The opening round of the primaries is over, and the pace of the primaries process is about to accelerate dramatically. The various candidates each have their own strengths going into this next round, from now through March 15 (there are, of course, primaries and caucuses going on throughout March, April, May, in into early June; but the significance of March 15 makes it a good point at which to stop and begin the next phase).
The story thus far: The primaries have begun with the Iowa Caucus (on February 1), the New Hampshire Primary (on February 9), two separate Nevada caucuses (the Democratic caucus on February 20 and the Republican caucus on February 23), and the Republican South Carolina Primary (on February 20). Here’s where the two parties’ separate battles for their nominations are looking so for:
In terms of basic delegate counts, the Democratic candidates have won:
Hillary Clinton: 52
Bernie Sanders: 51.
While the two Democrats are almost tied, the Democratic Convention also assigns a significant number of votes to so-called “superdelegates” (key party members and legislators, designated beforehand by the Democratic National Committee). Thus far, Clinton has 451 likely superdelegate votes (based on endorsements), while Sanders has only 19. A convention vote based only on states voting thus far, plus the superdelegate endorsements, would hand an overwhelming victory to Clinton, 504-70. However, these numbers also represent only 15% of the total delegates and superdelegates count in Philadelphia in July. The next round (up to March 15) will finally put the Democrats at the 50% mark for voted delegates.
The last Democratic primary before Super Tuesday is in South Carolina (an open event, in which both independents and Republicans can also vote). Current polling among likely Democratic voters in South Carolina shows 57% supporting Clinton and 33% Sanders (with the rest still mulling things over). If those numbers stay true, Clinton should go into Super Tuesday with 82 or so delegates and 533 convention votes total, to Sanders’s 69 or so delegates and 88 convention votes total. While Clinton’s advantage is (to borrow a favorite Sanders word) huge, Super Tuesday’s 860 delegates could potentially seal the deal for Clinton (as if those numbers did not seem to do so already). The question is how many of those delegates could Sanders get.
A quick look back at the Public Policy Polling (PPP) tracking poll released earlier this month (which matched initial voting preferences to respondents’ racial identity), combined with the racial composition of South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states (and the proportionate delegates count from those states) demonstrates that of the 911 delegates to be produced from these collective states, at least 500 should go to Clinton, and at least 278 should go to Sanders. The battle is for the remaining 133 delegates (many responding to the poll were still uncertain for whom they were voting). Together with the superdelegates, but not including those 133 “undecided” delegates, Clinton still has a massive advantage, 1,004 to Sanders’s 348. Even if Sanders gets all of those 133 extra delegates, that only brings him to 481, still less than half of Clinton’s take. To put a dent in Clinton’s advantage and keep himself alive into the convention, Sanders therefore has to exceed expectations founded upon polls like the PPP tracking poll, and convince already pro-Clinton as well as undecided Democrats to vote for him. With only a week left to do so before Super Tuesday, the Sanders campaign clearly has its work cut out for it.
Donald Trump has exceeded the expectations of everyone (except himself, and his own trumpenproletariat), and also exceeded the simplistic expectations implied by previous polls. He now stands as the powerhouse of a newly re-organizing (or disintegrating) Republican Party. He has a significant majority of delegates thus far (albeit from only four not very large states; so there is ample time for some yet-to-be-imagined counter-strategy by other Republicans to put him in his place). As of last night (the Nevada Republican Caucus), the current convention delegate counts among the five remaining contenders are:
Donald Trump: 81
Ted Cruz: 17
Marco Rubio: 17
John Kasich: 6
Ben Carson: 4
There are also 8 delegates unaccounted for from states already voted (7 bound to candidates who have dropped out; and one Nevada delegate left to be determined as polls are still being counted). Trump has a plurality of his party’s popular vote, winning not quite one third (31.9%) of the Republican popular vote. This first phase of the primaries diminished the largest ever number of contenders for any American primary (17 candidates to start with) to the five current hopefuls. For at least two of the remaining candidates (John Kasich and Ben Carson), the state primary and caucus rules in many of the state Republican parties doom them to irrelevance. Only fifteen of the 52 remaining primaries and caucuses have no inclusion thresholds (which mandate some specific minimum performance level in order to gain any delegates); and most inclusion thresholds effectively mean that Kasich and Carson will get few delegates even from states that use proportionate delegation. Realistically, the three reasonable contenders for the nomination are Trump, Cruz, and Rubio.
