Although a majority of the Democratic and Republican convention delegates are still up for grabs, the results of the Super Tuesday primaries have brought the outlines of the 2016 presidential election into sharper focus, say a number of Dartmouth political scholars.
“At this point the nominations are Trump’s and Clinton’s to lose,” says Professor Dean Lacy, government department chair and director of the program in politics and law at Dartmouth.
The clearer picture is in the Democratic race, where Hillary Clinton’s wins in seven out of 10 races on Tuesday were a significant setback for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ challenge from the left, many agree.
“I think the path for Sanders is quite daunting. He didn’t have big margins even in the states he did win,” says Linda Fowler, professor of government and the Frank J. Reagan ’09 Chair in Policy Studies Emeritus.
But Sanders will very likely continue his campaign for the nomination, Fowler says. “He can still hold Clinton’s feet to the fire on the issues of income inequality and fairness, and it keeps some attention on the Democratic race.”
The Republican race is far more volatile, even as Donald Trump’s margin of victory in a string of primary races continues to grow, says Lacy. But the window of opportunity for a Trump alternative backed by the Republican establishment will soon close, he says.
“Starting March 15, many of the Republican primaries become winner-take-all. So it is no longer viable to play for second or even third place as we’ve seen with Rubio and Cruz, or possibly Kasich.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has tried to position himself as the only viable Trump alternative, but having only one win, in Minnesota, in Super Tuesday voting across 11 states weakens his case, says Associate Professor of Government Joseph Bafumi.
“Cruz won in three states on Tuesday, and he won Iowa in February. That gives weight to his claim to the ‘Trump alternative’ title,” Bafumi says. On March 15, Florida and Ohio hold winner-take-all primaries. If Rubio doesn’t finish first in his home state of Florida, and if Ohio Gov. John Kasich fails to win at home, both campaigns will be effectively done, Bafumi says.
According to recent polls, Trump now leads in Florida by about 20 points and he leads in Ohio by a narrower margin.
Cruz is more likely to battle on, but whether the GOP establishment will rally to him, and what Rubio and Kasich supporters will do if those two candidates bow out, remain to be seen, Lacy says.
“We could well see a multi-ballot Republican convention. It could become the first exciting convention in decades,” says Lacy.
The rise of Trump took most political observers completely by surprise, says Professor Russell Muirhead, the Robert Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics in the Department of Government, but divisions within the Republican Party have been present for a long time.
He points to the ouster of House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, in 2015, and eight years of discord among GOP factions in opposition to Obama.
“Right now, Trump is the presumptive nominee and the Republican Party is in greater disarray than at any time since its founding,” says Muirhead, author of the 2014 book The Promise of Party in a Polarized Age. “What amazes me has been the inability of the conservative movement to recruit Trump supporters to their favorite candidate—Rubio, and of evangelicals to recruit Trump supporters to theirs—Cruz. It is remarkable that the Republican Party has left 30 percent of its voters untethered.”
Fowler says that even if the party unifies behind another candidate, she is not convinced that Trump can be stopped, a scenario that was “inconceivable” to most political observers a few months ago. “We are seeing record turnouts for Trump. There is tremendous enthusiasm among his supporters, many of whom have not been Republican primary voters before,” she says.
“Trump’s supporters are primarily angry, not primarily Republican,” Lacy says.
Many of these new voters are white, blue collar workers who feel that a globalizing economy has sent good jobs overseas, and who believe illegal immigrants are taking jobs and depressing wages at home, says Muirhead.
“It looks to me like those people support Donald Trump. And one might say this is as a consequence of the inability of the traditional party system, the political system in effect, to really serve their interests effectively,” he says.
Trump has also tapped into the rising frustration with Washington politicians and a sense of political crisis fueled by the polarizing rhetoric of party politics, says Bafumi.
“Trump has positioned himself exactly where the pendulum has swung to,” Bafumi says.
Muirhead says he worries that the politics of this election could not only split the Republican Party, they might also represent a political undercurrent of hostility toward constitutional democracy.
“I think ‘Trumpism’ represents a tendency in democracy toward demagoguery. Demagogues are candidates who inspire the people by promising them quick and easy fixes, and they cultivate impatience with constitutional forums, which can be clumsy, and slow, and frustrating,” Muirhead says.
“I think this is a moment in American politics when we all have to talk about politics to the extent that we can bear,” Muirhead says. “We’ve got to figure this out together by talking to as many people, including people who aren’t like us and who disagree with us, in order to understand and find solutions.”