What Super Tuesday Means for Establishment Politics

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addresses supporters at her Super Tuesday election night rally in Miami, Tuesday, March 1, 2016. 

Let’s begin with the revolution, in the most classical sense—the surge of the working and middle classes against the rich. It’s not confined to Bernie Sanders’s campaign. It’s not confined to Donald Trump’s. In some particulars (by no means all, however), there really is a cross-party attack on the 1 percent.

Consider, for instance, both Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s election night talks on Super Tuesday, when both all but locked up their respective parties’ nomination. Clinton, as she’s done lately, attacked the Johnson Controls manufacturing company, which had received taxpayer funding from the 2008-2009 auto bailouts, for its recent inversion—a corporation’s relocation, on paper, to another nation to reduce its taxes. For his part, Trump attacked Pfizer for its inversion, as well as Ford, Nabisco, and Carrier for their recent relocations of factories to other nations.

What was referred to as recently as 2007 as “the Washington Consensus”—that is, the conviction of elites in all nations that free trade and globalization were unmitigated plusses that benefited all nations—has at long last succumbed to popular opposition and empirical refutation. Portions of Clinton’s stump speech—the parts on trade, the 1 percent, and corporate and bank misconduct—have moved significantly closer to the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party. Trump’s discussion of trade, too, has clear overlaps with the beliefs of that wing, save that he blames Mexico and China for the offshoring of American jobs, when in fact it was the major American manufacturers and the financial forces behind them who persuaded Congress to make it easier for them to flee our shores.

Trump confines his attacks on the 1 percent to their affronts to workers as Americans only. He focuses on trade and offshoring, and definitely not on more purely domestic issues as tax policy (where he proposes to greatly enrich the 1 percent) or labor policy (he’s opposed to raising the minimum wage). But his appeal to the white working class does encompass such left-of-center staples as rebuilding our infrastructure, which, like Sanders and Clinton, he understands would generate lots of blue-collar jobs.

Trump’s victory speech last night placed a little more emphasis than usual on infrastructure (unless we consider the wall on the border as infrastructure). This shift was just one element of his turn to his general election strategy, which took the form last night of endeavoring to unify the Republican Party behind him (no easy task) and demonize Hillary Clinton as an all-but-convicted criminal. Difficult as it may be for Trump to achieve Republican unity, however, it is even more unlikely that the anti-Trump forces can thwart his nomination or mount a third-party challenge to it. Had Marco Rubio emerged from Tuesday’s contests as a viable Anti-Trump, he might unify enough Republicans to block the Donald’s nomination. Rubio, after all, has consistently positioned himself as the candidate who’s acceptable to disparate wings of the party—just establishment enough to win what remains of Republican moderates (not much) and conservative enough to win the much larger GOP right. The price of this positioning, however, is that he hasn’t been the first choice of any Republican camp: Old-school moderates have preferred Kasich, while far-right social conservatives have preferred Ted Cruz. Conversely, Cruz’s victories in Texas and Oklahoma would position the Texas senator as the most plausible Donald Slayer, were it not for the fact that only the far-right supports him, and that the GOP establishment is convinced—rightly, I think—that he’d do even worse than Trump if he became the nominee.

Underlying the plight of the GOP’s anti-Trumps is that they fall into two largely distinct camps. The first consists of those who believe Trump betrays one or another version of conservative orthodoxy—neoconservatives appalled at what he’s said about foreign policy, social conservatives sickened at his refusal to issue a blanket condemnation of Planned Parenthood, or paleo-conservatives of the George Will variety who see in Trump a betrayal of conservative scripture passed down from Buckley to Reagan and beyond. The second anti-Trump camp consists of more conventional conservatives who aren’t neocons or social right-wingers but who are genuinely appalled at the racist, authoritarian, and semi-neo-fascist elements of Trumpism. Finding a Republican who could run a protest campaign against Trump in the general election and could appeal to both these groups would be no easy task. In the past few days, those suggesting such a campaign be waged have tended to come more from the hard right, the Cruz wing of the party. But most Republicans, I suspect, would vote for Trump over a protest candidate with Cruz’s politics.