Despite showing both in opinion polls and in the popular vote thus far that barely a third of Republicans can get behind Donald Trump, the jobs-to-China billionaire has an advantage in that a number of states (including the key states of California, Florida, and Ohio) assign delegates on a winner-takes-all system (with a mere plurality as the qualifying measure of victory). Trump needs only to do what he has been doing – beating Cruz and the rest for the greatest number of votes – to win all of those states’ delegates (a total of 744 delegates). Add those (and the delegates from other winner-takes-all states) to the fact that thus far he has come in first in all of the states voting since Iowa (where he took only one delegate less than the winner, Ted Cruz); and Trump has a shot at going into the Cleveland convention with a majority of delegates. The prediction of a brokered convention may not turn out, and Trump may well get the nomination on the first ballot.
In the meantime, while Ted Cruz started from a polling advantage over all other Republicans with the exception of Trump, Marco Rubio has come from behind and tied him for second place. Rubio’s campaign has achieved that underdog campaign dream, the “big mo” (for momentum). Although on January 7, Cruz topped the polls at 31.8% of Republican respondents (beating Trump’s 27.8 and Rubio’s third-place 11.3), the evidence suggests that as other candidates drop out, Rubio is attracting their votes and getting delegates. The significance of Rubio’s race goes far beyond the mere triviality of the second-place holder; and Rubio’s accelerating campaign will have some advantages over both Trump’s and Cruz’s in the days ahead.
Thus far, with each state’s primary or caucus the sole event of the day, and with numerous days between these events to prepare for them, Trump has used a combination of campaign strategy and his cult-of-personality approach to public appearances to defeat traditional conservatives like Bush and Tea Party conservatives like Cruz. Trump has carpet-bombed states with his own form, and with hats and T-shirts (made, of course, in China); while Cruz and the others have spent money on phone banks, door-to-door canvassing, and other direct vote-getting operations. Trump’s minimalist strategy has worked, in the environment of the first round, an environment that allows candidates time to breathe and to move resources (themselves most especially) to the places where they most need them. The next round, however, will have an entirely different environment.
The Next Round:
The next sequence of primary events (from now through March 15) are as follows:
February 27 (Saturday): South Carolina’s Democratic Primary (an open event in which both independents and Republicans can vote as well), apportioning 51 more delegates.
March 1: Super Tuesday. The largest single electoral event of the primaries season. 10 states will have primaries or caucuses for both parties simultaneously (AL, AR, GA, MA, MN, OK, TN, TX, VT, and VA); plus 6 more single-party primaries and caucuses (American Samoa D, Alaska R, Colorado D, Democrats abroad, North Dakota R, Wyoming R). 652 Republican delegates, and 860 Democratic delegates, will be apportioned by these events.
March 5 (Saturday): Louisiana and Kansas have closed primaries and caucuses for both parties. In addition, the Republicans hold closed caucuses in Kentucky and Maine; while the Democrats hold a closed caucus in Nebraska. 155 Republican delegates, and 113 Democratic delegates will be apportioned by these events.
March 6 (Sunday): The Republicans hold an open primary in Puerto Rico to apportion 23 delegates; and the Democrats hold a closed caucus in Maine for 25 delegates.
March 8 (Tuesday): Michigan and Mississippi both hold open primaries for both parties. In addition, the Republicans hold a closed caucus in Hawaii and a closed primary in Idaho. 140 Republican delegates, and 184 Democratic delegates are apportioned.
