November may be one of the most brutal elections in American history.
Donald Trump’s victories in 7 states on Super Tuesday clearly shows that the Republican Party is split: its elites are unable to decide on a strategy, their favored candidate is incapable of inspiring conservative support, and the party is heading for almost certain defeat in November 2016. The Democrats, on the other hand, are still divided between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders but are open to supporting all the way to the White House whichever candidate wins the party nomination. The sheer persistence and significance of both the Trump and Sanders campaigns indicates that the tectonic plates of the American political landscape are shifting beyond the grasp of the established political party system. Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist may have called it right a few days ago when he suggested that we are witnessing a political realignment. We’re moving from a traditional understanding of left-right politics that we’ve had for a long time to something that looks very different. However, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are not the disease and they’re not the symptom of the disease — they are the beta test of a cure, from the perspective of the people.
An examination of the combined effects of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, and now Super Tuesday primaries on the national polls up to this point shows two significant trends: Donald Trump is the credible candidate for the GOP nomination and Hillary Clinton has moved firmly, if not decisively, ahead of Bernie Sanders, possibly because of the Trump effect: Clinton is defining herself increasingly as the most likely candidate to defeat Trump in November 2016, and lots of Democrats are rallying around her. But Sanders did better than forecast in most polls on Super Tuesday, winning four states.
There appears to be little such credible movement within the GOP against Trump, despite Ted Cruz’s wins in Oklahoma and Texas, his home state, and Marco Rubio’s victory in Minnesota. The GOP looks like a rabbit in the headlights of an approaching truck. In terms of convention delegates, though, Trump’s lead is looking unassailable. Some pollsters from RealClear Politics are suggesting that after last night, Trump has a 60% chance of being the Republican nominee. Clinton, for some, has a 90% to 100% likelihood of being the Democratic contender for the White House.
It will be interesting to see what the GOP’s uncommitted senators and governors do now in terms of endorsements. After the initial batch of primaries, and now Super Tuesday, history suggests that Trump is the rock-solid favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination because, since 1996 at least, every major party candidate who triumphed in New Hampshire and with a large national lead has gone on to win the party nomination. But Trump is different, some say – he’s an ‘insurgent’ outsider, like Barry Goldwater in 1964, who may yet unite the opposition, unless the latter remains split over its even greater dislike of Cruz. But like Goldwater, who presaged the rise of a more right-wing Republican coalition, Trump may well be signposting the future of not only Republican but also national politics. Yet, a kinder, gentler Trump seems to have emerged from last night’s results — suggesting the ability to work with the GOP, to unify it, to broaden its appeal, and win back estranged conservatives.
On the Democratic side, things look very different — there are only two candidates and Clinton is seemingly pulling ahead; a CNN poll on Monday put Clinton 55% to 38% ahead of Sanders, despite the latter being seen as more honest. Still Clinton is viewed as the better potential commander in chief despite backing the disastrous Iraq War in 2003. Yet, in head to head national polls, Sanders beats Trump more decisively 47% to 41% than Clinton 45% to 42% – according to RealClear Politics poll averages. But November 2016 looks like a contest whose contours are clearer: self-styled billionaire ‘insurgent outsider’, speaking for the ‘people’ to make ‘America great again’, railing against the ‘establishment Clinton’ who’s main appeal might come to be — “I’m not Donald Trump”. If so, November might see one of the most brutal of contests in American history since Thomas Jefferson took on John Adams, each trading slurs that would shock Americans even today.
Inderjeet Parmar is a professor of international politics at City University London.