Although they have been described as widely unpredictable and changeable, the 2016 US presidential primaries already seem set on their course only a month and a half since kicking off in Iowa. Yet, in one of this year’s many paradoxes, their final outcome is still uncertain, particularly on the Republican front.
The delegate-rich vote in Florida, North Carolina, Missouri, Ohio and Illinois confirmed what has been evident for a while: Donald Trump is far and away the favorite candidate of Republican voters while Hillary Clinton is the top choice among Democrats. On March 15th, she took Florida, Illinois – by a nose, North Carolina and Ohio. In her victory speech her tone was, once again, very much that of the Democratic-nominee in waiting.”Our commander-in-chief has to be able to defend our country, not embarrass it,” Clinton said with a jab to Trump, who is now increasingly likely to be her opponent in the general elections. “When we hear a candidate embracing torture, that doesn’t make him strong, that makes him wrong!”
For his part, Trump took Florida, Illinois, Missouri (by the slimmest of margins) and North Carolina. He also got yet another of his rivals, the darling of the establishment Marco Rubio, to drop out of the race. Trump had such a good night he could barely hold the excitement. He announced his victory in Florida with a tweet he posted before polls even closed. “Word is that, despite a record amount spent on negative and phony ads, I had a massive victory in Florida. Numbers out soon!” he wrote.
Largely because most delegates thus far have been awarded on a proportional basis, the math says that both Trump and Clinton still have some way to go before they can claim their respective party nomination as their own. But their lead at this point is, for all intents and purposes, insurmountable. Or it would have been in any other election year. This one is different though.
Among Republicans, Trump is upending conventional wisdom. Having failed to coalesce around another candidate early enough in the process to get that person to actually beat Trump, the Republican establishment is now pursuing a desperate strategy of “divide and conquer”. The plan GOP kingmakers in Washington envision is to have enough candidates each win enough delegates to just about deprive Trump of a clean majority. This would then lead to a “brokered” party convention this summer, where things would pretty much have to start from scratch, giving the establishment the chance at a do-over.
On March 15th, the baton in this last-ditch relay passed to John Kasich. The Ohio governor won his first primary of the year in his home state. With Rubio out, he can now make the case that he is the only decent, moderate choice left. “I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land,” Kasich told his supporters Tuesday night with a clear reference to Trump. But he is so far behind both Trump and Ted Cruz it’s hard to imagine he has a shot. Cruz, in the meantime, had one of the most disappointing election nights thus far, gaining a few more delegates but losing momentum overall.
With Trump solidifying his position with each day, the idea that the party establishment could take the nomination away from him at a brokered convention seems increasingly far-fetched, akin to murder-suicide. Though such an outcome remains technically possible, Trump voters would likely see it as a coup by that very elite they already resent so much. And they might choose to punish the party for it in November. “We have to bring our party together,” Trump pointedly said from Florida. The question now is how quickly more and more Republicans get in line behind Trump as the inevitable nominee, much like his former contenders Chris Christie and Ben Carson already did.
Though less belligerent, things remain fluid in the Democratic camp too. The enthusiasm Sanders has been able to generate among young voters in particular is undisputable. Yet with Clinton’s very strong showing on March 15th, the rationale for him to stay in the race is thinning. Especially if Democrats must gear up to face the political minefield that is Trump in the general elections. It might very well have come time for them to close the ranks and present a more united front than the GOP seems to be able to muster.