Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Super Tuesday - Now What?

Four years ago on March 7, 2012, watching and reacting to our quadrennial Presidential Election circus from the safety of the Eternal City, I wrote a column here called "Super Tuesday - So What?"

Another Super Tuesday has come and gone. And so it is time to ask: so now what?

The context for what I wrote four years ago was my perennial complaint that the way the media currently covers presidential primary campaigns has helped foster the present situation in which the nomination is normally decided well in advance of the party conventions which, as recently as the 1970s, still functioned as serious political events. (Indeed, typically and more problematically, the nomination is now usually decided well in advance of most of the primaries, before many of the bigger primaries in the more populous states, before most members of either party have had any opportunity to vote.) 

Personally, I can well recall when conventions still really nominated (and fought over) candidates, when it was by no means always certain going into a convention who would emerge as the nominee. The spread of primaries and the decline of party establishments has transformed the nominating process, but so has the media coverage which (1) focuses almost entirely on the competition itself (the “horserace”) and prematurely anoints frontrunners, thus pressuring opponents to drop out too early in the race, and (2) increases the cost of campaigning, which in turn makes it hard for non-frontrunners without media-recognized “momentum” to remain long in the race. (In our even more recent world of "Super-PACs," this may be changing, but that is another discussion.)

When contested conventions were the norm, they were certainly not seen as such a liability. Now that they are the exception, they have come to be seen as a very serious liability for a political party trying to get itself in competitive shape for the general election. Certainly, the last seriously contested conventions – the Democrats in 1968 and 1972, the Republicans in 1976 – contributed to that party’s defeat that November. By extension, continuing the fight all the way to the convention (even if the outcome is by then assured) is seen as destructive to the party. The Kennedy challenge to Carter in 1980 is the obvious example. Obviously, any incumbent who is seriously challenged within his own party will inevitably be weakened – as was the case with Carter in 1980, Ford in 1976, and (by extension) Hubert Humphrey in 1968, all of whom, of course, lost.

That was what was on my mind in the aftermath of "super Tuesday" four years ago. But this year both the traditional and more recent standard scripts are obviously obsolete.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton now seems poised to proceed forward to her party's nomination. Of course, that was the originally expected outcome, now finally being confirmed by the primary process. That process has also highlighted what again we knew all along - that Sanders' appeal is primarily to white liberals interested in expressive politics and that he has less appeal to other core Democratic constituencies like Blacks and Latinos. Conventional wisdom would recommend that Sanders eventually withdraw from the race to enable the party to unify for the convention and the campaign that will follow - as Hillary Clinton herself eventually did in 2008. But, unlike Hillary in 2008, Sanders is more of an expressive politics, ideological cause candidate. At first, he may have expected to run mainly to make a point - and hopefully move the party's conversation further to the left. Having surpassed most expectations in that regard, Sanders has for a while come to be seen as a serious contender. But, even once it is recognized that he cannot achieve the nomination, he may still prefer to remain in the race - not as a viable competitor, but as the ideological cause candidate he began as and to keep the concerns of his voters in the forefront. Beyond a certain point, however, that runs the risk that that can only hurt Hillary. The Democrats need to be united to hold on to the White House and maybe even win the Senate. Encouraging Sanders' disciples to persist in their ideological crusade only weakens the Democratic front for the general election and increases the likelihood of a President Trump.

As for the Republicans, the dominant story this year which has thrown all the older scripts out the window is one 5-letter word: TRUMP. Notably, he won both int he south and in massachusetts. Even more notably, in the one general election swing state which he won, virginia, he won all over, which is significant, and speaks volumes about Trump's evident ability to understand ordinary voters in ways party elites may not. There is, of course, much about Donald Trump's candidacy that has been unique to him and his special status as a political "outsider," both a successful businessman and a celebrity. But the trajectory of the Republican party's history for the past several decades has been inexorably leading to the moment when an independent populist demagogue would hatch the egg laid by the migration of race-based politics from the old Democratic party to the new Republican party. And now, momentarily modestly mixing my metaphors, the chickens have come home to roost.

The big loser, meanwhile, has to be Marco Rubio, whose increasingly shrill, nasty campaign has hardly helped him or raised him to plausibly presidential stature. It was interesting watching pundits portray him as the most "electable" Republican candidate who just happens not to win elections! The scenario of a summer party convention at which Republican elites somehow discard the overwhelming choice of primary voters in favor of someone else reveals a lot about the state of that party, but its success remains hard to imagine. What about a walkout and breakup as in 1912? Still not likely in the long run, but still possible.

Even with the Sanders candidacy still in the mix, the Democrats seem much more unified as a party, more clear about what they are for and what the stakes are, than the Republicans, who are still fighting their internal civil war, a war which just might (or might not) blow up the modern Republican party and the modern "conservative" movement. Whether that will actually happen and what that might portend for the longer term, it is pointless to try to predict in this year so full of unexpected surprises.

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