Americans often do a much better job of naming things than Brits. If the title of the Apollo Project, the Grand Canyon or the Empire State Building had been decided in the United Kingdom, each would doubtless have sounded a lot less dramatic. ‘Super Tuesday’ is a case in point: the name makes last night’s 11 simultaneous state primaries sound electrifying. But in reality yesterday’s results served to consolidate the race for the White House rather than shake it up dramatically.
Last night ended any lingering notion that Bernie Sanders is a serious alternative to Hillary Clinton. Not only did Clinton trounce Sanders in the southern states as predicted, she also won Massachusetts right on the doorstep of Sanders’ home state of Vermont and is now far ahead in the numbers of delegates needed to win the nomination. There are still several big primaries to go and the recent bitter experience of Iowa and New Hampshire make it unlikely that Clinton is taking anything for granted. But broadly speaking the Democratic primary is over, soon to be replaced with feverish speculation about Clinton’s running mate.
It was also a milestone in the Republican race. Donald Trump – victor in every state bar four last night – is now well on his way to becoming the party’s nominee. Ted Cruz’s wins in Texas and Oklahoma means he returns to second place. Meanwhile, ‘little Rubio’ was left fighting for relevance in the Republican field having carried only Minnesota.
But the excitement of Super Tuesday seems to have caused people to get carried away. The realisation that Trump is set to win the GOP nomination has led otherwise sensible people to talk up the danger that Trump poses not just to the Republicans but to the United States itself. In a piece of pre-Super Tuesday commentary that was not atypical Harvard’s Larry Summers fretted that Trump’s election ‘would threaten our democracy’ while another Financial Times columnist worried that, ‘Trump embodies how great Republics meet their end’. You don’t have to go far to hear a Trump administration being talked about as a real possibility.
In all of this excitement an important fact gets lost: Donald Trump is not going to be elected president of the United States. Super Tuesday did not change that.
Don’t get me wrong – he is now almost certain to be the GOP nominee. The polls suggest the delegate maths is overwhelmingly in his favour, something that is only helped by Cruz and Marco Rubio fighting it out for second place. And when it comes to the general election it will certainly be a tough fight not least because Trump’s presence in the race does seem to boost GOP turnout.
But the fundamentals of what it takes to win the general election have not changed. Minority voters and women voters are still essential to winning the White House. Trump’s bigotry, his lacklustre approach to condemning the endorsement of a former KKK member and sustained sexism matter a great deal. The ability to look like a commander-in-chief also means a lot.
None of this is new. Commentators have been listing the sensible reasons why a Trump victory in November is unthinkable for months now. Unfortunately, there has recently been a collective loss of confidence in these fundamental facts. Chastened by a failure to foresee the sustained rise of Trump, many are now hedging their bets and arguing that there is a real possibility that ‘The Donald’ makes it to the Oval Office.
There isn’t. The ‘but this time it’s different’ argument only holds if you assume that the primary process – when party members choose a standard-bearer – is analogous to the general election – when the public choose a president. Trump’s conduct has only been allowed to pass without denting his poll numbers because none of his rivals have had much incentive to go after him directly. But within hours of the polls closing last night Cruz and Rubio had well and truly taken the gloves off. And this is before Clinton’s general election campaign really gets started.
You cannot offend, frighten or amuse entire sections of the electorate and still win. Relying on that hunch is no less rational than updating your view of the race with every new poll that puts Trump ahead in November. If these fundamentals did not apply then Howard Dean, Herman Cain and Sarah Palin would all have worked in the West Wing.
For all of the ups and downs of this primary season it looks like American democracy will work just fine: Trump will become the Republican nominee and then lose to Clinton in November. There’s nothing ‘super’ about it.
Charlie Samuda is a former adviser to the Labour party and is studying at the Harvard Kennedy School. He tweets @CharlieSamuda
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