March 12 (Saturday): Republican closed events in Guam (a territorial convention) and the District of Columbia (a caucus), for 28 delegates.
March 15 (Mini-Super Tuesday): The second largest electoral event of the primaries season. Five states hold simultaneous primaries for both parties: FL, IL, MO, NC, and OH. Also, the Republicans of the Northern Mariana Islands out there in the Pacific get to throw their two cents (and nine delegates) in. Some 367 Republican delegates, and 697 Democratic delegates, are up for grabs. By the end of the day, 1,535 of the 2,472 Republican delegates (62%) will have been apportioned. Also, some 1,889 of the 3,782 (50%) voted Democratic delegates will have been apportioned. Both parties should have a pretty good idea of how the candidates will be looking, although for the stronger candidates the game will be far from over.
The two largest electoral battle days of the primaries season are March 1 and March 15. These days will challenge all campaigns alike; the “establishment” candidates like Clinton and Rubio, and the “insurgent” campaigns of Sanders and Trump. Unlike the first round of primaries, which allow campaigns long preparation times to saturate each state with public appearances and local campaign operations, and where each campaign can focus squarely upon the only state coming up next, putting all their chips on one square, the political meeting engagements of March require more actual strategy. Campaigns have three principal resources to divide between the multiple states up for battle: the candidates themselves (a much more limited resource, especially in March), campaign finances, and supporting endorsements (politicians and celebrities to deliver speeches in support of or in place of the candidates themselves). Campaigns have to decide how to measure out these resources, particularly the first one.
In Trump’s case, that first resource (Trump himself) is even more significant, because it is almost all that he has. He actually has far less cash on hand, and almost no significant fund-raising system, than the other candidates; and his money has largely been spent on “swag” (hats and T-shirts) rather than on communication and vote-getting (phone banks, canvassing, etc.). He also has virtually no endorsements of significance, outside of popular culture icons like Ted Nugent and Sarah Palin (McCain’s Folly from Seward’s Folly). Super Tuesday will be a test of his ability to advertise himself nationally, and a test of his campaign’s already established support in those states. In the meantime, Cruz and Rubio have larger actual organizations, and have much more money and public supporters of significance. They can use these resources to blanket Super Tuesday and March 15 states with personal vote-getting, and to whittle down Trump’s apparent but not overwhelming advantage. One disadvantage that these larger and better-organized campaigns face, however, is voters’ flexibility. Most Republican candidates’ supporters show a far greater willingness to consider other candidates than do Trump’s. With Trump’s supporters dug in, how much can the large-scale maneuver warfare of the Cruz and Rubio campaigns achieve?
Rubio has an additional advantage of “likeability” with respect to Cruz and Trump (both of whom are detested by many establishment Republicans), as well as the “big mo” (for the moment, at least). Rubio and Cruz represent, to some, different names for the same candidate (the “token Latino” to attract ethnic votes, and established alternatives to Trump’s insurgency); but Rubio’s campaign platform is more moderate in scope than Cruz’s plan to shut down most of the federal government. Rubio has more overall “electability,” measured by traditional standards – which themselves, in 2016, are coming increasingly into question and being discarded one after another. Were this not 2016, Rubio would be the GOP’s dream candidate. But the game is changing, and the measures for victory are changing with it.
On the Democratic front, Sanders, too, has exceeded expectations, particularly in groups which were most favorable to Clinton (women, Latinos, and African-Americans). While those latter three groups still favor Clinton, Sanders has whittled down her advantage. But as with Trump, Sanders has enjoyed the ease of the first round to gain points, and now faces the tough battles of March. Clinton has developed her organization throughout the country, building support and working to disarm the “Clintonphobia” that the Republicans and Sanders have worked hard to reinforce. The question of March will be the same for Sanders as for Trump: can the insurgencies fight a ground battle on numerous fronts simultaneously, against established campaign machinery backed by the party establishments?
Image from I Agree to See; via Google Image Search.