2016: What We Now Know

Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters in Tampa, Florida, March 10, 2016
Carlos Barria/Reuters
Hillary Clinton speaking to supporters in Tampa, Florida, March 10, 2016

In an election year in which almost nothing has been anticipated, at least the contests in the first half of March did their job of providing the turning point in this year’s nominating process. On one side it hasn’t turned out as the party leaders hoped and now they’re desperately trying to figure out what to do. On the other side, though it would take something exogenous and cataclysmic to prevent the formidable front-runner from winning the nomination, her opponent is determined to keep going to the end. The mid-March outcomes also underscored the serious splits within both parties that have been developing since the campaigns got underway.

Despite Donald Trump’s victories in four of the five states that voted on March 15—Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, and Missouri—we still don’t know who the Republican nominee will be, or even how he’ll be chosen. With his resounding loss to John Kasich in Ohio, Trump may well arrive at the convention in Cleveland short of the 1,237 delegates needed to put him safely past a challenge. To be certain to avoid a challenge, Trump needs to win 54 percent of the delegates chosen between now and the end of the contests. This isn’t impossible, and a lot rides on the successes of his remaining opponents: Ted Cruz, who won nowhere on Tuesday; and Kasich, the popular two-term governor of Ohio who is clearly the most qualified Republican candidate, substantively and temperamentally, and whose campaign maintains he can win more states. Kasich’s strategy for a long time has been to win his home state, which he did, and to be presented at the convention as the most plausible alternative. But in order for this to happen, first Trump would have to be stopped and then delegates would have to decide that Kasich is their most promising candidate for November.

Hillary Clinton’s solid victories in Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina on Tuesday all but assured her of having enough delegates to win the nomination. While the races were much tighter in Illinois and Missouri—in each case Clinton beat Sanders by only two points—Sanders simply couldn’t replicate his victory in Michigan on March 8. The surprisingly large turnout of young voters for Sanders in Michigan just didn’t materialize in the next industrial states. But Sanders will continue to challenge Clinton—and he clearly wants a prominent part at the convention: thrillingly for him and unexpected by just about everyone else, he has started a movement.  Following Sanders’s upset of her in Michigan, Clinton amped up her talk about trade and protections needed for workers. Clinton didn’t do particularly well with independents in the March 15 contests, and this is a subject of worry within her campaign.

Clinton’s victory speech that night displayed her strengths and her weaknesses as a candidate. Obviously very well informed, she has so many things to say that she still lacks a message. One could hear her trying out this one and that one, but they competed with each other so that no underlying theme came through. Not long before the March 15 primaries, in a moment of candor, Clinton confessed that she’d been advised to stop yelling her speeches; the yelling is new or at least far more prominent in this campaign than before, and despite some of her aides’ attempts to label criticism of it as sexist, in my experience women are at least as bothered by it as men are.

In her Tuesday night speech, miming Sanders—she needs his supporters in November—Clinton said her campaign was dependent on small donations and she asked for more of them; and after months of berating Sanders for being unrealistic by calling for free tuition to public colleges, she said that she hoped that future generations would be able to go to college “without borrowing a dime for tuition.” Obviously aching to take on Trump, she also said, “Our commander in chief has to be able to defend our country, not embarrass it.”

Clinton’s campaign had hoped that she could win enough delegates through the primaries and caucuses that she wouldn’t need the support of superdelegates to put her over the top. The superdelegates—Democratic members of Congress, governors, and members of the Democratic National Committee—resulted from the reforms that followed the violent 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. The reforms led to a far more open nominating process, essentially removing the decisive influence of a few established political figures in the selection of the party’s nominee. Gone was the “smoke-filled room,” or so it was thought. The idea of having superdelegates was twofold: to give party officials some say in the nomination should the primaries and caucuses result in indecision, and now that the grass roots were choosing the delegates, to assure them a seat at the convention. (Unlike the delegates elected in the state contests, the Democratic superdelegates aren’t required to support the winner of their state’s nominating contest.)

