A great deal of electronic ink has been spilled over how Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are certain to be nominees for their respective parties. The truth, of course, is that there hadn’t been much doubt of either for some time now. Clinton’s ascendancy was never really in doubt: Sanders had to prove his ability to win over unexpected demographics in a dominant fashion, which he has not done so in any primary. Trump’s ascendancy has been questionable for longer, but once GOP insiders began breaking ranks, starting with Chris Christie, it nearly became inevitable.
For all their “inevitabilities,” however, Super Tuesday has done much to reveal the serious weaknesses of the front runners, which may hamper them badly in November. Let us consider these.
On the Democratic side, Clinton has serious problems with the non-Democrats. The Democratic Party primaries obscure this, being, obviously, intraparty event for the Democrats only. Even in the New Hampshire blowout, Sanders did no better than Clinton with the registered Democrats: the independents furnished most of the margin of victory for Sanders. The supply of non-Democratic voters in Democratic primaries is inevitably unreliable and Sanders’ uneven success shows this. This is not an unexpected discovery: voters who can’t be expected to show up reliably are least valuable. “Independents” and “moderates” are inevitably less reliable as these characterizations underscore the fact that they consider themselves at least partly incompatible with the prevailing party characteristics or definitions of ideologies. Whether this will be a serious problem in the general election is not clear: Democrats do have a significant demographic advantage in the aggregate. If the voting patterns for various demographic patterns remain unchanged from 2012 or even 2004 (excepting the huge surge in Democratic turnout in 2008), Clinton victory in November is secure. But, as will be explored below, this is hardly guaranteed.
The geographic distribution of Clinton’s support underscores the next problem: she does well with the Democrats in states that are not very likely to turn Democratic. Of all the states she carried with ease, Democrats are expected to be competitive in only one, Virginia. Even there, she lost the non-Democrats to Sanders in much the same proportion as elsewhere. Of course, the Democrats WILL lose most of the Southern states and those where they might be competitive (Virginia, North Carolina, etc.) they will only if they can present an acceptable candidate to those who are not Democrats. The same holds true in most of the non-Southern swing states. It is not clear that Clinton can appeal to the independents successfully. If so, the best she has to offer the Democrats is to retain the status quo of 2008.
The status quo of 2008 is not necessarily a bad one if you are a Democrats. Democrats did win handily and, with some changes in demographics, their advantage has even grown a little bit. It may be that the younger demographics who have entered the voting pool in the past four years may not trust Clinton much (the main problem is not that they like Sanders, but that they dislike Clinton), but at least they are not too likely to flock to the Republicans. However, the Republicans are likely to present the least status quo candidate possible in November, which will complicate the calculations: Donald Trump.
Donald Trump understands the significant change to the electoral demographics he brings. Precisely because he thumbs his nose at all the Republican conventional wisdoms, he can appeal to the voters who have not grown to trust the Republicans much, even as they felt abandoned by the Democrats–the so-called “Missing White Voters.” These are the low-propensity “independents” that he promises to bring to the Republican fold in November (with greater reliability–they already tend to vote Republican IF they vote at all, but they cannot be counted to turn out.) Their presence at the ballot box will certainly upset the status quo of 2008 and offers the Republicans chance to be competitive across a broad swath of Rust Belt States. This is the ONLY realistic chance that the Republicans have to capture the White House without fundamentally reconfiguring the coalitional basis of their party.
But the price demanded by Trump is heavy. His contraventions of Republican conventional wisdoms have already split asunder the Republican insiders, many of whom are publicly claiming that they will never support their party. Does this translate to the Republican voters? Perhaps so. the much quoted Quinnipiac poll from mid February show that, perhaps, there is some basis to this. Head to head match-ups between hypothetical Democratic and Republican candidates show Trump to be the weakest of the lot, which has puzzled many observers who note the big enthusiasm-filled rallies Trump has been generating. But the change in support among different partisan subdemographics show why Trump shows up as so much weaker: in pairwise matchups, Republican voters are less likely to back Trump by 5-10% in comparison to other Republicans. Trump also performs somewhat poorly vis-a-vis independents, but it is not clear that that means a great deal: they have not been campaigned to extensively and are unlikely to have made up their mind with certainty just yet. However, the Republican voters have been campaigned to extensively. Their mind is far more likely to be made up now. This harkens back to the problem facing the Republican insiders now: do you resist Trump or do you embrace him?
The clock is running down. Cruz is as unacceptable to many Republican insiders as Trump: many would rather back Trump than Cruz. Rubio is the only choice that remains somewhat viable, but his lackluster performance indicates that he is likely to face a certain defeat in the general election. If Trump can bring the GOP victory, then perhaps he is not a bad alternative for the Republicans–if they can be assured that other Republicans will rally behind him. In other words, Republicans face an odd dilemma: do they want to win with Trump or lose without Trump, with the caveat that those who would rather lose without Trump are in position to ensure that Republicans will lose with Trump too, and that would represent the worst possible outcome for the regular Republicans who value victory more than having to put up with Trump.
So the electoral landscape is growing murky. If the Republicans do rally behind Trump and add the new votes he will likely bring, they stand to have an excellent chance at winning in November, if they pay a heavy price in their “honor.” If they do splinter and deny Trump, say, about 10% of their numbers indicated by polls, Republicans will still lose but without “honor,” although that defeat will have been delivered by their own brethren. Indeed, Clinton campaign seems to be actually counting on the Trump candidacy and the internal conflicts that he will bring to the Republican Party, according to this New York Times article. I don’t know if this is a realistic hope, but if the Republicans are so lackadaisical in commitment to their party, perhaps they don’t deserve to exist after all.
So, after Super Tuesday, the Democrats are divided over if they want to entertain expanding their coalition or stay with the status quo that many find less than completely satisfactory–but not quite unacceptable. All the more so because preserving the status quo is enough to win–unless the Republican manage to do something new. Republicans, on the other hand, are divided over if they want to gamble on something new and pay a heavy cover charge to a hefty uncouth bouncer named Trump. Democrats are not facing an existential crisis–yet. They are merely divided over if they want to be a dominant party that can make history, like their New Deal era predecessor, and are seemingly deciding against it. The Republican struggle is, however, an existential one. They are deciding between staying as an “honorable” but losing coalition and an “uncouth” that can win, with the prospect of bitter internecine struggle regardless.