Those hoping for nominees other than Clinton and Trump almost certainly needed outcomes other than what actually happened on Saturday in Nevada and South Carolina, respectively. Sanders put up an amazing fight, but his window has pretty much closed; the same can not be said for Trump’s Republican rivals in terms of the quality of the fight they put up, but can be said for their window.
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Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse February 21-22, 2016
By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter @bfry1981) February 21st, 2016 Updated February 22nd to discuss new polls
AMMAN — The contests of February 20th—a caucus for the Democrats in Nevada, a primary for the Republicans in South Carolina—will quite likely be remembered as the contests that set the final field for November, as the victors of each will now almost be impossible to stop given the realities of the here and now and the rapidly approaching nature of key contests. There will be a lot of noise between now and when each candidate is the indisputable nominee, noise that will likely change very little in the end.
First, let’s discuss Hillary Clinton. After losing so badly in New Hampshire, Clinton had reason to be nervous: Bernie Sanders had a big wave of momentum he was riding from his big New Hampshire victory, momentum that was generating a lot of good media coverage and millions in new donations, while Team Clinton was beset by negative press coverage and a Sanders campaign that was out-fundraising a Clinton campaign that was finding it harder to bring in new money. Recent polls even showed a much closer race between her and Sanders nationally, and one Fox News poll even had him slightly ahead. To make matters worse, polling data on Nevada, the first contest after New Hampshire, was particularly sparse and known to be unreliable, and the few polls that did come out showed a very tight race between her and Sanders there. It was very possible that Sanders would win Nevada. In that situation, Sanders would then have won two, and barely lost one, out of the first four contests; in such a situation, Clinton could have seen her sizable lead in South Carolina shrink (even if not overcome), raising questions about how loyal key Clinton constituencies would be going into Super Tuesday. A narrative of significantly weakening support would be one of the last things she needed at this point.
As I wrote earlier, Nevada was going to be an opportunity for Sanders to steal some support from Latinos and African-Americans, the latter being such a crucial demographic in next Saturday’s upcoming South Carolina Democratic primary and in the following Super Tuesday contests a few days later; Sanders’ coalition had thus far been narrow, and it would be do-or-diefor him to win voters from more diverse backgrounds than his largely white and liberal base. A debate shortly before Nevada was a chance for him to gain with these groups, but this he failed to do as Clinton skillfully targeted her message to address the concerns of these groups, compared with his more modest attempts to speak to them using that national stage. When the Nevada caucuses finally happened, Sanders lost by a clear margin and did terribly with black voters, and while the entrance poll showed he won Latinos, 1.) most (about 90%) of those people were surveyed when the poll results showed Sanders beating Clinton in the early wave and only about 10% were surveyed after the initial wave, when far more people went for Clinton, 2.) there are difficulties in accurately polling Latinos in these situations, and 3.) the preponderance of evidence showed that Clinton outperformed Sanders with Latinos, showing that she did very well in the most heavily Latino precincts, so despite a confusing entrance poll, it seems Sanders did not beat Clinton with Latinos.
More importantly for Clinton’s immediate concerns, she demolished Sanders in terms of support for African-Americans one week before the South Carolina Democratic primary on February 27th, when huge numbers of black voters will participate. With Clinton already leading by a spread that ranges 18-38 points in South Carolina, there is almost no way to envision Sanders, after Nevada, breaking into this lead in a significant way with less than a week to go. And just a few days after that, on March 1st’s Super Tuesday, eleven states, including delegate-rich Texas, vote, with a significant portion of the overall delegates for the whole contest being awarded that day and many of the contests taking place in states with diverse population far more inclined to support Clinton.
Nine days from today is not much time for Sanders to stave off crushing defeats in almost all those states as Clinton has huge double-digit leads in nearly every state, many by more than 20 percentage points. There is no sign that Sanders’ narrow message will be able to broad support in time, but even if he altered his message now it is almost certainly too late. This clear win in Nevada and a likely blowout in South Carolina will do nothing to dramatically shift the overall picture in Sanders’ favor, and with Clinton’s already huge lead in delegates that’s about to get astronomically huge in a matter of days, and with a large number of other states voting just days and weeks after the first Super Tuesday contests throughout March, it is almost impossible to see a path for Sanders’ winning the nomination absent a health crisis for Clinton or an FBI indictment related to its probe of the handling of subsequently classified material in relation to Clinton’s personal e-mail server, both extremely unlikely scenarios despite loud right-wing claims to the contrary regarding the latter.
Sanders did have a viable path to the nomination that still would have been difficult but far from impossible to achieve: a win in Nevada, a show of clear gains with African-Americans and/or Latinos heading into South Carolina and Super Tuesday, and picking up sizable numbers of delegates in the process of all this through early March. Now, that simply won’t happen, not in time for these key contests; the idea that huge masses of voters who already have not will quickly and suddenly buy into his objectively unrealistic program and its near-zero chances of being implemented are tiny and decreasing every day as time runs out. Instead, Clinton will be picking up more money and positive media coverage and more endorsements just when she needs to, and will almost certainly win the nomination.
The Nevada caucus will go down as the moment when Clinton secured her path that led to her nomination.
