The results of Tuesday’s primary contests brought us some surprises - a Bernie win, a Rubio collapse and a Trump romp. But, it didn’t fundamentally alter the trajectory of this campaign. Hillary Clinton, barring some sort of epic collapse over the next few weeks, is going to be the Democratic nominee. Donald Trump, barring some sort of still unrealized success of the #NeverTrump movement is inching ever closer to winning the nomination outright.
Here’s what we know – and what we still don’t – about what happened Tuesday night and what it means for the next big election night on March 15.
1. Theories are great, but they are just theories.
Since the very beginning of the campaign all of us, myself included, have had grand theories of how the GOP race will shake-out. Early on, of course, it was that Trump would collapse. When that didn’t happen it was that Trump had a ceiling. As that ceiling got higher – going from 25 percent to 35 percent – the theory was that the field would start to coalesce behind an anti-Trump. And, when THAT didn’t happen, the theory was that people could be convinced to vote strategically a.k.a. the Mitt Romney approach of picking the strongest non-Trump candidate in every state to rally behind. That’s looking like a flop too. Ultimately, the problem with the #NeverTrump movement, as I’ve written previously, is that voters don’t think like political strategists. They want to vote for someone, not for a concept. Ultimately, the non-Trump candidates have spent more time and effort detailing why Trump is not fit to be the nominee than why they should be the nominee. As long as the race remains splintered, Trump wins. Period.
2. Will the last establishment candidate please turn off the lights before leaving the building.
It’s been clear from the outset of the 2016 race that GOP voters wanted an outsider candidate. A traditional, experienced political insider was always at a disadvantage. Here’s how I wrote about this in December,
The GOP electorate is fed up with traditional politics and hungry for a candidate who will shake up the system instead of basking in the status quo. However, this doesn’t mean that a so-called establishment candidate can’t win the nomination. What it does mean is that for an establishment candidate to win, he/she has to present him/herself as an agent of change. In other words, telling voters over and over again that you have a “proven record” as Jeb Bush and John Kasich do, when a minority of GOP voters value past political experience, is not an effective message. Republicans don’t want someone who’ll work within the system. They want someone who will shake up the system.Kasich continues to believe that his deep qualifications are the key to victory. That strategy has earned him exactly zero wins. Ironically, Marco Rubio was never supposed to be “the establishment” guy. He was supposed to be the optimistic change agent/outsider who could eventually win over establishment type votes and donors as he did in his 2010 race for the Senate. But, as Trump gained and Jeb flopped, Rubio picked up endorsements and donations from the elites and became the guy that everyone in Washington and New York liked. That undercut his entire brand and image (an image that already lacked substance and depth) and put him in the same untenable/unwinnable position in which Kasich and Bush started.
So, how unpopular is the “establishment” class”? The results from Michigan, Mississippi, Hawaii and Idaho showed Trump and Ted Cruz (an insider who is so hated by the insiders that he’s got outsider credibility) getting between 62 and 83 percent of the vote. Which, leads us to point #3...
3. Cruz is the only viable “non-Trump” left.
For many in Washington and the establishment class, being forced to choose between Trump and Cruz is like being forced to decide whether to chew glass or poke yourself in the eye with a needle. Both are painful and hard to imagine. But, that’s where we are. That said, as long as both Kasich and Rubio remain in the race, the anti-Trump vote remains splintered which gives Trump a real path to winning Ohio and Florida. If Trump wins both of those winner-take-all states, denying Trump a majority of the 1,237 delegates is going to be very, very hard. Moreover, the idea that an insider, like Kasich or even Paul Ryan, could win a contested convention is hard to justify given the deep antipathy GOP voters have shown for traditional politicians.
4. Clinton coronation put on ice.
Even so, what was supposed to be a quick and painless Clinton victory is obviously anything but. It also means she’s going to have to expend resources in a primary that her campaign was hoping to store up for the fall campaign.
The good news for Clinton – and Democrats – is that both she and Sanders remain well-liked among the Democratic electorate. More than 70 percent of Democrats, in the recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, said that they’d be happy if either candidate were the nominee. That’s not the case on the GOP side where just 51 percent of Republican voters said they’d be happy to see Trump as the nominee. A whopping 32 percent of all Republicans said they would be VERY disappointed with him as the nominee.
5. Polling is dead – long live polling.
There wasn’t all that much polling taken of the Michigan Democratic primary, but all of it showed Clinton with a substantial double-digit lead. So, what the heck happened?
First, there’s the technical explanation. Looking through the cross-tabs of the Marist Poll of Michigan Democratic primary (taken March 1 to March 3) their modeling showed an electorate that was a little older, a little more Democratic and little less-white. In other words, an electorate that was more demographically suited for Clinton. For example, according to the Marist probability modeling (a method of determining likely voters though a series of questions during the interviewing of voters) 18-29 year olds were going to make up 15 percent of the electorate. That wasn’t a crazy assumption. Thus far, young voter turn-out has been in the mid-high teens. In Iowa, young voters made up 18 percent of the electorate. They were 19 percent in New Hampshire and just 15 percent in South Carolina. In Michigan, however, the exit polls showed young voters made up 21 percent of the Democratic electorate – the highest we’ve seen in any state. Marist had African Americans comprising 28 percent of the electorate. The exit polls showed African-American turnout at 23 percent. And, while Marist thought Democrats would make up about three-quarters of the electorate, it was actually closer to 70 percent, with independents making up a much bigger share of the vote than Marist had assumed.
Sanders also did much better among women and African-American voters – a solid Clinton constituency – than was expected.
The other problem was that polls were all taken before the feisty Sunday night debate in Flint. If there was any momentum shift from that debate no one captured it.
Then there’s the non-technical explanation. What happened in Michigan on Tuesday reminds me a lot of what we saw in the New Hampshire Democratic primary in 2008. Back then, as now, the “narrative” from the media and talking heads was that the race was all but over. In 2008, Obama’s Iowa win made him the de-facto nominee. This year, the talk was that Michigan was Sanders’ last chance to hold off the inevitable Clinton nomination.
What we found out in both cases is that voters don’t like the idea of a coronation. I suspect that plenty of Democrats in Michigan heard the “last stand” message and rallied behind Sanders. There were also plenty of Democrats who saw Clinton’s big lead and thought, “meh, no need for me to come out.” Either way, it changed the make-up of the electorate and the vote.
We’ve still got a week to go before we hit the mother-lode of delegates on March 15th. But, with every passing day, it’s getting harder to see Trump stopped. Meanwhile, despite Clinton’s desire to pivot to the general election, Democratic primary voters aren’t ready to get off the primary Merry-go-Round. The next test for Sanders will be whether his anti-trade, anti-establishment message will be enough for him to win Ohio and Missouri next Tuesday.