As Nate Silver put it, “‘With the exception of the 2016 election,’ will be a common phrase in PhD dissertations in 2044.” The primary race on the Republican side seems to have defied every tiny scrap of punditry wisdom so far. The Democratic side, on the other hand, is working more in the confirming-the-conventional-wisdom lane, though Bernie Sanders has certainly done better than most expected from the outset. Coming out of the Second Super Tuesday primary elections on March 15, where are we in the primaries?
Republican Race: Pandemonium
For a while there, it looked like Marco Rubio was the presumptive non-Trump for the #NeverTrump crowd to rally around, especially as Ted Cruz failed to translate his initial Iowa win in February into a proper bump. But nowadays, coming off of some victories on Super Tuesday, and even stronger showings in some of the primaries afterwards, things are looking up for the Texas Senator, and the tables are turned. CNN even reports that there were voices inside Rubio’s campaign urging him to drop out before the Florida primary, as they didn’t think that he could win there, and a loss would be damaging not only in this election but for his long-term political goals. And it turns out that he couldn’t. Marco Rubio suspended his campaign following the Florida loss on Tuesday.
Even before Rubio’s dropping out, there had been movement in Republicans rallying – although grudgingly in some cases – around Ted Cruz as the hope for a non-Trump ticket come November. Though John Kasich is still in the race, Cruz will play this role now more than ever as we’re going forward in the primary season.
The probably most plausible option for stopping Trump at this point, and the one most discussed, is the contested convention. The official way that a nominee is chosen from both parties is through a nominating convention, one for each party, which happens after all the states have had their primaries and caucuses, at the end of July. What the candidates are actually competing for in the primary elections is delegates to this convention, where a vote takes place. In order to win the vote, a candidate needs a majority, 1237 delegates. If nobody has a majority, the voting will go on to a second round, a third one, and so on until there’s a majority for one candidate. The delegates are pledged to their candidate in the first round, and after that the states have different rules for when their delegates are released, free to vote for anybody. Basically after the third round, pretty much all the delegates are going to be free agents, and the confusion complete.
The path to a contested convention is still quite wide, though the primary results on March 15 made it less so. The most hopeful imagined that we would get there by Marco Rubio winning his home state of Florida, and John Kasich his home state of Ohio. Both of those states are winner-take-all primaries, meaning that the winner in the state gets all of that state’s delegates, as opposed to previous primaries where delegates have been apportioned proportionately. Ohio plus Florida gives out almost 165 delegates in total (more than 10 % of the total necessary to win the nomination), so losing both of those states would make a dent in the Trump momentum. It would also energize both Rubio and Kasich to stay in the race a while longer, where they can keep siphoning off delegates that might otherwise go to Trump in states that allocate their delegates more proportionately. A win for Trump in both of those states, though, would be the equivalent of several nails in the coffin of the dream of the contested convention. Instead, the most dramatic thing happened. Kasich won Ohio, and Trump beat out Rubio in Florida, causing him to drop out completely. While it is unclear exactly where Rubio’s voters in future primaries will go, it seems safe to assume that they’re more likely to go to Cruz and Kasich than Trump, as they are politically closer to him.
The strategy for stopping Trump in Florida and Ohio has been made more and more explicit in the past few days. Mitt Romney, former Republican Presidential nominee, said in a speech that the strategy for beating Trump should be to vote for Kasich in Ohio, and Rubio in Florida. After that, a Rubio spokesman said the same thing in an interview with CNN. Kasich’s people notably did not say any of the sort, though his total of 7% support in Florida could not have saved Rubio’s almost 20-point loss in the state anyway.
As for what might actually happen at a contested convention, that’s anybody’s guess. The last time there wasn’t a clear nominee going into the convention was in 1976, and even then there were only two candidates still standing. What most people are hoping for is that come the second or third round of voting, the delegates will rally around a candidate who’s not Trump. The current (and even some who have dropped out) non-Trump candidates probably imagine, or at least hope, that that candidate will be them. There’s also been some talk of Mitt Romney showing up as a dark horse candidate, uniting the party and winning the nomination at the last minute, though Romney seems to have closed that door in an interview with NBC. There’s been talk about drafting current Speaker of the House, and Vice Presidential nominee in 2012, Paul Ryan for a run like this as well, and there’s even been some whispers about Jeb Bush making a convention comeback.
There are about as many risks associated with this procedure as there are with letting Donald Trump run away with the nomination, though. Most of all, you’d risk pissing off those who voted for him in the primaries. Trump has pulled a lot of first-time voters into turning out, and even won over some white working class who have previously voted Democrat. Losing that turnout in the general election is certainly a risk that the Republican National Committee will have to consider carefully.
Democratic Race: It Ain’t 2008
The Democratic race is nowhere near as dramatic, as tends to be the case in two-person races (and in races without Trump). Bernie Sanders is hanging in there, and will probably keep doing so for a long time, but the door looks a little bit less open every day. He hasn’t had any really bad showings, but has consistently performed slightly worse than he would have needed to in order to be on track for the nomination. If you’re a numbers person, you can look more closely at the numbers as calculated by FiveThirtyEight here.
The big shocker this week was Sanders’s win in Michigan. Many polls ahead of time had given Clinton a lead of 20-something percentage points, which made Sanders’s narrow victory (1.5 percentage points) come off as quite the major victory. In the grand scheme of things, Michigan is only a big win in terms of defying expectations, as it is exactly the kind of state that Sanders would have to win in order to be even a little bit competitive – it’s an open primary (meaning even voters who aren’t registered Democrats can come vote, which enables young voters, classic Sanders supporters), it has no big minority populations, and it’s a Northern state. The same day as the Michigan primary, Hillary pulled off an enormous win in Mississippi, and ultimately came away with more delegates that day than Bernie did. In that sense, the Michigan win is not a big thing.
There are probably quite a few reasons the polling was off, though, and that could be the major thing to take away from Michigan. While Clinton is probably still on track to win the nomination, the thing to look for is for the Michigan pattern to repeat elsewhere. Sanders would need to win states similar to Michigan, like Ohio and Illinois (March 15), Wisconsin (April 5) and Pennsylvania (April 26). While polling is still a bit iffy on the two April contests, he would have had to pull off Michigan-style upsets in both Ohio and Illinois in order for this to happen, and this did not happen. Instead, both states basically lived up to the polling, and Hillary could snatch victories in both, though they weren’t by big margins.
But the biggest problem for Bernie Sanders is not that he doesn’t win states, because he does. The problem for him is that when he does win, he doesn’t win by much. All Democratic primaries are proportional, so just winning a state is not enough. While Bernie is pulling off quite narrow victories in Michigan and Nebraska, Hillary is blowing him out of the water in Southern states like Mississippi and Louisiana, outdoing him in the delegate count. This is the way that she will probably step by step run away with the nomination. There are just too many states where Bernie cannot compete at all, most notably Southern states with high minority populations.
Either way, Bernie Sanders doesn’t look likely to leave the race anytime soon. He has the money, and his Senate seat is not up for re-election in November, so there’s no incentive for him to withdraw. Regardless of actual chances, he’s going to want to be on that stage, pushing progressive ideas and drawing Hillary to the left. This is especially true now that the stunner of a Michigan primary is probably going to generate some renewed attention to the Democratic race, at least for a little while.
In conclusion, the bottom line is this: It’s going to be a long primary season, y’all. Sanders and Clinton will probably both be around well into May, perhaps June. And the Republican primary? Well, as far as we know right now it might very well not be settled until the convention in July.