate, private emails, and classified documents.

One year ago, however, some of the same savants and high rollers picked Jeb Bush to top the GOP field. That wasn’t such a good bet. Trump is now poised to win the Nevada caucuses—his third big win in as many weeks, and a sure sign that the billionaire’s candidacy could soon be unstoppable (more about that later in this article).

For those on the Democratic side, however, inevitability may only be a matter of running out the clock.

Indeed, most political analysts now believe that barring some remarkable and unforeseen surge in support for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders from several key Democratic Party constituent bases—meaning a near mass migration of groups now extremely likely to vote for Hillary Clinton—Sanders can be expected to be back to his full-time day job as a member of the United States Senate no later than the end of March.

So much for the self-described Democratic socialist’s major revolution in U.S. politics. Hillary can soon thereafter make the urgently needed pivot back toward the center, and all will be well again with the top strategists at the DNC and Camp Clinton. The former Secretary of State not only survived Sanders’ onslaught in Nevada—once a solid and safe Clinton state—she exceeded expectations by winning with a modest degree of comfort (if four points is considered a comfortable margin).

Meanwhile, Sanders and his staff fell for the oldest trick in the book: they believed in the power of several last minute polls which showed him narrowing the race, then, unadvisedly raised expectations. In the political dictionaries of the world explanations of this paradox is accompanied by a small cartoon showing Lucy snatching the football away just as Charlie Brown arrives at a fast trot to kick it into the air.

Nevada was Sanders’ opportunity to steal Clinton’s cloak of “inevitability” once and for all. His virtual tie in Iowa, and the walloping he delivered to Clinton in New Hampshire, were mere warm-ups—just the sort of stuff that gives the Clinton machine scares, and then results in everyone in the Clinton camp working 20 hour days to turn things around.

And that’s precisely what happened. Had Sanders pulled off some kind of genuine surprise win in Nevada—previously Clinton Country for its large population of Latinos, African-Americans, and for its extensive union memberships—Sanders would have effectively put the nomination in question, proving he could win anywhere. But even then, Clinton might have eventually prevailed after a Nevada loss, but only after a resurgent Sanders kicked the nomination process into deep overtime, forcing Clinton to spend many millions of dollars she would rather sandbag for use after the conventions.

Either way, Sanders unwisely took the bait from a few perhaps aberrant national and Nevada polls, and in the process gave Clinton the opportunity to exceed expectations.

But it may be little more than a parlor game now: Clinton’s modest victory in Nevada proved her longstanding point that the Sanders campaign was a boutique political operation—based almost entirely on a gaggle of “youth” voters and college students unfamiliar with the practical costs of socialized everything, New England hipsters who recently dusted off the term “socialist” and found only worse coffee, and unabashedly aging hippies still yearning for the next Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern. There had been little reason to see wide swaths of Democratic constituencies in places like Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee defecting from Clinton and enthusiastically backing Sanders instead. And now that Clinton has seemingly survived the worst that Benghazi, Servergate and those private emails can dish out, and there is no reason now to see mainstream Democrats abandoning what is clearly their best hope for claiming another four years in the Oval Office.

Super Tuesday, which arrives on March 1, does not bode well for Sanders. The political odds-makers agree it is unlikely he will win any of the six biggest contests that day: Texas, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas. Under the best circumstances, and even under the DNC’s proportional delegate distribution rules, Sanders will merely reap his share of delegates from those states while Clinton opens up a wider lead. Sanders has a modest chance of winning in liberal strongholds like Massachusetts, and in the progressive-dominated caucus states of Colorado and Minnesota. And he win slam-dunk a big win in his home state of Vermont, worth only 10 delegates. Beyond those safe havens for the Senator, however, there is no reason to expect a huge Sanders surprise on Super Tuesday. Clinton’s delegate count will soon grow rapidly, far beyond the reach of Sanders, no matter what size his crowds.

