If you thought the Super Tuesday primaries were going to clarify the presidential race ahead and shed light on the state of the republic come January, you were half right. By March 2, the voters had given us a pair of clear front-runners for their parties’ nominations. By March 15, after the next dozen or so primaries (11 for the Democrats, 13 for the Republicans), we should know the parties’ all-but-certain nominees.
On the other hand, what that tells us about America’s future after November is anybody’s guess. The Republican primaries are primed to give us a candidate who quotes Mussolini, has trouble deciding what he thinks of the Ku Klux Klan and handily demolishes every rival who tries to challenge him. As for the Democratic primaries, they’re producing a candidate whose vulnerabilities are so pronounced that they may yet deliver the presidency to the unelectable Mr. Trump.
The first thing you need to know about the current state of the presidential contest is that Super Tuesday has confirmed the front-runner status of the two most disliked persons in presidential politics this year. That’s according to a CNN poll released the morning of March 1. It showed Hillary Clinton with a 42%-to-55% favorable-unfavorable rating, surpassed only by Donald Trump at 37%-to-60%. Even among Democrats only 36% find her “honest and trustworthy.”
The only candidate who’s liked by more than half the voters is Bernie Sanders, at 57%-to-33%. But he’s unlikely to make it to November. Primary results so far show him running ahead of Clinton among white Democratic voters, but not enough to compensate for her overwhelming advantage among black Democrats.
The front-loading of Southern states on March 1 allowed Clinton to solidify her lead by running up overwhelming majorities of Democratic primary voters in a string of states that the Democrats have no chance of winning in November. Sanders managed to win four of the 11 state primaries that day, but he lost the state with the greatest symbolic importance for him, Massachusetts. Famously liberal and next-door to his home state of Vermont, the Bay State should have been an easy win for him if he hoped to go the distance. As it turned out, he won a narrow majority among white voters, but Clinton won such a lopsided majority among black voters, some 15% of the total, that she managed to eke out a 2% margin of victory. As in Iowa, they virtually tied in delegates, but she won the trophy.
This wasn’t what Sanders’ team imagined. Since last spring he’s been promising what he calls a “political revolution.” What this means, he’s told numerous skeptical interviewers, is a mobilization of political newcomers previously alienated from the system: young people who haven’t bothered voting before; working-class voters who’ve given up on the system, and even Reagan Democrats who moved to the Republican column years ago but would rally to his message of economic fairness. All this was supposed to create a mass movement in the streets, pressuring a reluctant Congress to enact his promised reforms, from free college to Medicare-for-all to a $15 minimum wage. And, unlike traditional Democrats, they’d show up for the midterms.
So far, there’s little evidence of a mobilization. With a handful of exceptions, Democratic primary turnout has been markedly lower than it was in 2008, the last time Democrats had a contested primary. Yes, Sanders has turned out huge crowds for rallies around the country. He’s captured imaginations, especially among young people. And that’s generated momentum. But the stadium crowds haven’t spawned masses of new primary voters. In fact, working-class whites are turning out for Trump, not Sanders. It’s hard to imagine how he’ll bring his brigades out to the streets in a prolonged battle for universal health care if he can’t even get them to vote.
Of course, Sanders vows to soldier on. He intends to take the fight all the way to the convention in Philadelphia July 25. His insists the battle has just begun. He was registering barely 3% in the polls when he entered the race last spring. Now he’s nearly even with Clinton. Following that line of thinking, he could be trouncing her by the time California and New Jersey vote June 7. But he won’t have that long. More likely, she’ll have snared a majority of convention delegates by the end of April, when New York, Pennsylvania and Guam vote.
A greater danger is that the Clinton-Sanders rivalry could become a racial battle for control of the Democratic Party. Clinton represents the party that’s evolved over the past two generations. It wins narrow majorities in presidential years by turning out minorities and white liberals. No Democratic presidential candidate has gotten more than 43% of the white vote since 1964, with the sole exception of Jimmy Carter’s 47% in 1976.
And Democrats stay home in droves in midterm years, crippling the party in Congress and statehouses. The 2010 elections saw 10 million fewer Republicans voting than 2008, but 20 million fewer Democrats.
Sanders’ campaign was supposed to win back working-class whites by emphasizing economics and downplaying identity. He wanted to break the equilibrium between the two parties, return Democrats to majority status and eventually recapture the House of Representatives. Clinton’s massive advantage among black voters in the primaries, as much as it shows the black community’s loyalty to the Clintons, suggests that the post-Carter Democratic coalition won’t give up control of the party to Sanders’ revolution without a fight.
The irony is that, according to that March 1 CNN poll, Sanders would fare better than Clinton in November, even without his revolution. If the election were held today, the poll found, Clinton would defeat Trump 52% to 44%, but she’d lose to Marco Rubio 47%-50% and to Ted Cruz 48%-49%. Sanders do slightly better against Trump, 55% to 43%. He’d beat Rubio 53%-45%, and he’d clobber Cruz 57%-40%.
None of those numbers will matter much by Labor Day. Neither Clinton nor Sanders has yet faced Trump’s poison tongue head-on. Sanders might be an easy prey, given his avowed socialism, or he might thunder back at Trump and make the mogul look small and petty.
But it’s Clinton who’s likely to face the billionaire demagogue, and it won’t be pretty. Despite her Clinton pedigree, she’s more like Al Gore on the stump: compelling in small, intimate settings, but stiff, forced and unspontaneous in front of crowds. It’s hard to imagine her getting the best of Trump once he starts his mudslinging. And we haven’t discussed the FBI investigation of her emails. She dismisses it as groundless, but the FBI seems to think otherwise.
Clinton’s surrogates have been arguing for weeks that she’ll best Trump because she has better positions on the issues. If the past few months have proven anything, it’s that Trump doesn’t bother with issues, and his fans couldn’t care less.