Now, it’s time to discuss Trump. I’ve been saying since early August that Trump was in a good position to win the nomination. Trump was expected to win big in South Carolina’s February 20th Republican Primary, and even when, just days before the contest, he attacked George W. Bush’s presidency, got into a fight with the pope, and said nice things about Obamacare and Planned Parenthood, he still won the state by 10 percentage points and won every delegate at stake, shutting out his opponents. As a result, Trump is without a doubt the clear front-runner and is now likely to win the nomination, and Republican elites are in full panic mode, desperate to find someone to topple him from his lead position. It was clear even before this contest that the at least a big chunk of Establishment Republicans wanted Rubio to be their man (especially clear when they packed the audience with people very favorable to Rubio and Bush and hostile to Trump and Cruz at the last debate in South Carolina just days before the primary). Yet the Establishment pinning its hopes on Rubio to dislodge Trump is a fool’s move for a fool’s quest: the idea that a candidate who came in 3rd in Iowa, 5th in New Hampshire, and 2nd in South Carolina (barely edging a 3rd-place Ted Cruz there) is somehow going to now win a bunch of states and delegates is truly absurd; I would be impressed if he wins more than a couple of the next few contests, and it is quite possible he will not win of them, given that Trump is dominating almost every poll in almost every state. It is hard to see Rubio getting a significant bounce after just losing to Trump by ten points and barely edging Cruz.
The Establishment may not want to admit it, but, as I pointed out before, Rubio is a weak and shallow candidate who wilts under pressure. And that does not even go into how vulnerable Rubio is on the hot-button issue of immigration in the eyes of Republican primary voters. There are four other candidates still in the race besides Rubio, and to simply assume that Jeb Bush voters who had have favored the graying, experienced, moderate former Governor will mainly flock to a junior freshman Senator who possesses none of the experience or gravitas that Bush does and is far less moderate is quite a faulty assumption; if anyone is likely to gain the most from Bush’s departure, it will be Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who may yet outperform Rubio when more moderate states get to have their say. Rubio has no victories so far (don’t let his speeches behaving as if he has actually won anything fool you), and Cruz’s only victory has been Iowa, on the backs of Evangelicals, who now seem to be favoring Trump and clearly did so in South Carolina. Dr. Carson will still keep many die-hard Evangelicals away from Cruz, and Cruz’s best bet for a big win, Texas, is a state that will divide delegates up proportionately in a way that will minimize any delegate lead from that state Cruz will have over Trump, there while some other states that are winner-take-all could favor Trump over his rivals.
What’s more, while all the remaining Trump rivals save Kasich have raised and spent large amounts of money, Trump has dramatically less compared to Cruz, Rubio, and Carson (and, including PACs, less than Kasich, too), winning with minimal effort in terms or organization and money. Trump is essentially dominating with one hand tied behind his back.
Obama’s victory was fueled by a lot of passion, but also a lot of money and a top-notch organization; Sanders is also fueled by passion, but is also raising and spending a lot of money; alone in the modern era, Trump is winning almost solely on passion and media exposure. This is remarkable and unprecedented. Furthermore, Trump has played his rivals so skillfully that most of them save their fiercest attacks for each other, and the only ones who took him on strongly and consistently have now dropped out, most notably Bush. Imagine if Rubio seems to truly be gaining steam, and Trump starts to actually spend money and organize heavily, or to focus his attacks on Rubio… No, Rubio will almost certainly not be taking Trump down. Cruz will almost certainly not be taking Trump down even more so.
Fresh off his victory, Trump heads into the February 23rd Nevada Republican caucuses, where polls even before his big South Carolina win already had him an overwhelming favorite; a win there seems extremely likely, and that would be three wins in a row going and a lot of momentum going into Super Tuesday and beyond, contests where he is dominating in most polls in most states; a dominant, delegate-accumulating performance early in March will only further lead to more success as many more states vote later in March. The window for someone else to come out on top in such a short period of time is dramatically low, and probably beyond Rubio’s capabilities.
Rubio being taken down by Christie in the New Hampshire debate, Cruz not winning Evangelicals in South Carolina, and Trump’s dominant victories in both states will remembered as the events that sealed the deal for Trump and doomed Rubio and Cruz.
It’s obvious now to those who follow these kinds of things that the tops of the tickets in November will almost certainly be Clinton and Trump; in a few weeks’ time, it will be undeniable to just about everyone.
Update 2/22: Brand-new polls in Massachusetts and Michigan are very telling; a poll conducted 2/19-2/21 in Massachusetts, state that would supposedly have support for more moderate candidate’s, has Trump blowing out his competition 50 to Rubio’s 16, Kasich’s 13, and Cruz’s 10. Even if this poll is somewhat off, it suggest a certain win for Trump. Another poll has him doubling the support of his nearest competitor in Michigan (35 to Kasich’s 17 and Rubio, Cruz each with 12). If a non-Trump can’t win moderate Massachusetts and/or Michigan, and if Trump can win states like those and South Carolina, the rest of the process will just be a formality.
For Clinton, as I’ve noted before, Bernie’s base is mainly white liberals, and the state with the most white liberals is Vermont (Bernie’s home state), the 2nd most New Hampshire (Bernie’s only victory so far), and Iowa and Massachusetts are tied for 3rd; Bernie only came close to a tie in the Iowa caucus and the new poll has her tied with Clinton in Massachusetts; if he can’t win the two states that are tied for being the third most favorable to him, his appeal is truly remarkably narrow, indeed, and he will have virtually zero chance of winning the nomination. Like most other states, Michigan was polled as having Clinton up significantly, 53-40.
Every day, Trump vs. Clinton in November becomes more and more certain.
See an expansion of this analysis in a follow-up piece here discussing (the first) Super Tuesday
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