The most unpredictable of presidential campaigns took another unexpected turn when Ted Cruz and John Kasich quickly suspended their campaigns for the Republican nomination soon after Donald Trump won the Indiana primary on May 3rd. Donald Trump, who had also swept the five northeastern contests the week before Indiana voted, is now the presumptive Republican nominee. Even though he has been in command of the race for a long time, it is still hard to believe that a candidate like Trump has actually won the nomination of a major U.S. political party. At least we are spared the kind of chaos that would have accompanied a contested convention as described in the previous edition of this newsletter.
Trump now embarks on the difficult task of unifying the Republican Party ahead of the general election campaign. That job got off to a very bumpy start as both of the living former Republican Presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, announced they would not be supporting Trump, as did the previous Republican nominee Mitt Romney. The highest-ranking Republican elected official, House Speaker Paul Ryan, has also withheld his endorsement of Trump for now.
This high-level opposition to Trump has somewhat overshadowed a much more rapid consolidation of support from other elected Republicans. Most Republican office holders, including the majority of Senators running for reelection in battleground states that President Obama won twice, have fallen in line with Trump. As have a long and continually growing list of House Committee Chairs. Despite this, Trump still faces more hurdles in unifying the party than any nominee in either party since Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Trump’s struggles at the elite level in unifying his party is not translating to the Republican electorate, which has rapidly swung in line behind him. Trump has experienced a clear bump in the polls since becoming the presumptive nominee, something that is extremely normal but has still surprised many observers given the remaining opposition to Trump among some current and former Republican elected officials.
Another surprising aspect of this race is that Trump has wrapped up the Republican nomination before Hillary Clinton could do the same on the Democratic side. Clinton had dominated the northeastern states that voted on April 26th, taking four of the five contests and significantly expanding her lead over her rival Bernie Sanders. But Sanders won in Indiana and also took the West Virginia primary, results that will not impact the outcome of the campaign but is certain to prolong it. The two candidates split the primaries on May 17th, with Sanders taking Oregon and Clinton winning in Kentucky.
Sanders is now more than 300 pledged delegates behind Clinton and can no longer secure the nomination even if he were to win all the remaining pledged delegates, an impossibility given the delegates are allocated proportionally. Sanders is now banking on getting the Superdelegates to switch their support from him to Clinton and thus handing him the nomination even though he trails in the number of pledged delegates, states won, and the popular vote of Democratic primary goers. It is an odd strategy given that he currently trails among this group of Superdelegates 525-39. Especially as he and his campaign have repeatedly described the Superdelegates as undemocratic and evidence of an election system that is rigged. Now he wants them to overturn a clear Clinton victory. Regardless, it is certain that the Democratic campaign will go to the last major primaries on June 7 (and possibly even to the very end, when Washington, DC votes on June 14) and it is equally certain that Clinton will be the nominee.
Following Trump’s rise in the head to head polling versus Clinton and the depth of the anger brewing among hard-core Sanders supporters, some Democrats are growing increasingly concerned about the state of the race. Part of this is simply what happens when one candidate has completed the primary and can consolidate support and the other is still embroiled in a contested primary. And whatever the depth of the anger among Sanders supporters, it is not anywhere near the level of animosity that existed between the two campaigns during the 2008 Democratic primary.
There are grounds, however, for Democrats to resist complacency in this campaign. The dynamics in the Democratic primary are different than those on the Republican side, even though Trump is considered far more toxic by far more Republicans than Clinton is by Democratic voters. Most opposition to Trump during the primary came from core Republican voters, and it is only natural that they would have a fairly easy time aligning behind the eventual Republican nominee even if the GOP elite still resists. Sanders, on the other hand, has drawn a great deal of support from new, younger voters and registered independents, groups that don’t have deep ties to the Democratic Party and may find it more difficult to unite behind Clinton.
The parallel to the 2008 Democratic primary is also somewhat suspect. While there was certainly some philosophical difference between Clinton and Obama, notably on the Iraq War, the substantive differences between them were few and they were certainly both core Democrats. The divisions in this primary campaign are almost exclusively philosophical and Sanders is running his campaign directly in opposition to many core Democratic policy positions. Even though Clinton has moved left to address Sanders, it may be more difficult for some of Sanders supporters to get behind a mainstream Democrat than it was for mainstream Republican voters to get behind an unorthodox Republican nominee.
None of this means that the Democratic electorate won’t align behind Clinton, especially when faced with the binary choice of her or Trump. It simply means that Democrats should not assume that just because it happened in 2008 and is happening on the Republican side, that things will just fall into place. Democrats will clearly have to work hard this election cycle even if it seems inconceivable that a presidential candidate with as many negatives as Donald Trump.
- Photo from Hillary Clinton’s Official Facebook account