Furthermore, some experts point to the realities of spring break. Sanders has felt his campaign buoyed in large part by the support of enthusiastic younger voters (many of them students), but—as has been reported on numerous political analysis websites—tens of thousands of those would-be supporters will be leaving campuses or college towns for other places next week, at least in those states and those college towns which have early March academic breaks. And since voters under the age of 25 are notoriously unmotivated or under-motivated, especially when other more appealing distractions prevail, Sanders will experience an ebbing tide just at the moment he needs it most in some dozen or more states. Clinton, meanwhile, need not worry about demographics: the over-55 crowd, African-Americans, and party loyalists tend to be the most reliable when it comes to voter turnout. Meaning that on Super Tuesday, she has the home-field advantage.

The process is now fully loaded in Clinton’s favor.

Sanders can, however, make the case that he can pull off a few turnarounds in key states (Hawaii, Wyoming, Delaware, Rhode Island) where it may still be possible to regionally forestall Clinton, but after Tuesday it becomes increasingly unlikely he will be able to catch up as Clinton’s delegate count steadily rises. Add to the mix the so-called super-delegates, which will soon begin herding dutifully into Clinton’s column (she already has the pledges of about half of those delegates now), and the math no longer supports Sanders. The best Sanders can hope for is to successfully cherry-pick a few states throughout March in an effort to keep donations flowing and energy levels high while he waits for Clinton to stumble.

Clinton will likely have her path to the Democratic nomination secure by the end of the night Tuesday, March 1. All that’s left will be the question of how deeply into spring does Bernie Sanders fight to make his point.

From the perspective of the DNC, this outcome could not be more user-friendly. It gives Clinton time to burnish her position as the undisputed party leader, and—assuming Sanders concedes no later than the end of March or the first week of April—allows Clinton to make the pivot back toward the center after having been forced leftward by the insurgent Sanders. She will need time to make the case that she is not merely a lighter shade of socialist than the overtly socialist Sanders.

Odds of Clinton securing the Democratic nomination: 95%.

Republicans, meanwhile, are facing a conundrum unlike anything the party has experienced in generations.

A year ago, some of the same savants and high rollers who picked Clinton also picked Jeb Bush to top the GOP field. That wasn’t such a good bet. Even with two former Presidents, a famous presidential mom, and a pope all trying to tip the scales, Bush wasn’t able to sell his brand of competence, magnanimity and executive skill to South Carolina voters. The Palmetto State has become the unofficial winnower of the Republican field, brutally conducting the sort of purges that the boutique operations of Iowa and New Hampshire never can. One GOP insider we spoke to compares it to those concluding scenes in the film The Godfather: South Carolina “takes care of all family business.”
Marco Rubio 2016 Presidential candidate

Marco Rubio at a campaign event in Las Vegas, Nevada;
image courtesy C-Span

The Bush departure, which came after a fair-to-middling fourth place finish in New Hampshire and a somewhat more pitiful fourth place spot in South Carolina, helped to clear the field for John Kasich, Marco Rubio and—to a smaller extent—Ted Cruz, but in reality it will have little impact now. Cruz and Rubio, especially, are now too locked in a life-or-death struggle for the anti-Trump vote. Kasich, who would like to see himself as the logical inheritor of those who once back Bush, may not have the money or the resources to carry his quiet campaign through Super Tuesday.

Retired neurosurgeon and author Dr. Ben Carson has bravely told reporters that the reports of his demise are premature, and he says he will stay active for as long as it takes to carry his message forward. But in reality, very few in the media even mention his name, and Carson has been effectively bullied to the bottom of the talking points, even below Kasich in most discussions.

Trump now has a wide, almost unobstructed highway toward the GOP convention in Cleveland. And it works to his advantage that Rubio and Cruz are seemingly distracted with an intense knife fight along the sidelines. Rubio’s path, not Kasich’s, has clearly become the “establishment” lane for Republicans; in a three-day stretch after Bush’s departure a dozen members of the old guard and the GOP elders quickly lined-up behind the freshman Senator, now seen as the last, best hope of the traditional party brand.

