Just Another Brick in the Clinton Delegate Wall

Last night was another good night for Hillary Clinton, as she continued her steady slog toward the Democratic nomination. At last count, she took home 87 delegates, widening her lead over Bernie Sanders, who won 69, to 760-546 in pledged delegates. (Her lead increases to 1,221-571 if you throw in the super delegates who have endorsed the two candidates so far.) With super delegates, she is more than halfway to clinching the nomination.

Of course, you might not realize this based on today’s media reports, which have focused heavily on Bernie’s “surprise” victory in Michigan, in which he eked out a narrow popular vote victory over Clinton, 49.8% to 48.3%, and in delegates 65-58. But the media narrative really says more about how bad the pre-election Michigan polls were than they do about the strength of Bernie’s victory. While Sanders’ win in Michigan will give his supporters a much-needed psychological boost heading into still another Super Tuesday on March 15, when almost 700 delegates will be at stake, the reality is that last night’s results do not suggest Bernie has widened his support to the degree necessary to win this nomination. The fact is Michigan is a state, with its traditional manufacturing base, that was tailor-made to Bernie’s economic message, particularly his opposition to trade agreements, and his emphasis on addressing income inequality. Exit polls suggest these themes played particularly well in a state that was hard hit during the economic recession. Among the 27% citing income inequality as the most important issue, Bernie won 61% of the vote. Almost 60% of voters said trade takes away from American jobs (as opposed to creating them) and Bernie won 58% of their vote.

Bernie also benefited from two others aspects of the Michigan primary. First, it was an open primary, and Bernie crushed Clinton 71%-28% among the 28% of voters who called themselves independents. He also benefited by the lower non-white turnout in Michigan compared to the southern states Hillary has used to build her large delegate lead. Although she again handedly won the non-white vote last night, 62%-35% (which is not quite the dominating performance for her among these voters that we have seen in previous contests), they only constituted a third of the vote, not quite enough to overcome Sanders strong performance among white men. Finally, Bernie was more effective than Clinton at tapping into support from the 70% who were dissatisfied or angry with the federal government, winning these voters 54%-45% over Clinton.

To be sure, this wasn’t simply the case of Bernie capitalizing on a demographically-friendly state. The evidence from exit polls suggests his supporters turned out in greater numbers than we have seen in many previous Democratic contests. Self-described liberals (“very” and “somewhat”) constituted 56% of the vote, a higher proportion than in many previous primaries, and they went strongly for Bernie. The youth turnout was also surprisingly strong and it largely negated Clinton’s strength among older voters, who did not vote in quite the proportions she has come to expect. Sanders also did surprisingly well, at least to me, among unmarried women, who constituted 27% of the vote, matching the proportion of married women, and who went for him 53%-42%, which again cancelled out Clinton’s edge among the latter group. Sanders’ ability to turn out these crucial voters bodes well for him looking ahead to next Tuesday’s contests in Ohio and Illinois, which between them will award 299 delegates, and which share a somewhat similar demographic profile as Michigan. Illinois, moreover, is an open primary, and Ohio has modified voting rules for its primary – both good news for Sanders given his demonstrated ability to draw independent voters.

But we shouldn’t sugarcoat the road ahead for Sanders. Given his delegate deficit, and the fact that all five states voting next week, including Missouri, Florida and North Carolina, award delegates proportionally, merely reprising his Michigan performance is not going to be enough to catch Clinton. He needs to start winning states, and winning them by large margins, as Clinton did yesterday in Mississippi, where exit polls indicate the overwhelmingly black electorate (71%) went heavily for Clinton over Sanders by 89%-11%. That massive level of support fueled her dominating victory over Sanders in the popular vote 83%-16.5%. Looking ahead to the next Super Tuesday, it is hard to see any place where Sanders will exert that type of political dominance. Instead, early polling (and Michigan reminds us that polling isn’t always accurate!) has Clinton leading in Florida and North Carolina by 20% or more, and in Ohio by 15%. Yes, I expect Sanders to cut into those leads (assuming the polls are even accurate), but even if he ends up running even with Clinton in those states, or better yet eking out narrow victories, that won’t be enough for him to cut into her substantial delegate lead to any great degree.

