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A clearer path in the 2016 presidential race

March 3, 2016

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

AspenInterna/Mar2016

After running on parallel tracks for several weeks, the Democratic and Republican primaries diverged on Super Tuesday to go each in its own direction. While the Grand old party (Gop) accelerated toward a Donald Trump train wreck, the Democratic establishment put the brakes on the insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders. As things stand today, American voters are destined for as contentious and divisive a general election as ever, the face-off of two opponents (Trump and Hillary Clinton) who couldn’t be more unlike one another. No doubts such showdown would send sparks flying.

But first things first. Super Tuesday was a good night for Clinton, and most likely a turning point in the Democratic primaries. The former secretary of State came out ahead in seven states [Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia] and built a solid lead in the delegates count. Sanders didn’t do so bad either. He took his home state of Vermont as well as Colorado, Minnesota and Oklahoma. Nevertheless, when it came time for Clinton to give her victory speech from Florida, where voters go to the polls on March 15th in another crucial round of voting, it was immediately clear that she was in a celebratory mood. She pretty much addressed her supporters as the presumptive Democratic nominee. Giving only a passing nod to Sanders, Clinton moved to attack Trump in all but name. “What we need in America today is more love and kindness,” she said. “Instead of building walls we are going to break down barriers and build ladders of opportunity and empowerment.”

In his own speech from Vermont, Sanders let it be known that he is not going anywhere. “By the end of tonight we are going to win many hundreds of delegates,” he said. “There are many more states left. Let me assure that we are going to take our fight to every one of those states.” But the odds are now stacked against him. This doesn’t mean that the rationale for Sanders’ campaign is extinguished. In fact, he has always drawn much of his motivation to run from a larger desire to change the terms of the debate rather than simply the ambition to win the race. He suggested so himself, when he said on March 1st that “this campaign is not just about electing the president, it’s about transforming America, it’s about making our great country the nation we know it has the potential to be.”

If with Super Tuesday the Democratic establishment seems to have halted the insurgent wave, Republicans fell even more in the throes of it. To the dismay of party leaders in Washington, Trump took seven states [Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia] bolstering his position as the favorite for the GOP nomination. Speaking from Florida, Trump quickly pivoted from his strong showing on Super Tuesday to the general election campaign and the looming battle with Clinton. He attacked her as a Washington insider. “She has been there for so long. If she hasn’t straightened [the situation] out by now, she won’t straighten it out in the next four years,” he said. Then, just like he had done, rather successfully, with Ted Cruz a few weeks ago, Trump also sowed doubts about Clinton’s ability to run for the White House. He suggested she might not be allowed to because of the email controversy she has been tangled in. Trump has called her behavior “criminal” in the past and did so again on March 1st.

If this wasn’t enough for the Republican establishment, Ted Cruz also lived to fight another day, winning three states (his home state of Texas, Oklahoma and Alaska). All the while, Washington’s candidate of choice Marco Rubio was badly bruised. His campaign hanging by the slimmest of threads — his late night win in Minnesota — Rubio now must succeed in his home state of Florida (on March 15) if he wants to remain relevant. But he is trailing Trump even there. It is no surprise that Cruz seized the opportunity in his speech to supporters, openly asking all other Republican candidates to drop out of the race and join his campaign to defeat Trump. “So long as the field remains divided, Donald Trump’s path to the nomination is more likely. And that would be a disaster,” Cruz said. “Tonight we have seen that our campaign is the only campaign that has beaten, can beat and will beat Donald Trump.”

Cruz is right that a divided GOP field benefits Trump. But he is hardly the person that can unite the party. He is the most conservative Republican candidate in the run and he is considered unsavory by many a GOP leader and rather unpleasant by many voters. So it is highly unlikely that the likes of Rubio or John Kasich will step aside to let him through. “I will go to all 50 states before I stop fighting,” Rubio told CNN while Super Tuesday votes were still being counted.

All in all, what seemed impossible until very recently might actually happen: while the rest of the Republican camp jostles for second place, Donald Trump might just sneak away with the Republican nomination. At this point, Trump-Clinton conflagration is not looking so improbable anymore.

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