The results of the biggest voting day in the presidential contest thus far may not have been everything that front-runners Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had hoped, but they were enough to set the course for the remainder of the nominating season.
And they were surely enough to intensify the pressure on their respective rivals.
For believers in Bernie Sanders’ promise of a “political revolution,” Super Tuesday may have seemed like the end of a dream.
And for Republican office-holders and party officials anxious about having Donald Trump as their presidential nominee, Super Tuesday must have been a nightmare.
Sanders went down in seven of the 11 states holding Democratic events, winning in only four where the Democratic vote was relatively small. These included his home state of Vermont, where he won with 86 percent amid turnout lower than it had been in 2008.
Worse yet for Sanders’ crusade, Clinton dominated in the competition for pledged delegates to the nominating convention. Because her victory margins were so large in several populous Southern states, including 2-1 in Texas, her share of the delegates far exceeded her rival’s. She also won in Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas and Massachusetts.
Having begun the night with a modest lead in pledged delegates, Clinton wound up with 544 to Sanders’ 349. And when you include the so-called superdelegates (who go to the convention by virtue of their elected or party office), Clinton’s lead expands to 1,001-371. As big-state contests loom in Michigan, Ohio and Florida over the next two weeks, Clinton needs only to break even in delegate allocations to maintain her formidable advantage.
Small wonder, then, that Clinton once again spoke generously of Sanders in her victory speech, turning her guns instead on a likely upcoming foe.
“I congratulate Sen. Sanders on his strong showing and campaigning,” she said, before offering this implicit salute to Sanders’ populism: “Because this country belongs to all of us, not just those at the top.”
Soon enough, she was pivoting to her preferred targets across the aisle.
“The stakes in this election have never been higher,” said Clinton, “and the rhetoric we’re hearing on the other side has never been lower. Trying to divide America between us and them is wrong, and we’re not going to let it work.”
Sanders had spoken early in the evening, right after Vermont was called in his column.
“This campaign is not just about electing a president,” he said, “it’s about transforming America. We are not going to allow billionaires and the superPACs to destroy American democracy.”
By the time the evening was over, Sanders had added wins in Oklahoma, Colorado and Minnesota. But the contests in Colorado and Minnesota were caucuses, with relatively few participants. Taken together, his vote total in the four states he won was about 430,000. Clinton won 530,000 in Georgia alone, and larger totals still in Massachusetts and Texas.
Losing in Massachusetts had to be the hardest blow for the Sanders forces to bear. The state borders Vermont, but Sanders was not able to replicate his smashing win in neighboring New Hampshire from Feb. 9. He did win the counties nearest his own state, and most of the counties outside the Boston metropolitan area. But it wasn’t enough. Clinton edged him by fewer than 2 percentage points, taking 45 delegates to Sanders’ 43.
But if there was disappointment in the Sanders camp last night, there was panic in the ranks of establishment Republicans at the thought of Trump as their party champion.
After his string of victories on Super Tuesday, his chances of capturing winner-take-all states down the road are all the greater, making his nomination in July no worse than an even bet.
In fact, given his growing lead in delegates, Trump’s main obstacle now may be not another candidate but the prospect of an open convention where neither he nor anyone else has the votes for a first-ballot victory.
After Trump scored big February wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, party officers and congressional leaders began taking him on in public and in private. House Speaker Paul Ryan called him out for his apparent reluctance to denounce former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. There was talk in the media of Republican candidates detaching themselves from the party’s nominee in the fall.
Yet on Super Tuesday there seemed little sign of this same unease within the Republican primary electorate. Trump won seven of the states holding primaries, including Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama and Arkansas in the South. At the same time, unlike other Republicans who in the past have run the table in Dixie, Trump wrapped up two more states in New England: Massachusetts and Vermont.
Noting that Republican turnout had been up again, across the board, while Democratic turnout fell shy of 2008, Trump added this:
“I think we’re going to be more inclusive … more unified, and I think we’re going to be a much bigger party. [The GOP] has become more dynamic. It’s become more diverse. We’re taking from the Democrats.”
Trump did yield the biggest prize of the day to rival Sen. Ted Cruz, who won his home state of Texas along with the adjoining state of Oklahoma.
“Thank God for the Lone Star State,” crooned Cruz as he thanked his supporters in Stafford, Texas. Cruz made much of having beaten Trump in three states, claiming this made him the best alternative to the New York business mogul. (Hours later Cruz increased his total to four states, after the Alaska caucuses went his way.) Cruz also said the other candidates — who would be Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson — should “prayerfully consider” abandoning their own campaigns to unite behind him.
It was immediately apparent that none intended to do so. Rubio, who had hoped to establish himself as the last bright hope of the anti-Trump forces, settled for a first-place finish in Minnesota’s caucuses (his first win of the year) and two second-place showings in Georgia and Virginia.
Rubio had high hopes for both of those states. The former borders his home state of Florida, and the latter had high concentrations of suburban Republicans, to whom he had directly appealed. Rubio did come within a few percentage points of Trump in Virginia, but still fell short. He had a strong finish in Minnesota, but the caucus was lightly attended and his vote total was barely over 41,000.
But with his flair for seeing the bright side, Rubio noted that Trump’s vote totals on Super Tuesday had not matched Trump’s poll numbers “in state after state.” Rubio saw that as a sign of his own success in challenging the front-runner. Rubio had begun bearding Trump in the Feb. 25 debate and traded insults with him throughout the weekend, repeatedly calling him “a con artist,” among other things.
Kasich, for his part, came within a whisker of eclipsing Trump in Vermont and added another, more distant second-place finish in Massachusetts. He made it clear he would be in the race at least through Michigan (March 8) and Ohio, his home state, a week later. Kasich has been widely regarded as campaigning for a vice-presidential offer at this point, although he continues to suggest he could be the unity candidate against Trump.
Carson once again indicated he was “not going anywhere,” blaming his single-digit shares of the vote to the system he was fighting, calling it a “complex web.”
In the end, of course, all this persistence on the part of his rivals may make it easier for Trump to divide and conquer. The more rivals remain, the more the anti-Trump vote is diluted, making it easier for him to prevail with a plurality of the vote, state by state, all the way to the convention.