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Takeaways from South Carolina and Nevada

Trump in South Carolina

Last night Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton advanced towards securing their respective party nominations for president.

Trump won handily in the Republicans’ primary in South Carolina, taking 32.5% of the vote, ahead of Marco Rubio with 22.5% and Ted Cruz with 22.3%. Clinton beat out Bernie Sanders, 52.7% to 47.2%, in the Democratic caucuses in Nevada. What do these results tell us about the state of the races? Here are some takeaways.

Republicans

  • Trump rolls on. South Carolina was an important step forward for him. In particular, he proved he can win the evangelical Christian vote in a Southern state, which is a good sign for the upcoming “SEC” primaries across the South, given many have 30% plus evangelical voting populations. And after winning in New Hampshire and South Carolina, it is clear that support for Trump – unlike some of his rivals - is not limited to a particular region of the country.
  • Rubio makes a comeback - for now. After coming in fifth in New Hampshire, Rubio’s second-place finish in South Carolina kept him in the game. Now we’re hearing the same theme that we did after Iowa: that the establishment is putting all its weight behind Rubio, hoping he’ll become the lone mainsteam candidate to fight Trump and Cruz. But don’t count on it. As I mentioned before, I believe Rubio is over-rated. Don’t forget that his original strategy called for winning South Carolina, and he got important backing from Governor Nikki Haley and Senator Tim Scott, yet finished far behind Trump. The results in that state also highlighted a so-far consistent theme with Rubio: his support is fairly wide but very shallow. He can win some votes from a range of constituencies, but not enough from any group(s) to propel him to victory. Listening to his speech last night (in which acted like he won), I couldn’t help think his message will have limited appeal. Yes, he made nods to the needs of working people in this year of populism but what was his solution? “Limited government, free enterprise and a strong military.” I just can’t see the single mother or the man working two jobs – the hypothetical folks Rubio cited - getting pumped up about those abstractions. Contrast that pablum to the Trump’s concrete, direct messages.
  • Bad night and prospects for Cruz. After coming in third in South Carolina, it is hard to see a way for Cruz to win going forward. His whole strategy was to win the Southern states that have high proportions of evangelical voters, and then get enough delegates outside the South to eke out a majority. South Carolina showed that isn’t going to happen. He will stay on until at least Super Tuesday on March 1st, but after that, who knows.
  • Kasich hangs in. I see John Kasich as a dark horse in this race. The conventional wisdom is that he is just a minor mainstream candidate, who will eventually fade and lose support to Rubio, the favored mainstream contender. But Kasich and Rubio have different messages; Kasich is much more pragmatic, and doesn’t speak in conservative pieties. Where he has been able to campaign on the ground, like in New Hampshire, he has done well. On paper, his message and background as governor of Ohio should be well-suited for Northeast and Midwest Republicans in particular, and those primaries aren’t until later in the spring. If he can survive Super Tuesday, I wouldn’t rule him out (or at least, playing a spoiler role).
  • Trump the inevitable? Trump’s odds for winning the nomination outright have to increase after South Carolina (and did in the actual betting odds). Some now say he looks unstoppable: if he can tell Republicans that George Bush allowed the 9/11 attack to happen, survive the Pope’s “he’s not a Christian” remark, and swat away negative ads from Cruz, how is going to be stopped? But let’s hold on a minute. After South Carolina, only 4% of the Republican delegates have been determined.  The first opportunity to have a good indication will be following the March 15th primaries. By then, 60% of the delegates will have been allocated, and we will have had contests in Texas (Cruz’s home state), Florida (Rubio's home state) and Ohio (Kasich's home state) – and if Trump wins those, he could very well be unstoppable. But on March 15th and after, we move from mainly proportional delegate allocation to winner-take-all states.  The math of winner-take-all states could certainly help Trump: if he continues to win with only say a third of the vote, he will gain big numbers of delegates despite a low percentage of the total. But winner-take-all math also gives hope to his adversaries: big hauls from winning those states could fairly easily make up for shortfalls from pre-March 15th primaries.
  • Stop talking about "lanes" and take on Trump already. The evidence to date suggests that Trump is unlikely to bring himself down. One of the other Republican candidates needs to break out. After South Carolina, can we finally say that his opponents’ strategy - trying to ignore Trump and hoping to winnow the field down to a one-on-one contest with him – has been a disaster for them, and a great benefit for The Donald? If the non-Trumps continue to wait until one of them, on some bright sunny day, drives out all of the other non-Trump candidates out, Trump will win. They need to take on Trump directly (although not doesn’t necessarily mean negatively), right away. All of this mindless talk of candidates needing to win a particular “lane” – “establishment lane”, “social conservative lane”, etc. – before adopting a national message, has backfired badly. Of course, many candidates begin with a base of support from particular sections, but if you are going to win, you need a broader, positive message that can unite people.

Democrats

  • Hillary’s firewall. Following New Hampshire and heading into Nevada, Sanders seemed to have the energy and momentum over Clinton. It became clear from the polls that her lead in Nevada was shrinking. But in the end she won by a reasonably comfortable margin. All along, Clinton’s people claimed that her support among minorities would give her the advantage, and on the day, this held true in Nevada (especially among African-Americans; she split the Latino vote with Sanders). This will give some support to the Clinton camp’s argument that Sanders can only do well in mostly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
  • Sanders likely to challenge Clinton on the race issue. As I noted after Iowa, it is a big challenge for Sanders to overcome Hillary’s advantage in states with a high proportion of minority voters. Nevada was the first test, and, despite making up ground, he ultimately failed. Now there are no signs that Hillary’s firewall won’t hold up in South Carolina next weekend as well. Over the next week, expect much of the campaigning to focus on the race issue, since both Clinton and Sanders will be fighting for the black vote.
  • Contest reveals Sanders’ weaknesses. For most of the campaign, Clinton has looked flat-footed in trying to respond to Sanders. But in the run-up to Nevada, she pushed two arguments to her advantage. First, she claimed that Sanders was highly critical of Obama, and that she was best-placed to continue Obama’s legacy. This appears to have been successful, with entrance polls showing that those who thought highly of Obama were more likely to vote for Clinton. Second, she argued that Sanders is a “single issue” candidate, continually blaming Wall Street for the country’s predicaments. On this, Hillary is right: Sanders is obsessed with Wall Street, he bangs on about it endlessly, and it is a myopic approach (as well as revealing a conspiratorial mindset). Clinton then follows up her criticism of Sanders’ “single issue” with a litany of identity politics claims – black people, women, lesbian and gay, transgender. Again, she wins on this, as Sanders won't challenge her on identity politics. Indeed, he is trying the play the same game (for example, meeting with Al Sharpton), and echoing her messages on race and other issues, but in a lukewarm, “me too” way. There was pushback after Clinton seemingly blamed younger women for not voting with their vagina, but now Clinton is beginning to cohere both the establishment and base of the Democratic Party around culture and identity issues, at Sanders’ expense.
  • Clinton is in a strong position. Although Trump almost always sucks up the media’s air, the bigger news from last night is that Clinton looks strongly in charge for winning the Democratic nomination (and certainly closer than Trump is to winning the Republican nomination). Bernie has lots of money, and all of the states in the Democratic primaries are proportional, so he will be sticking around until the convention. But it’s now hard to see him having a chance at winning, barring Hillary being indicted. If he loses South Carolina, he will most likely become a “message” candidate, and try to push the party towards his views.
  • Democratic Party establishment is in better shape. After last night, one clear trend is that the Democratic establishment is more together, and in better shape, than the Republican establishment. The Democratic machine is likely to get their favored candidate on the ticket, while the Republican elites are in disarray.

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