Rubio secured the open backing of one-time Republican Presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Bob Dole, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, and current Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, to name but just a few. Rubio also very quickly landed endorsements from other GOP whales and influencers, including U.S. Senators Orin Hatch (R-Utah) and Jeff Flake (R-Arizona). Rubio’s organization is also rapidly picking up the remnants of Bush’s on-the-ground operations in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, as well as the entire fundraising email and direct mail lists which once belonged to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (though the Rubio campaign paid handsomely for those lists and the related data).

Dole, who had previously supported Bush, told reporters he was happily backing Rubio. Hutchinson has told reporters that Rubio is a next-generation Reagan, a transformative figure who clearly offers Republicans their best shot at beating Clinton in November. Pawlenty told CNN that in a race without Bush or Christie, it amounts to common-sense for the GOP.

“It comes down to this,” Pawlenty said of Rubio, “he’s strong, he’s informed, he’s conservative, and he’s electable…and, he can unite the party, and you can’t ask for much more than that.”

Cruz, meanwhile, is placing his entire stack of chips on Super Tuesday. Whereas Trump sees Super Tuesday as a safe bet, Cruz understands all-too-well that the so-called SEC primary may make the difference between political life and death. Analysts believe that Cruz is now caught in an awkward middle spot somewhere between Trump—and the billionaire’s anti-Washington talk of rejection of establishment—and the GOP mainstream, now seemingly coalescing behind Rubio. Cruz’s staple audience, the Christian conservatives and evangelical groups which buoyed him to that dazzling first place victory in Iowa, are now geographically spread out. Cruz will need to spend millions on TV ads in some six “safe” states in less than one week, and he will not have the luxury of campaigning intensely and personally in a single state by hitting the churches and community centers one room at a time, as were the cases in Iowa and South Carolina.

But Cruz has one advantage: deep pockets. Cruz’s fundraising is still robust, boosted by heavy hitters among the major conservative evangelical groups. There is little reason to see his money dry up any time soon. Rubio, likewise, has plenty of cash, and an on-the-ground operation of volunteers growing almost as fast as that of Cruz. By some estimates, this means that the two remaining middle-tier anti-Trump candidates can battle each other for at least four more weeks, thus keeping Trump’s wider lane unobstructed.

Even the long-held theory that Trump will finally suffer in a straight-up three-way race is now being called into question. Republican leaders have long yearned for that moment when the so-called establishment lane became free of congestion and bumper-car gridlock. With Bush’s departure, in theory at least, the race boils down to clearly defined choices: Trump, leading the overtly anti-Washington forces, Cruz helming the evangelical and social conservatives, and Rubio becoming the rallying point for the traditionalists, the party regulars, and the foreign policy hawks and fiscal conservatives. But a recent poll by The Economist Magazine/YouGov showed that among those surveyed, Trump still comes out ahead, with 46% to Rubio’s 28% and Cruz’s 26%. That means that in a race in which we assume neither Kasich nor Carson are good options for voters, Trump still wins.

This has provoked a sea change in the way that Rubio and Cruz are now fighting in the media and in the political conversations: they no long spar intensely and to the nth degree over fidelity to such matters as past immigration bill language or wrestle over who is the more reliable conservative—they argue over who is better positioned to stop Trump in the coming 30 days. Both campaign staff’s now publicly tout Trump’s so-called hard ceiling—cited in nearly every major poll, internal and external as existing somewhere between 40 and 50 percent; meaning a majority of Republicans believe strongly that Trump is not the right guy to be the GOP nominee.

But both the Rubio and the Cruz campaigns also acknowledge that time is running short to turn that theory into an actionable force in the coming weeks. Rubio and Cruz will no doubt split the lion’s share of the non-Trump support on Super Tuesday, crowding out what remains of those still committed to Kasich and Carson, and scorching enough earth to clear Trump’s wide path even wider.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Trump Wins South Carolina; Clinton Takes Nevada; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 21, 2016.

Is South Carolina Jeb Bush’s Last Stand?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 20, 2016.