Clinton, who is seen by most Democrats as the surer bet and, along with her husband, has a myriad of political connections, has secured 467 of some 712 superdelegates; whereas Sanders, essentially a political loner who ticks off his colleagues with his holier-than-thou talk—Sanders’s Senate colleagues don’t appreciate his lectures to them in conferences that they’re part of a corrupt political system—has 26.  The Republican Party also has superdelegates but they’re limited to three per state and, unlike the Democratic superdelegates, they’re obliged to vote for the primary or caucus winner in their state on the first ballot.

Ted Cruz, who won no state on Tuesday, is trying to promote the idea that he’s the most viable alternative to Trump, that he’s the candidate the party should turn to if Trump falters. However, given Cruz’s very conservative credentials, on which he’s basing his campaign, and because he isn’t an acquired taste—he’s seen by his fellow Republicans as a smarmy character with no generosity in his soul—Cruz will always hit an electoral wall when he tries to take his campaign national. He argues that he could beat Trump in a two-man race, but voters aren’t buying: his appeal is too limited to cause millions and millions of Americans to suddenly fall in love with him.

Trump’s big win over Marco Rubio in his home state of Florida—by more than twenty points—knocked Rubio out of the race. Rubio had to have seen this coming—everyone else did. But to have quit the race a very few days before the primary would have created a pathetic aura around this very ambitious young politician who tried to fly too close to the sun. In the end, Rubio’s oratorical skills didn’t cover up his essential shallowness. Rubio had won in 2010 as a Tea Party candidate and then switched back and forth on immigration once he got to the Senate though his voting record, such as it was, was pretty conservative, and his frequent absences from his Senate job and slacking off from doing his work back home left many Floridians unconcerned about his fate. The talk in recent days about Rubio running for vice president on someone’s ticket is puzzling, since he hasn’t shown that he can win strong support from any constituency. He wrung what he could out of Tuesday’s concession speech, taking a swipe at Trump’s form of populism: “America needs a conservative movement, one that is based on ideas, principles and ideas…Not on fear. Not on anger. Not on preying on people’s frustrations.”

It had been clear for weeks that violence would come to Trump events. It’s not just that Trump had made numerous statements that encouraged the violence but that he clearly sees it as an important instrument of his candidacy. And unless he undergoes a transformation, there has been nothing to reassure us that should he win the presidency he would drop this as a stratagem for ginning up support. Those Republicans and others who professed shock at the violence that erupted outside the venue for a planned Trump rally in Chicago last week hadn’t been paying attention. Trump had been making a much bigger deal about the presence of even peaceful demonstrators than was called for. If he spots one he interrupts his talk and calls great attention to that person rather than, as many politicians do, just keep talking.

Donald Trump supporters and protestors clashing in Chicago, March 11, 2016
Cindi Huang/The Photo Access/The World Access/Corbis
Donald Trump supporters and protestors clashing in Chicago, March 11, 2016

As I watched the scenes of physical clashes in Chicago play over and over on the cable channels, I couldn’t help thinking of the Munich beer hall putsch. With his keen understanding of how management of cable news think, Trump had to know how the violence would play on television, and, having cancelled the rally in Chicago, he made himself available to the news hosts. “A lot of people say this is a plus in terms of voters,” he told Fox News. (There’s evidence that this was true in the voting on March 15.) Disorder? Trump, the hero, would restore order. The populist authoritarian would defend the powerless.

The Chicago rioting raised some questions: How is it that Trump’s big rally was to be held near the University of Illinois campus in an ethnically mixed area of the city that has seen a great deal of violence in recent years? How is it that many demonstrators, even those carrying hostile signs, were allowed into the arena? Perhaps Trump was acting on the instincts of someone who wants power too badly.