The only truly revelatory Super Tuesday contest for the Democrats was the one in Massachusetts. After Saturday’s election in South Carolina, it came as no surprise that Clinton swept the Southern states yesterday with 80-plus percent African American support. Nor should it have been surprising that Sanders won handily in the two caucus states of Minnesota and Colorado, or even in Oklahoma—a largely white state where one has to be something of a hard-case liberal to be a Democrat at all (and in which Sanders, for that reason, considerably outspent Clinton). For those familiar with the history of American socialism, however, Sanders’s victory there touched the mystic chords of memory, since Oklahoma was the state in which socialists ran up their highest vote totals during the era of socialist presidential hopeful Eugene V. Debs in the early 1900s.  

But Massachusetts always looked to be the one state that would be close on Tuesday, and close it was, with Clinton winning by just 1.5 percent. Massachusetts, however, was the kind of state that Sanders had to win if he was going to start piling up victories. Like Iowa, it’s both heavily white (though not quite so white as Vermont and New Hampshire) and heavily liberal. And as in Iowa, Sanders came up a dollar short.

The exit polling in Tuesday’s Democratic contests followed the patterns established in the four preceding elections. Clinton carried four-fifths of the African American vote; Sanders won young white voters by large margins; Clinton won the vote of seniors of all races by even larger margins. In predominantly white states, Sanders won the backing of low-income voters and Clinton that of high earners. The sole demographic revelation came in Texas, the first primary state in the cycle with a large Latino electorate. Clinton carried Latinos in Texas by a 71 percent to 29 percent margin. Latinos in Texas consistently hew to a more centrist politics than Latinos in California (they vote at a far lower rate than their California counterparts, too), but Clinton’s advantage suggests that Sanders may have trouble winning a majority of Latino voters even in the more liberal Golden State.

By now, it’s clear that Sanders’s strength lies in caucus states, which reward the intensity of a candidate’s support, and in the states of the Great White North, stretching as far west as Washington and Oregon. If he can’t win in Massachusetts, however, it’s hard to see how he can win in the states of the once-industrial Midwest, most of which vote over the next two weeks. He’ll doubtless win lots of delegates in New York (whose primary is scheduled in April) and California (June), but he’s nonetheless the underdog in both states.

So will Sanders drop out? Should he? Of course not.

First, the Democrats’ awarding of delegates by proportional representation means that Clinton is not likely to win a majority until May at the earliest, and if we don’t count the unelected super-delegates who disproportionately flocked to her banner, not until California votes in June. Second, Sanders—who is both a serious idealist and a clear-eyed realist—has always believed he is running to build a movement that pushes the Democrats to the left rather than seriously contesting for the presidency. To build such a movement, he understood, requires his contesting for the presidency, and he never expected he’d get as far as he has. His goal has always been to amass a large number of delegates (certainly, more than a third, which is an achievable target) who will advance progressive platform planks at the party’s convention in July. His goal has also been to help create a left-wing political force within the Democratic Party and American politics generally. All this requires continuing his campaign straight through the convention, and it’s almost certain he’ll have the funding and popular support to do that.

Is this bad for Clinton? I don’t think so. Were Sanders to withdraw before the primary season runs its course, many of his supporters—most particularly, his young supporters—would likely feel betrayed and quite possibly disengage themselves from any political activity this fall, when such activity will be needed most. If the Sanders forces get their due at the convention—and Clinton understands it’s in her interests not to send them away angry—they’re more likely to join with her in the fall battle against Trump, a course of action Sanders will surely urge them to take. Moreover, Sanders has forced Clinton to become a better candidate—to take positions on trade and corporate power, for instance, that make her more electable, and to make a better case for her candidacy. His ongoing presence in the race will likely continue to help her sharpen her appeal.

Trump and Clinton entered Super Tuesday as the favorites, facing a group of primary opponents disinclined to drop out. They leave Super Tuesday still facing a group of primary opponents disinclined to drop out, but with their status as favorites considerably enhanced. 

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