Yesterday saw voters in eleven states go the polls to choose the presidential candidates of the Republican and Democratic parties. When the votes were counted at the end of “Super Tuesday”, two clear winners had emerged from the pack: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Trump came back from a week of negative news coverage over links to white supremacists to take seven of the eleven states up for grabs. Of the remaining contests, he came second everywhere except Minnesota, which was the site of a first and only primary victory for Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio. Clinton, meanwhile, crushed her only rival in a number of states and cemented her status as the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Trump claimed in his victory speech that he intended to be a unifier if he got the nomination. That was somewhat undermined by his assertion that Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, would “pay the price” if they were unable to get along, and his description of Rubio as “the little senator.” Texas’ Senator Ted Cruz was equally uncomplimentary; he called the billionaire celebrity “profane” and “vulgar” and pledged to defeat him (how he can do so was not stated). Although having Chris Christie stand behind Trump when he spoke was meant to portray him as a genuine Republican of broad appeal, the distant, sometimes sad and almost mournful expression of the New Jersey governor undermined that message. Twitter was replete with tweets and gifs mocking Christie, who shocked many when he endorsed Trump last week and seemed distinctly uncomfortable on a night when six New Jersey newspapers called on him to resign as governor.
What will have GOP moderates (and perhaps some Democrats) concerned is not the size of some of Trump’s wins, but the breadth of his appeal. In conservative Alabama, he won more votes than Cruz and Rubio combined. Yet he also won easily (with 49 per cent) in Massachusetts, which is probably the most liberal state to have voted so far. An exit poll in Georgia showed him winning both the votes of evangelicals and those who believed a candidate’s religion was unimportant. He seems to have a mass appeal that could drive him to victory even if he is faced with a situation where opponents drop out to enable a single “Stop Trump” candidate to take him on.
Who would such a candidate be? Ted Cruz has been the most successful of the rest of the chasing pack, winning in Alaska, Oklahoma and his home state of Texas, where he campaigned heavily. However, his electability in a general election is highly questionable. Although Marco Rubio is seen as more electable in November, he is still struggling to win the votes of his own party. He finally managed to win a state last night, but he came third in six contests and tied for second in another. The press were briefed that he would have beaten Trump in Virginia if it wasn’t for John Kasich remaining in the race, but the Ohio governor will stay in until next week’s primaries in Ohio, where he is governor, and Michigan, which is next door.
All three men may think that their best option is to prevent Trump securing a majority of delegates. This would mean a genuine floor fight at the Republican convention that would especially be of interest to Kasich, whose home state of Ohio will host the finale of what could be the longest and most fascinating nomination fight in decades.
Hillary Clinton will be hoping for just that; a long, drawn-out Republican bloodbath that drags well into the summer. On the basis of last night’s results, the former Secretary of State will almost certainly be her party’s nominee and will therefore be able to campaign as such whilst the Republicans are divided. Last night, she decisively beat her only remaining rival, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, outscoring him by more than two-to-one in four states, and taking all but three of those contested. She looked delighted and confident at her victory rally and the appearance of inevitability has returned to her campaign.
Senator Sanders is still struggling to attract older and non-white voters, and will be disappointed not to have won the liberal bastion of Massachusetts, which is close to his home state and should have been fertile ground. Whereas Trump demonstrated his appeal to a wide range of voters, Sanders’ scores last night seem to demonstrate that he would struggle to appeal to voters outside his current demographic of young white liberals. He did win a majority in New Zealand, so things are not all bad, but for his supporters it was a bad night.
The race will continue for both parties, with no candidates throwing in the towel on the basis of last night’s results (not even former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose refusal to concede defeat defies explanation). That will likely change next week; a defeat in their home states for either Rubio or Kasich would almost certainly kill their campaigns. The nomination fights have a long way to go, but after last night a Trump-Clinton presidential contest seems the most likely option. By the end of March, it may well be inevitable.