international analysis and commentary

The primary season: end of the beginning


With the recent voting, we have finally reached, if not the beginning of the end, at least the end of the beginning. It’s been clear for a while that, despite a stronger-than-expected challenge from socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. Although some remain in denial, the vote totals Donald Trump has piled up these past weeks make it all but certain that he will be Clinton’s opponent in the fall. That will make them the two major-party nominees with the highest disapproval ratings in American history.

Some still held out hope of stopping Trump about 100 delegate votes short of the needed majority. But until recent years, when the parties began jiggering the rules and calendars to curtail the nomination contests, the eventual nominee usually finished the primaries similarly just shy of a majority, but still eventually prevailed.

In fact, parties very quickly fall in line behind their nominees, despite the months of blood-letting – especially Republicans. That process has already begun. Republican national chairman Reince Priebus, who has sparred with Trump for weeks, effectively threw in the towel and called for unity. Republicans who abjure Trump will console themselves that he’s better than Hillary – after all, despite all his apostasies, he’s for the same massive tax cuts for the wealthy that, ultimately, are all conservatives really care about. At the end, 90% or so of voters almost always “come home” to their respective parties.

Just how starkly divided the country remains showed up in a hilariously revealing study by Verdant Labs of the first names of donors to each of the major campaigns.  The most common name of Sanders donors is Karl – with a K – as in “Marx”. The donors to the two leading Republicans, Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, tend to be named “Bobby” and “Billy.” The top name among Clinton contributors? Mohammad. (Clinton donors’ names also tend to be female, while Trump’s assuredly do not.)

Trump has a better shot at winning in November than most observers believe. Conventional wisdom asserts that Trump has offended so many groups that make up an ever-larger share of the electorate – minorities and women – not to mention mainstream voters, that, as sports-statistics pioneer Bill James entertainingly wrote on his website, there aren’t enough “morons” for Trump to win. The history of elections the world over undercuts James’ claim.  In fact, a George Washington University Battleground poll released on April 25 found Clinton’s general election margin over Trump at only 46%-43% (although most polls put her lead in the high single-digits.)

Moreover, US presidential elections don’t require the winner to obtain a popular majority – as Bush v. Gore demonstrated – but rather a majority of Electoral College votes awarded winner-take-all by state. Trump has probably sacrificed the three Hispanic-heavy Southwestern “swing” states – Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico – that otherwise should have been in play, but that’s only 20 electoral votes out of 538. He appears likely to do better than standard-issue Republicans, however, with older, less-educated whites, concentrated in much larger states in the industrial crescent like Wisconsin (10 votes), Michigan (16), Ohio (18) and Pennsylvania (20) – hotly contested in all this century’s elections but usually tilting Democratic.

Trump has already begun the “pivot” to a “more presidential” style for the general election. His new campaign strategist told Republican leaders  that Trump’s bombastic persona to date was simply playing a “part”; he later clarified that this disingenuousness applied not to everything but only to Trump rallies, where he tends to throw red meat to the baying crowd. Trump himself felt the need to reassure his rabid followers that he would continue behaving that way for them because otherwise – in his telling – they’d get bored; he intends to say something different to the rest of us, and count on the two different audiences ignoring what he says to the other. In short, he will run a campaign based on the assumption that there really are enough morons out there. And as a man who conceived a chart-topping reality show, and is widely accepted as a business genius despite going bankrupt repeatedly (as one opponent, Marco Rubio, observed, “He bankrupted a casino.  How do you bankrupt a casino?”) – well, he may be on to something.

The more important question is what this means for the country’s future. Eight years ago, I wrote a post-election analysis for Aspenia (issue in English 41-42) reveling in how the two ultimate combatants – John McCain and Barack Obama – each personified a different (yet, most importantly, admirable) America: McCain, America’s historical tough-guy but courageous and principled self-image, Obama its increasingly polyglot, internationalist, highly-educated future. In 2008, the future won. Since then, the past – mostly in the form of increasingly angry, dispossessed white males – has struck back.  

The 2016 Trump wrecking ball has made explicit both the appeal the Republican Party has held for culturally-conservative, economically left-behind (read “white”) Americans and the fact that these voters care little about any more high-minded conservative principles: They’re as happy with Trump’s support for Social Security, and intimations that government should – Obamacare notwithstanding – guarantee access to healthcare, as they are with his outright racism and xenophobia. Over the next few days, Trump dismissed transgender bathrooms as a non-issue, to the outrage of conservative leaders; my guess is that even Trump’s socially conservative followers will agree: It’s the economy stupid.

Meanwhile, Democrats are torn between Clinton’s socially progressive but largely-upscale pragmatism and Sanders’ call for a return to the party’s historic concern for the economy’s losers. As social issues fade and economic divisions reassert themselves as the fault line of American politics, both parties’ elites and bases have important choices to make: Do Sanders’ angry college students and economically disposed Trump supporters have more in common with each other? And might the Democrats’ new-economy “Coalition of the Ascendant” (as Obama’s team called them) and old-economy Captains of Industry reconcile? In a year filled with the previously implausible, Charles Koch, the oil and gas billionaire who has underwritten modern conservatism, actually suggested in recent days  that Hillary might be preferable to Donald.