So, yes, I expect to see a flurry of articles noting the warning signs for Clinton in yesterday’s Michigan results. And yes, Sanders is likely to pick up a batch of delegates next week, particularly in the Midwest states of Ohio and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Illinois. But it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Last night was a win for Clinton, and it serves as a reminder that Bernie Sanders is fighting an uphill battle for delegates, and for the Democratic nomination. In that respect, nothing has really changed. Together, Michigan and Mississippi represent just another brick in the Clinton delegate wall.  The sooner the #FeelTheBern crowd realize this and fall in line, the better off everyone will be.

Kasich Winning? Mitt Drafted? Be Still My Beating Heart!

The talking heads on Fox News and on other media  outlets were busy spinning yesterday’s election results, in which Ted Cruz and Donald Trump split four contests, as evidence that this has become a two-person race for the Republican nomination. Some pundits went further, arguing that the results indicate the first signs of a backlash against Trump’s candidacy. It’s not clear, however, whether the results were as good for Cruz as the Republican Party establishment would have one believe. Even as another 150 delegates came off the board, by my unofficial count Cruz won 69 compared to Trump’s 53 – a net gain of only 16 delegates which still leaves Cruz trailing The Donald by 82 delegates, and with most of Cruz’ best states behind him. The fact is that Cruz lost to Trump in two states – Kentucky and Louisiana – that contained significant numbers of the social conservatives that Cruz has relied on to carry his campaign so far. Moreover, his victories came in caucus states, not primaries, which does not build confidence that he can broaden his coalition. Trump (bombastic yes, but no fool) surely understands this, which is why during his “victory” press conference last night he openly called for a two-candidate contest between him and Cruz. Trump understands that as the race moves to the industrial Midwest, Cruz’ support is likely to tail off.

At this point, then, and at the risk of being an outlier (not for the first time, of course)  I am not persuaded that yesterday’s results demonstrates that the Stop Trump movement that I described in my last post is having an effect. We saw a similar media reaction after Cruz won in Iowa, if you’ll recall.  When the Donald finished second there after polls showed him leading, it was was viewed by most pundits as a stinging setback. The reality, however, is that given the political terrain in Iowa, a second-place finish by The Donald was, in my view, the first evidence that he was a candidate to be reckoned with. In any case, the pundits have predicted that Trump was losing momentum before. Eventually they may be right. Of course, I’m not a strong believer in electoral momentum, unless one defines it as a winnowing of the field, in which case election results can appear to bolster some candidates at the expense of others.

Setback or not, the Republican Party leaders aren’t taking any chances. Mitt was back on the airwaves today, making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to renew his attack on Trump, which inevitably led all the talking heads to ask the Mittster whether he would take the Sherman pledge not to run if nominated. For the record, Mitt refused to say he would reject a party draft, even while making it clear that he had no intention of running on his own and fully expected to endorse a Republican candidate not named Trump. The thought of the Mittster charging forth on his white horse to rescue the GOP from the evil clutches of Trumpism makes even the most sober-minded pundits swoon.  Please, please, let it happen they must be thinking!

Meanwhile poor Marco Rubio had a disastrous day, finishing no higher than third in any of the four contests (he finished 4th, behind John Kasich, in the Maine caucuses) and garnering only 20 delegates. On the plus side, however, he picked up key endorsements from party stalwarts like Bob Dole and Sam Brownback, which again shows that endorsements are very powerful predictors of electoral success, unless they aren’t. Rubio appears determined to stay in the race until his home state of Florida votes on March 15, even though Cruz has now targeted Florida as a must-win state as well. It is not inconceivable that they will split the non-Trump vote there. (As I write this, I received a breathless email from Team Marco saying: “The new survey by one of the nation’s most-respected pollsters has Marco trailing Trump by just a few points — and closing fast!” It’s just a flesh wound, folks.)  Even the betting markets seem to have written him off, with Kasich now considered more likely to win the nomination than is Marco.

