Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Super Tuesday: Some Things We Learned Last Night

1. The media coverage of last night's results focused on Donald Trump's seven state-level victories, but the more important story is the delegate count. Trump did well there too, of course. But the absolute pasting taken by Marco Rubio is possibly just as consequential. By my reckoning, Rubio got about 22 percent of the total popular vote but only 16 percent of the delegates awarded on Tuesday—while Ted Cruz turned 30 percent of the vote into 37 percent of the delegates, thanks to allocation rules in Texas that were particularly favorable to him and a series of first- and second-place finishes in the other southern states. (Trump won about 35 percent of the vote and 43 percent of the delegates.)

2. Rubio now lags Trump in the overall delegate count by more than 200 (336 to 113, according to FiveThirtyEight this afternoon) with 1,237 needed for the nomination. Even if he were to place first in winner-take-all Florida on March 15—by far his best opportunity to gain a large net haul of delegates all at once—he would make up less than half of this gap. The plausible path forward for him is vanishing quickly. However, he will be encouraged to stay in the race by ABCD Republicans ("Anybody But Cruz or Donald") in hopes of a miracle—or at least a contested convention.

3. Cruz, with 234 delegates, is now closer to Trump in the delegate count than Rubio is to him. However, his position is currently inflated by a home-state effect that cannot be replicated in future primaries, and few prominent Republicans are enthusiastic about attempting to rally around Cruz to block Trump. Such an effort might not work anyway; Cruz has yet to demonstrate significant appeal among Republican electorates outside of southern or rural constituencies. He is ill-suited to compete for most of the remaining large delegate prizes on the calendar: California, New York, Illinois. As the second-place candidate, Cruz has no reason to drop out either at this point, but where does he go from here to get 1,000 more delegates?

4. Some ABCD Republicans can't seem to decide whether it's better for their cause for the anti-Trump faction to be divided or unified now that the goal is shifting from defeating Trump outright in the primaries to merely denying him a first-ballot majority at the national convention. A divided field might keep Trump's delegate count below a majority in states with proportional allocation of delegates, but might also make it easier for him to place first with a plurality in winner-take-all states. This is a legitimate dilemma from a formal strategic standpoint (though it's academic in a sense, given the limited ability of party leaders to control the candidates), but has an unmistakable whiff of denial about it politically, feeling like an intermediate stage before final acknowledgement of Trump's dominant position.

5. Surely the most ignored story of the night was Hillary Clinton's smashing popular success, especially in a series of southern states where her electoral margins resembled those received by a popular incumbent officeholder facing a no-name primary challenger. To some degree, this was understandable; the Republican race is more of a "story" in the eyes of the press and public alike. But it also reflects a strain of media punditry that can be summarized as "nothing good ever happens to Hillary Clinton."

Case in point: though Clinton has been the prohibitive favorite on the Democratic side from the beginning and won the South Carolina primary by 47 points, Jake Tapper of CNN opined on Saturday that the Democratic race was actually more competitive than the Republican race. If that were actually true, of course, Clinton's lopsided victories yesterday should have been the big surprise of the evening. Instead, however, they were largely underplayed when not ignored entirely; somebody (it might have been Tapper again) said on CNN last night that the results were good for both candidates—thus revealing an, uh, "innovative" understanding of how two-person races actually work.

6. Relatedly, the media discussion surrounding the Trump phenomenon contains a healthy dose of "better watch out, Democrats!" that is undoubtedly bolstered further by Clinton's status as his presumptive general-election opponent. It's true that Trump's rise has so far defied predictions, and elements of his political message may prove popular in a general election, but let's not take this too far. If Trump is nominated and defeats Clinton in November, it will be under a scenario in which any other plausible Republican candidate would have done the same, while it's much easier to imagine a case in which Trump loses while a Kasich or Rubio might have won.

The Republican Party is on the verge of nominating a deeply flawed and unpopular presidential candidate while simultaneously tearing itself apart internally. The "hot take" that this is actually a bad thing for the Democrats seems forced, to say the least—and ignoring Trump's considerable deficiencies in a general election contest only undermines the anti-Trump case within the GOP at a time when many prominent Republican leaders and conservative commentators are trying to persuade their party's voters to abandon him. There is always uncertainty in politics, but that doesn't mean that anything is likely to happen. Let's be clear: the presidential ambitions of Hillary Clinton could hardly have been better served than they were by the results in both parties last night.