It might have been one thing had Trump expressed any real concern or remorse over the turn that events had taken. Trump doesn’t do remorse, though. After the violence in Chicago, Trump tried to accuse Bernie Sanders of sending his followers to disrupt Trump events. Of course there’s nothing in what Sanders has done or said that suggests he would do this. Trump even referred to Sanders as a “Communist.” Perhaps he’s read some history after all. (Richard Nixon played off demonstrators on the way to the White House and then when he occupied it.) Was Trump disturbed by the violence in Chicago? He said, “I did a great thing in calling off the rally.” Was he concerned, the press asked him, that at a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a white man had cold-cocked a black demonstrator as he was being led out of the arena by police? The attacker said to the press, “Next time he comes back we may have to kill him.” Trump’s response to the press: the (white) man’s anger was justified. Pressed by reporters, he grudgingly responded, “I don’t condone violence.”

It might be recalled that anger was in the air in 2008 when John McCain ran for president against Obama with Sarah Palin as his running mate. However, while Palin ginned up the crowds, when a woman said to McCain that Obama is “a Muslim,” McCain corrected her: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen.” It’s inconceivable that Trump would say such a thing. Last week, Trump told Anderson Cooper that Muslims “hate us”—meaning the entire country; asked later by Jake Tapper if he really meant all 1.6 billion Muslims, Trump replied, “A lot of them.” Trump’s degree of cynicism is alarming. (For good measure, Trump invited Palin to stir up the crowd in Florida last week.)

So twisted is Trump’s understanding of free speech that he complained that demonstrators were denying him his free speech. At the same time he urged that people who come to protest at his events be arrested, so that criminal records will be attached to their names for the rest of their lives.  Of the very few specific proposals he’s actually made, the litigious Trump advocates changes in the law that would make it easier to win suits against journalists. This is clearly a priority for him. At his rallies, Trump’s been making menacing comments about reporters, calling them “the worst people in the world.” It’s not beyond imagination that his followers might sometime set upon reporters, undoubtedly with Trump finding that understandable, too. (There was the incident of the reporter for Breitbart News, a right-wing outlet, who was manhandled by Trump’s campaign manager in Florida on March 8. Asked about this by reporters, Trump said that she probably had made it up.)

Republican politicians who’ve rationalized that Trump might not be such a big problem as president, that he can be controlled, will have a lot to answer for if he reaches that office. The endorsements of Trump by Chris Christie and more recently Ben Carson suggest the unmoored behavior of confused politicians who don’t know where to park their egos. Christie’s outsized ambition had led him to self-damaging acts before (such as making a keynote speech at the 2012 Republican convention that was more about himself than about Mitt Romney, the nominee) and now Christie’s facing a dead end to his political career. Carson has long demonstrated a loose grip on reality (he once accused Barack Obama of being a “psychopath” who was “possibly guilty of treason”).

The Trump and Sanders movements are both driven by a populist revolt against the assumptions of both parties’ elites in recent decades that globalization and trade are good for our economy and that it’s destabilizing for the country to run a budget deficit. Even Barack Obama for a while subscribed to the misguided idea of austerity (in the midst of a weak economy) that some European nations had adopted, only to cause further economic despair. Meanwhile the great disparity in wealth in the US has continued to grow. Trump proposes that everyone’s income tax rate be lowered. (Sanders of course supports using tax policy to narrow the gap.) According to an article in Vox by Ezra Klein and Jeff Stein, Trump’s is the most reckless tax plan of any of the Republican candidates: Trump would cut taxes by a “whopping” $9.5 trillion, while Cruz would cut them by $8.6 trillion and Rubio would have reduced them by a mere $6.8 trillion. (These amounts don’t include the cost of the increase in the debt and the taxes on it.) By contrast, George W. Bush’s “reckless” tax cut of 2001 would cost $1.8 trillion in today’s dollars.