And what of Kasich?  As regular readers know, I thought he won (as much as anyone can “win” these things) the two most recent Republican debates through a combination of his policy knowledge, adult persona and references to his ability to work across party lines. Tellingly, not a single media pundit that I know of agreed with that assessment, and in fact most post-debate write-ups failed to mention his name. And perhaps with good reason. Yesterday he slouched his way through another unimpressive set of election results, finishing last in three of the four contests and winning only 10 delegates and, not for the first time, was an afterthought (if that!) in most media election wrap-up stories. And yet hope for the perpetually optimistic candidate springs eternal. The latest poll out of Michigan, which votes on Tuesday, has him leading – yes, leading! – in that state, 33%-31% over The Donald (what did I say about relying on one poll to gauge the state of a race?) If he wins Michigan, and follows that up with a victory in his home state of Ohio (a winner-take- all contest) a week later, he will undoubtedly proclaim himself as the heir to the not-Donald vote. And he could very well be correct.

Even as Republican Party talking heads wring their hands regarding the impending breakup of the GOP and plot to stop Trump, voters continue to turn out in record numbers and, I think, in large part due to Trump’s candidacy. Once again turnout was up, and by a lot, in all four Republican contests yesterday compared to the turnout numbers from four and eight years ago. With the exception of Vermont, Republicans have seen turnout increase in every nominating contest so far. The Democrats must wish they were the party on the ropes like this! In yesterday’s three Democratic contests, turnout was down again from 2008, even as Hillary Clinton continued her methodical march toward clinching the nomination. Although Bernie Sanders won two of the three contests, she won 55 delegates to his 49. That won’t stop the FeelTheBern crowd from proclaiming victory, of course, but at this point it appears nothing short of criminal charges are going to prevent her from winning the delegate race.

And so the road show continues. Republicans vote in Puerto Rico’s primary today, and then on Tuesday both parties head to Michigan and Mississippi and for Republicans, Idaho and Hawaii too. On the Republican side there are 150 delegates at stake. If Kasich pulls off the improbable and wins Michigan, thus further fracturing the non-Trump vote, I expect the drumbeats for Mitt to grow only louder. Oh, be still my beating heart!

Is The Party Inadvertently Deciding For Trump?

The last 72 hours have seen a visible, concerted effort by the Republican Party leadership to stop Donald Trump from clinching their party’s presidential nomination. (By party, I’m using the broader definition advanced by The Party Decides crowd that includes interest groups and the media). It began with 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s blistering broadside against Trump last Thursday, in which he called The Donald “a phony, a fraud” whose “promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” Echoing Marco Rubio’s recent characterization of Trump as a “con man”, Romney continued: “He’s playing members of the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.”

That night during the Republican debate Fox News set a thinly-veiled trap designed to ensnare Trump in his own lack of policy details. When Trump responded to moderator Chris Wallace’s question asking for specifics regarding how he planned to cut the budget deficit by saying he would eliminate the “Department” of EPA (it’s an agency, but never mind) and of Education, Wallace pounced by showing a graphic indicating that this would do little to close the budget gap. When Trump then said he would also make pharmaceutical companies bid properly to save money, Wallace showed another graphic indicating Trump was still exaggerating the amount of money that would provide based on Medicare payments. Trump then defensively claimed that proper negotiating across all government contracts would save billions of dollars. Later in the debate, Fox showed another graphic – this one from a John Kasich ad that suggested Trump might name Vladimir Putin as his running mate. When asked what the ad revealed about Trump’s foreign policy expertise, Kasich refused to bite, and instead moved on to discuss how he would handle Russia and Putin.

