Well, that was fun, wasn’t it?
Now that February’s round of presidential primaries and caucuses are over – four states in four distinct pockets of the country – the road to the White House is back at its starting line.
Democrats seem destined to anoint Hillary Clinton as their nominee, which may or may not excite the party’s more progressive elements smitten with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The Republicans’ outlook is not as clear. A field once as overpopulated as a Duggar family reunion is down to but three viable candidates, and two of them – Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – would be problematic candidates in a general election.
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A word of caution regarding what’s about to hit us: for the next two weeks, the race will move at light speed; March is coming in like a lion. On Tuesday, 12 states will hold primaries or caucuses. That adds up to one-fourth of Republican delegates and one-fifth of Democratic delegates.
Over the course of the following week, another nine states go to the polls. The biggest prize, Michigan’s March 8 primary.
Then, perhaps, the knockout punch: five states voting on the Ides of March, including Ohio and Florida. The significance: from this point on, voting switches to winner-take-all verdicts. If Clinton and Trump run the table, their delegate leads will be insurmountable.
If this occurs, it’s keeping in line with the last two presidential elections. By early March 2008, Barack Obama had secured enough delegates to be on a path to the Democratic nomination. The same was true for Mitt Romney in 2012, when he secured the Republican nomination.
But in an unorthodox election, there could be yet another plot twist: if Trump, Cruz and Marco Rubio divide the five states on March 15, then the GOP race will carry into late April. And from there, if no candidate has cornered the market on delegates, brace yourself: May is a light voting month, so the GOP race could be settled by the outcome in California’s June 7 primary.
But that’s idle speculation. Here are some lessons learned for both parties.
Dating back to 1980 and Ronald Reagan, the GOP presidential nominee tends to be the next-to-last-guy standing from the last election. Preferably, a governor who’ll promise – and ultimately fail – to bridle the federal government.
But as we bid adieu to February, eight Republican governors past and present had been voted off the island. Three of the five remaining hopefuls – Trump, Cruz, Rubio and Dr. Ben Carson – have zero experience managing an executive branch of government.
You can chalk this up, in part, to bad timing. Like dairy shelf products, some of the gubernatorial candidates were well past their spoil date – George Pataki, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, seriously? Others, like Jeb Bush, didn’t stand a chance with an electorate dismissive of “big tent” ideas (most notably, immigration reform) and enthralled by the antics of Trump (fear not, we’ll get to him in a moment).
Ironically, in 2016, it’s the Democrats who are going about their business in a Republican-like fashion. Hillary Clinton fits the GOP narrative: previous runner-up, oodles of experience, it’s her turn.
She’s also been in this game for more than a quarter-century. The seniority, over-familiarity and her Swiffer-like ability to attract dirt have led to three problems: young voters who don’t remember the good old days of the 1990s (they can’t tell a Lewinsky from a Lebowski); primaries-goers concerned most about candidates’ integrity (Sanders typically gets 80-85 percent of this vote); and in February, Democratic turnout well off 2008’s pace, which raises questions about mobilizing the Obama coalition in sufficient numbers come November.
Still, good luck stopping Clinton – especially since her party hasn’t produced a viable alternative. For this, she can thank Obama. Since Obama took office seven years ago, Democrats have ceded 10 governorships, 14 Senate seats and 69 House seats.
Should Clinton win this fall, it buys her party the better part of eight years to stock the pond (California’s 2018 and 2022 elections would play a role in this). In 2016, the absence of a deep, talented presidential field means one of two risky bets: a frontrunner so established and polarizing that only a small slice of the electorate remains undecided or coaxable; a devout socialist (who’s not a card-carrying Democrat) who, were he to face a more establishment Republican, would be an invitation to a 40-state loss.
Then again, “normal” is a word rarely if ever ascribed to Trump who, to paraphrase the “Star Trek” theme, has gone further than no egomaniacal billionaire has gone before.
How to explain a story that seems surreal even for reality television – an insult-wielding, reality-TV star with the inside track to a major party’s nomination?
I’ll give you three variables:
First, Trump correctly recognized immigration reform as the gaping wound it is for Republicans. For The Donald, that one topic is a gateway to a very simple narrative: you’re being ripped off. In Trump’s view, by people living here illegally, by trade deals that cost Americans jobs and empower foreign governments, and by a spineless political class consumed by political correctness.
Sanders, by the way, also exploits this “ripped off” sentiment: through his socialist prism, it’s billionaires who game the marketplace and buy and sell politicians.
Second, Trump has used his celebrity status to its full advantage. This would never happen in California politics, right?
After votes in the first three states, Trump’s campaign had spent all of $17 million, much of it on splashy events and the personal chariot that is his private 757. By comparison, Jeb Bush’s forces spent $15 million alone in South Carolina.
Trump brags that his is a self-funded campaign, no contributions accepted. So how does he do it on the cheap? It helps that he has an enabler: the Fox News Channel. There’s no need to buy ad time when an eight-minute hit on “Fox and Friends” and his frequent appearances on the various host shows reach most Republican-viewing households nationwide. Free of charge.
Finally, there’s the matter of a GOP electorate that defies common sense.
Each week, without fail, the twice-divorced “Two Corinthians” candidate has run even with, if not better than the son-of-a-minister Cruz among evangelical voters. In South Carolina, Trump received nearly one-third of the vote despite nearly 90 percent of that state’s primary voters believing the man didn’t share their values.
Trump is not the first Republican to journey down this path, by the way. In 1992, Pat Buchanan ran a similar anti-establishment, rebellious campaign that fed off immigrant resentment, cultural drift, protectionism and economic stagnation. However, Buchanan went downhill after depriving Jeb Bush’s father of three-eighths of New Hampshire’s vote. Trump has won the last three states and shows no signs of slowing down.
To stop Trump, it’s very simple: see if he can build his support past 40 percent in a two-man race. But how to do that when four other Republicans insisted upon carrying their campaigns into March?
Tabloid headline-writers and late-night comedians will rejoice: a Trump-Clinton race is a gift that will keep giving right up to and past Election Day. Never mind that it’s a sad statement about the quality of political options in this nation of 320 million Americans.
It’s the race we could be bracing ourselves for, depending on March’s choices.
Not that anyone would be laughing come April Fools’ Day.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.