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Takeaways from the Ides of March primaries

trump-clinton

The Ides of March primaries won't be seen as turning points in world history, but they were pretty critical in determining who will be the parties' 2016 presidential candidates. 

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton won big last night. There were five states in play for both Republicans and Democrats: Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio. Trump won four of five (Ohio was his only loss), while Clinton took a clean sweep. These two are clearly the front-runners, and, as of today, you have to say the most likely outcome is a Trump-Clinton contest in the fall.

What else did we learn from last night's results? Here are some takeaways:

Republicans

  • Goodbye Marco: Trump’s most impressive win was in Florida, where he demolished Rubio, 46% to 27%. Florida is Rubio’s home state, and the “stop Trump” movement poured in $15-20 million in negative ads, yet Trump blew him away. Rubio announced he was ending (technically, “suspending”) his campaign. Some say Rubio’s failure was down to a poor debate in New Hampshire, and his childish digs at Trump for his digit size (trying to out-Trump Trump). But the rot was much deeper than these tactical moves. Rubio was revealed as a flawed candidate, with a lackluster message filled with platitudes and little support on the ground. The so-called “Republican Savior” (according to Time magazine) was a candidate manufactured in the elites’ heads, and his failed campaign has exposed the Republican establishment’s entire post-2012 strategy as bankrupt.
  • Cruz underwhelms: Cruz’s losses to Trump in Missouri and North Carolina were by narrow margins. But rather than applaud him for coming a close second, as some of his backers do, it should be acknowledged that Cruz should have won those two states - if he is supposed to be, as he claims, the only one who can stop Trump. Cruz’s entire strategy is to win his apparent base - the evangelical vote, which is mainly located in the South - and then try to broaden from there. After last night, we have to say Cruz has failed. Indeed, one of the most important – and under-appreciated - keys to Trump’s success to date has been the way he has won much of the evangelical vote away from Cruz. It’s interesting to see how class has trumped religion for a segment of these voters. In general terms, Trump has won the blue-collar and lower income evangelicals (including those who are more likely to be single or divorced, and do not go to church), while Cruz has won the middle and upper class evangelicals (who are more likely to be married church-goers).
  • Kasich’s firewall: John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, delivered his home state last night by a fairly wide margin over Trump, 47% to 36%, and showed that Trump is not invincible. Kasich had the support of Mitt Romney and other top party leaders, and now becomes the de facto hope for the Republican establishment. As I have noted before, on paper Kasich could appeal to moderate Republicans in the “blue” states of the North, Midwest and far West, but that’s just on paper. For now, Ohio will be put down as a win on his home turf, with not necessarily any wider significance.
  • The delegate math going forward is formidable for Trump: It is now estimated that Trump now needs to win about 55-60% of the remaining delegates in order to secure the majority before the Cleveland convention in July (the magic number of 1,237 delegates). That’s important because, if Trump doesn’t gain that majority in advance, there is a good chance he will be denied the nomination in a contested convention. If the nomination process was based simply on picking up delegates on a proportional basis, Trump would be facing a huge obstacle, given that he has been winning about 35% of the Republican primary votes, well below that 55-60% needed. However, 10 states that have yet to vote award delegates on a “winner take all” basis (I’ve excluded California, which applies a winner-take-all system by congressional district), and that gives Trump a better chance of securing the majority. Still, Trump faces a significant hurdle: I calculate that, if he wins 40% of the delegates in the remaining states that award delegates proportionally (that is, slightly higher than he has performed to date), he would have to win at least three-quarters of the delegates in the winner-take-all states in order to obtain the magic number.
  • But politics is not math: The math might sound daunting for Trump, but, on the current trajectory of the election campaign, he can certainly win the majority. He might need to win three-quarters of the winner-take-all states, but there’s no reason he couldn’t win 100% them. It is most likely that Cruz’s best days are behind him: there are only a few states remaining that have significant evangelical populations (and, as mentioned, he doesn’t necessarily win all of those voters), while to date he has performed poorly in non-evangelical states. Kasich would have to get a real bounce from his Ohio victory to win other states. In other words, if you want to stop Trump, you have to beat him, and neither Cruz or Kasich has proven they can do so on a consistent, broad basis. For months now, there have been lots of “stop Trump” or “#neverTrump” campaigns emerging – from both the Republican establishment as well as the pro-Cruz Tea Party types and National Review ideologues – and these have been picking up in intensity in recent weeks. Yet, all of this activity does not seem to halt Trump – in fact, the evidence from Florida suggests that the negative ads and other anti-Trump moves will backfire and actually lead to an increase in Trump’s support. The basic flaw in these campaigns, which their proponents are amazingly blind to, is the fact that an argument against Trump does not work if you can’t make an argument for another candidate.  It’s the weakness of the non-Trump candidates that makes Trump look so strong, and the biggest reason why Trump remains the favorite to be the party’s nominee.

Democrats

  • Hillary has a lock on it: The contest on the Democrats’ side is much more settled than the Republican race. Last night Clinton won by big margins in Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, while squeaking by in Illinois and Missouri. At the start of the campaign, the conventional wisdom was that Hillary would have no problem facing a 74-year-old socialist, so, against those expectations, she has under-performed. But, after losing Michigan to Bernie Sanders, her wins last night showed resiliency. Hillary now has a lock on the nomination, barring an indictment for her email server or some other event. She has already started to pivot to the general election, spending more time criticizing Trump, and expect more of that in the future.
  • What next for Sanders?: Sanders has virtually no hope for winning the nomination, and thus we will hear calls for him to drop out. But that seems unlikely. He has a pretty good chance of winning more states in the near future, and has enough money to continue through to the convention. In line with his call for a “political revolution,” it is likely that Sanders will talk more about creating a movement, rather than the nomination itself. He has already had an influence on Clinton’s message, pushing her in his direction, and he will hope to get airtime at the convention. There is, however, a question as to whether continuing his attacks on Clinton will damage her prospects in the general election.
  • Enthusiasm gap: A notable feature of the Democratic nomination process has been the lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton. The buzz has surrounded Sanders, especially with his support among younger voters. But overall, the total numbers voting for Democrats - both Clinton and Sanders combined – in this year’s primaries is well down on 2008 (the most recent contested nomination). This doesn’t bode well for Hillary or the Democratic Party. You can easily imagine that, after spending months saying that Clinton is terrible, some Sanders supporters will sit out the general election. In this regard, Hillary would be very grateful if Trump is the Republican nominee. Without her help, the liberal-left has started a Trump is Hitler campaign that will only get louder if Trump gets the nod. Trump will be the best GOTV (get out the vote) motivator she could hope for.

Trump vs. Clinton – who is more unlikeable?

As the New York Times noted, if Trump and Clinton indeed become the nominees, we will be in an unusual situation: an election between two candidates who are deeply disliked, even within their own parties. According to Gallup, majorities of Americans have unfavorable opinions of them – 53% feel that way about Clinton, and 63% say that about Trump. In all five states that Trump won last night, majorities of Republicans said he was dishonest and not trustworthy. Likewise, high percentages of Democrats, including majorities in some states, find that Clinton is lacking in honesty and trustworthiness. Just another indication of just how strange this election year has been.

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