Without getting into the specifics of these exchanges, the effort by Fox to use graphics to hoist The Donald on his own lack-of-policy-specifics petard seems unusual by traditional debate coverage standards. But the effort to take down the Donald did not stop there. As I noted during my running debate commentary, while no one stunk up the joint on the debate stage that night, I thought Cruz had done little to expand his coalition beyond his conservative base. (For what it is worth, I thought Kasich easily “won” the debate – an assessment apparently shared by none of the talking heads in their debate post-mortems. But I digress.) Nonetheless, at the debate’s conclusion, the twitterverse was alive with comments from Republican Party stalwarts regarding how Cruz was the clear debate winner.  It seemed to be another orchestrated effort by the party establishment to shift the election narrative.

Other party leaders, such as South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, have publicly joined the Stop The Donald movement in recent days by (reluctantly in Graham’s case) saying they would support Cruz as the alternative. For his part, Cruz has made it clear that he is the only viable option on the table for those seeking to derail Trump’s candidacy. Other Republicans, meanwhile, are talking openly about a third-party run by a Republican, or how to orchestrate a coup against Trump at a brokered convention. Rubio’s supporters have pretty much acknowledged that their best hope is to prevent Trump from clinching the nomination before the convention, at which point their man might emerge as the most viable alternative.  As a sign of how desperate the Party is, some leading members are even saying that in a contest between Clinton and Trump – they would consider voting for Clinton!

Today will provide the first evidence whether any of these Stop Trump efforts are bearing fruit. Republicans are holding nominating contests in four states today – Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine, and in a fifth, Puerto Rico, tomorrow. All told some 178 delegates are up for grabs. If current polling is predictive (and polling in most of these state is sparse and highly speculative, given the nature of the contests) Trump could come out with close to half the delegates, based on my back-of-the-envelope calculations. That would ensconce him even more firmly in the driver’s seat heading in Tuesday’s contests in Michigan, Mississippi and Idaho, where another 131 delegates are at stake. Current polling has Trump leading in Mississippi and Michigan. Unfortunately for Rubio and Cruz’s arguments that they are the only Trump alternative, polling indicates that Kasich is gaining ground in Michigan and he may very well finish second there.  That would further fracture the Not-Trump field.

The bottom line is that heading into the crucial winner-take-all March 15 primaries in Florida, Ohio and Illinois (although they aren’t necessarily all winner-take-all), Trump may be less than 800 delegates away from clinching the nomination before the convention. If he does clinch the nomination outright, one need look no further than what has transpired these last few days to understand the cause. The Republican Party seems clueless regarding why Trump seems so resistant to efforts by leading party figures to bring him down. The short answer is that much of Trump’s support is premised on the idea that he is NOT part of the party establishment, and every time a Romney or a Kristol or a Fox News takes him on, Trump’s supporters are reminded of this. Beyond the economic populism and “racial resentment” that fuels much of Trump’s support, there is also a deep belief among his supporters that something needs to change in American politics, and that change is not going to come from within the existing party establishment. If I heard it once speaking to voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina, I heard a variation of it a hundred times, “We have to do something to shake things up – simply voting for existing party candidates is not going to do it.” In short, there’s distinct sense among Trump supporters that the path to change is not going to come from within the Party.

Of course, from the Party’s perspective, the purpose behind the Romney et al attacks is not necessarily to peel off Trump’s supporters – it’s to motivate the party faithful to rally behind a suitable alternative. But beyond the obvious coordination problem – neither Cruz, Rubio or Kasich is showing any signs of bowing out as yet – I have to believe that every time the media publicizes a Stop Trump moment from within the Party, broadly defined, it gives undecided voters another reason to consider supporting The Donald as well. And, if turnout is any indication, Trump is bringing disaffected voters back to the fold – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a party that seemed to lose downscale white voters in 2012.  (I’ll be up with a subsequent post indicating whether this increased primary turnout says anything about voting in the general election.)

So far Trump seems to be more than holding his own, despite – or because of – these Stop Donald efforts. Let’s see if anything changes today. My suspicion (says the man who told his students Donald would be out of the race in a matter of weeks) is that the Trump train will come out of this weekend and roll into Tuesday with a good deal of Trump-mentum.