Sunday, March 06, 2016

Super Saturday: Some Things We Learned Last Night

1. One of the most difficult tasks for analysts of election campaigns is distinguishing true turning points in the race from mere temporary bends in the road. It is tempting to view every new event as an example of the former—hence the media's addiction to the endless proclamation of "game-changing" developments—while most turn out, in retrospect, to be the latter.

If we are feeling particularly adventuresome, we might view Saturday's election returns as a notable shift in momentum. Ted Cruz unexpectedly won the Kansas and Maine caucuses by double-digit margins while placing a close second to Donald Trump in Kentucky and Louisiana. The perception of a surging Cruz was further bolstered by the Louisiana results themselves, in which a large Trump advantage in early and absentee voting was steadily eroded over the course of the evening as Election Day ballots were counted. Trump hung on for a three-point victory, but the near-miss suggested that he had been damaged by recent events—perhaps the bizarre Thursday debate?—and the media treated Cruz as the de facto winning candidate of the day.

With Marco Rubio and John Kasich trailing far behind Trump and Cruz in all four states, one could interpret Saturday's results as setting up a two-person race between a newly vulnerable front-runner and a hard-charging second-place candidate—a familiar trope for journalists. The prospect of Cruz, widely detested by Republican Party regulars in Washington, as representing the sole remaining plausible vehicle for the stop-Trump movement also adds an irresistible dramatic wrinkle to the scenario, which will undoubtedly provide journalists with plenty of fodder for choose-your-poison challenges to party leaders in the coming days—if everyone can even hear themselves speak over the gleeful chortling of schadenfreude-afflicted Democrats.

2. But the "Cruz surge" story runs the risk of over-interpreting yesterday's outcome while failing to recognize that most events do not, as it were, change the game. Squinting at the results from another direction, we might conclude that the states voting last night, with the possible exception of Maine, should always have been friendly territory for any Cruz campaign that had pretensions to national viability. Rather than treat the Cruz candidacy as a newly-energized electoral juggernaut, a skeptical observer might point out that Cruz still lost two more southern states on Saturday—one of which abuts his own home base of Texas—and faces much less welcoming territory from this point forward (since few caucuses or southern primaries remain on the calendar).

If Cruz is going to establish himself as a bona fide challenger to Trump's front-runner status, he needs to perform equally well in a metropolitan state primary outside the South. Perhaps the contest will indeed narrow to a two-man race and he will demonstrate the ability to compete with Trump in states like Michigan, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Until then, there is little reason to believe that his improved electoral fortune is seriously threatening Trump's dominant position.

3. Rubio's rather dismal showing, in contrast, is difficult to dispute. Though the cause is not quite clear, he has faded badly as a candidate over the past week. His campaign appears to be directing its time and resources toward a final stand in his home-state Florida primary on March 15, which means that he is likely to suffer further decisive losses in the eight other states voting prior to or on that date. With an overall majority virtually out of reach (Rubio would need to capture 70 percent of the remaining delegates to win a first-ballot nomination), he now seeks merely to rack up enough delegates to force a deadlocked convention and guarantee himself a role to play in deciding the nominee. This is a long shot, though perhaps one worth taking under the circumstances.

4. The Democratic race continues to mosey along with little drama. Sanders holds a clear advantage in caucuses and rural areas outside the South, though the Clinton campaign—learning from its mistakes in 2008—managed to hold down his delegate margins sufficiently in these constituencies to prevent him from cutting into her numerical advantage nationwide. The race may tighten a bit once Clinton's regional base in the South is done voting on March 15, but Clinton has built a virtually insurmountable lead in delegates, and Sanders will be forced at some point in the near future to acknowledge the unforgiving reality of the arithmetic. He will probably remain an active candidate for the remainder of the primary calendar, but risks being viewed as a spoiler if he continues to attack her directly after the race has been effectively decided.