One cause for the populist movements is that the Democratic Party has moved away from its previous identity as champion of the working class to representing the creators of high tech industries and of derivatives and sub-prime mortgages. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton famously “triangulated,” seeking a “third way,” racing to the center. Sanders calls himself a Democratic-Socialist but from what he says he’s a New Dealer in an age where New Deal impulses have long since been abandoned. Obama, whose Treasury secretaries and top economic advisor, like Bill Clinton’s, came from Wall Street or were highly sympathetic toward it, stopped short of punishing the executives of the financial institutions whose practices led to the great recession of 2007-2008. The banks were bailed out, but not the workers. The fact that no leading bankers were prosecuted for economic crimes is a source of great anger among the working class.

Sanders of course makes Wall Street, in particular Goldman Sachs, the enemy, which is convenient since it paid Hillary Clinton $675,000 in speaking fees. His demand that Hillary Clinton release transcripts of her speeches to the firm are disingenuous. Certainly she made some complementary remarks to her well-paying hosts, but Sanders knows full well that deals wouldn’t be made in the course of such appearances. (Sanders isn’t without his own demagogic devices: during one debate, he pledged that no one from Goldman Sachs would serve in his administration—as opposed to other investment houses?)  

In his campaigning Trump has shifted from an emphasis on immigration to one on trade. (Though of course he continues to bring up his Quixotic wall along the Mexican border.) Both Sanders and Trump, particularly in the weeks running up to contests in the industrial states of Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Florida, berated recent trade deals and the movement of American factories overseas. (Albeit that Trump put his famous brand on suits and ties that were made in China, Bangladesh, and Mexico.) In fact, despite the benefits of free trade that we’ve all been raised on, it’s become more accepted among economists that trade agreements have indeed cost workers their jobs—and that they didn’t receive adequate help or training for new employment. The centerpiece of Trump’s campaign is his assertion that as a fantastically successful businessman he will negotiate better deals. Sanders has been vague about what he’d do about the trade deals already in existence. He said recently that he’d renegotiate them, but that would be quite a difficult pursuit; deals that have already been negotiated involved trade-offs.

The trade issue not only appeals to Trump’s white working-class constituency—the bulk of his followers—but also fits his general theme that America has been run by a bunch of incompetents who don’t know how to make a deal. (He still pushes his best-seller The Art of the Deal, which he calls the second greatest book, after the Bible.) According to a study conducted at the Brookings Institution and reported in The New York Times, there’s a very high correlation between Trump’s followers and whites with just a high school education, and working in the “old economy”—manufacturing and construction jobs rather than high tech. According to the Brookings study, many of them live in decaying former manufacturing areas and mobile homes.

A lot of Sanders’s younger supporters are also facing joblessness: the unemployment rate for people just out of college is 12 percent. It’s probably no coincidence that both Sanders and Trump have been speaking out for a large investment in infrastructure. (Hillary Clinton has also proposed an infrastructure program more modest than Sanders’s and she began talking about it more after her loss in Michigan.)  

The panic within the Republican Party is that Trump would not only lose to Clinton but also take a large number of Republican officeholders and candidates down with him. Moreover, while the roughhousing at Trump events may strengthen him in the Republican nominating contests, it could be disastrous for him in November, when both parties are seeking the independents’ vote. Trump isn’t the sort of candidate whom vast numbers of people are likely to find interchangeable with another or as one they could easily switch their allegiance to. In the coming weeks we will hear about all manner of strategies for keeping Trump from winning the nomination.

But until the actual convention, it’s just talk. For all the attention being paid them, polls purporting to show how Hillary Clinton (or even Sanders) would do against various possible Republican nominees are meaningless at this point in the campaign. (After the two parties’ conventions in 1988 Michael Dukakis was running eighteen points ahead of George H. W. Bush.) And no one should be under the illusion that the nomination could be denied Trump without causing a civil war within the Republican party. Trump commented on Wednesday of this week that if the nomination is taken from him, “You’d have riots.” If he’s the nominee there remains that possibility of a third party formed, among other things to give Republican politicians a place to go until the storm blows over. But whatever ultimately becomes of their candidacies, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are atop movements that won’t go away. And whoever ends up in the Oval Office will have a devil of a time trying to govern.

Part of a continuing series of reports on the 2016 election.