After the first of this year’s many “Super Tuesdays,” the cover of The Economist magazine featured a staring contest between a blue-faced Hillary Clinton and a red-faced Donald Trump—along with a declaration that “Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee; the man most likely to face her in November on the Republican ticket is Donald Trump.”
That was not quite right in the immediate aftermath of the March 1 “Super Tuesday” primaries and caucuses, when much of the media was angling to shut down unfinished races for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations. And it seemed even less right as ensuing contests gave victories to the candidates who were still seeking to displace Trump and Clinton—especially after Clinton’s insurgent challenger, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, won an upset victory in the March 8 Michigan primary.
The results from the March 15 primaries in five delegate-rich states gave those who see a Clinton-Trump race as inevitable more material to work with.
Trump and Clinton had terrific nights, winning most of the contests on their respective sides of the ballots. Clinton won big in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio, pulled narrowly ahead in her native Illinois, and was essentially tied with Sanders in Missouri—with 49.6 percent for Clinton to 49.4 for Sanders. Trump did just about as well, winning with ease in Florida, Illinois, and North Carolina, essentially tying in Missouri (with Texas Senator Ted Cruz), and losing to Governor John Kasich in Ohio.
But, while it is easier now to speculate about a Clinton-Trump contest, that race has not yet begun. The GOP establishment is still trying to trip up Trump, the Bernie Sanders insurgency will continue to challenge Clinton, and Democratic primaries and caucuses will see more upsets of expectations.
Translation: The 2016 primaries and caucuses on both sides of the partisan aisle have clear front-runners. Those front-runners are in stronger positions than before, and they are training their rhetorical fire on each other.
But the races are ongoing.
Republicans understand this; and there is still a good deal of talk about how best to prevent a Trump takeover. Democrats should also understand this; as the majority of the delegates who will decide the identity of the party’s nominee have yet to be chosen.
“Tomorrow, the political establishment will say once again that Bernie can’t win,” said Dan Cantor, the national director of the Working Families Party, which backs Sanders. “That’s nothing new. They’ve been singing that tune since before the primary even started. But every single week, Bernie’s support gets stronger and stronger. Tonight, Bernie’s North Carolina performance was 15 points better than his South Carolina performance last month, and 5 points better than his Virginia performance two weeks ago. This is a close race, and it will be contested in every state. The fact of the matter is that the first half of the primary schedule favored Clinton. The second half will favor Bernie. The only question is whether it will be enough. We intend to do everything we can to make sure it is.”
The contests to come appear to be a good deal friendlier to Sanders, who has strong bases of support in Arizona, Idaho, and Utah (which will vote on March 22) and Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington (which will vote on March 26). And recent polling from Wisconsin, which holds its primary April 5, has Sanders narrowly ahead. Beyond the immediate schedule, great big-delegation states such as New York (April 19) and California (June 7) have yet to weigh in.
Even if Sanders were to win all of those primary and caucus contests in late March and early April, Clinton would still be the front-runner, and she would still enjoy a big delegate lead. But Sanders could get a lot closer to Clinton in the competition—perhaps close enough to convince some superdelegates to move his way. And he can continue to build a movement politics with a potential to influence convention rules, platform planks, and perhaps even the selection process that will name a vice presidential contender.
Sanders has always said that he is mounting this presidential run in order to challenge “establishment politics and establishment economics.” His populist appeal has influenced Clinton on a host of economic issues; indeed, Progressive Change Campaign Committee cofounder Adam Green noted, “Hillary Clinton won Ohio and had a Super Tuesday by riding the economic populist tide instead of fighting it. Clinton has engaged Bernie Sanders in a race to the top on key issues like expanding Social Security instead of cutting it, breaking up too-big-to-fail-banks, jailing Wall Street executives who break the law, and debt-free college. That was almost unimaginable a year ago. In Ohio, Clinton went further than before against corporate-written trade deals, saying, ‘We have to oppose the TPP.'”
Clinton has every reason to celebrate, and every right to begin thinking and talking about a potential race with Trump.
But Sanders has every reason to keep running a primary and caucus race where most of the delegates have yet to be chosen—and where his ability to influence the character and content of the competition remains one of that race’s most significant dynamics.
“The primary continues,” explained Green, “but no matter who wins, the center of gravity has fundamentally shifted in the Democratic Party.”
Sanders did not have the “Super Tuesday” he wanted on March 15. But the prospect of moving that center of gravity further to the left provides more than enough encouragement for the senator to carry on.