World

US 2016: In South Carolina, Trump defies laws of physics while Jeb! sinks without a trace

By J Brooks Spector 22 February 2016

The South Carolina Republican primary claimed the campaign’s next victim, Jeb Bush, the man first tipped as the original frontrunner last year, while Donald Trump won another primary and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz came in a virtual tie for second place. Meanwhile, in Nevada, in the Democratic Party’s caucus, Hillary Clinton gained a modest victory over her challenger, Bernie Sanders. But the campaign now moves on quickly for the big prize of twelve primaries and caucuses on 1 March. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes another look at this most unusual of presidential campaigns.

By 22 February, the casualties in this year’s presidential election stakes have continued to mount. Among Republicans, in the South Carolina primary election Donald Trump gained a ten-point margin of victory over Senator Marco Rubio and just slightly more than that over Senator Ted Cruz. This result has now further winnowed down a field that once stood at a baker’s dozen, as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush wistfully announced he was effectively ending his pursuit of the glittering prize.

In accepting the demise of his campaign, he chastised in all but name the nativist populism powering Trump’s progress and lamented that his principled conservative positions had turned out to be insufficiently enticing to voters in Republican primaries to gain him a real shot at the nomination. His campaign’s collapse had proved several things, including the fact that money can’t always buy love in elections (and the Bush campaign and its parallel superPAC had truly burned through a tonne of it with meager results); as well as the fact that the Bush mystique had largely run its course, even though Jeb Bush had ultimately brought in former president George W Bush and his wife and their mother, Barbara, to campaign for him. South Carolina can be a cruel place, even for would-be dynasties.

In describing Bush’s disaster, Politico had argued “His [Bush’s] closest aides failed to predict Trump and never changed course, guiding a flawed candidate into a corner he couldn’t escape…. Interviews with more than two dozen Bush insiders, donors and staff illuminate the plight of an earnest and smart candidate who was tragicomically mismatched to the electorate of his own party and an unforgiving, mean media environment that broadcast his flaws. The entire premise of Bush’s candidacy … was an epic misread of a GOP base hostile to any establishment candidate, especially one with his baggage-weighted last name….

[A]lmost immediately, Trump baited Bush into a fight…. They got defined as ‘low energy’ by a guy who took an escalator to his own announcement…. The problem, many donors say they believe, is that there wasn’t anyone on the team who both recognized his shortcomings and was willing to point them out to the principal himself. ‘He did not put an adult as the chairman of the campaign and a lot of the mistakes flow from that,’ said one long-time Bush donor. ‘Reagan put Bill Casey in that position. 41 put Jim Baker. 43 had Don Evans. You always had someone above the campaign manager who could tell people and the candidate what needed to happen, who could see the big picture.’ … He couldn’t sell experience to an electorate that wanted emotion.”

As a result, although Donald Trump tightened his grip on frontrunner status within the Republican Party, it has now also raised the question – and a very big one – of where all the smart money that had earlier headed towards Jeb Bush will go now. Specifically, who among the remaining candidates, i.e., Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and, to a much lesser extent, Ohio Governor John Kasich, may be able to gather up all the support remaining, beyond Trump’s share of those so-far committed Trumpians?

The challenge is, of course, that as the field of candidates shrinks, voters and would-be funders both face choices that are now increasingly limited, as well as increasingly consequential. While Donald Trump has, so far, virtually cornered the market of Republicans who are – as in the words of newscaster Howard Beale’s character in the film, Network, “mad as hell and I can’t take it any more” – it remains unclear if he can expand beyond that base to include the rest of the Republican Party’s supporters, let alone independents and some Democrats.

Cruz, meanwhile, has been trying hard to portray himself as a favourite of the evangelical/fundamentalist/Christian bloc of voters some 35 million strong, as well as both the economic and social conservatives and the neo-conservative traditionalists remaining among the GOP faithful. Rubio, meanwhile, is trying to appeal both to neo-conservative traditionalists, as well as new voters who might find his message about the future, hope, optimism and the coming generation in politics appealing enough to support him.

The challenge for both Cruz and Rubio is that the objects of their would-be affection may well overlap with some of those “mad as hell” Trump supporters – and no one really knows how well they can reach beyond their current base in the primaries and caucuses now coming fast and furious over the next four weeks or so. And then, of course, there remains residual support for both Kasich and Ben Carson – the former putatively representing traditional mainstream Republicans as the adult in the room and the latter still holding onto some of those same evangelicals Cruz is angling to round up as part of his strategy.

Or as the Washington Post saw it, “At a minimum, the outcome here solidified New York businessman Donald Trump as the front-runner for the nomination, with his two leading rivals now Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who were in a dogfight for second place. In other important ways, however, the voters here kicked the contest on to the next round of states without resolving some of the most critical — and interrelated — questions that remain about the direction of the GOP race.

At the top of the list of questions is the degree to which Trump has a ceiling on his support that could eventually deny him the nomination, despite the fact that he has finished second, first and first in the first three contests of 2016. Trump’s winning percentage was the lowest or second lowest recorded here over the past 10 presidential primaries. Another is the issue of whether Cruz, who needed South Carolina to give him a substantial boost, can use his finish here as a springboard to victories in the southern states on March 1 that long have been the foundation of his victory plan. Related is whether he can only score well in states where the electorate includes an overwhelming percentage of evangelicals.

Finally, there is the biggest question, which is whether Rubio can isolate and then defeat Trump in an eventual one-on-one showdown for the nomination. Rubio’s finish here provided a lift to his candidacy after his disappointing fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, but as long as the race remains a three-person contest, Rubio’s path is made more difficult.”

With all that in mind, Republicans will have their Nevada caucus showdown this coming week and then there are the primaries and caucuses in twelve states and territories on 1 March, followed by two days of other multistate primaries in the next two weeks as well. If Donald Trump succeeds in winning most of these elections with showings in the 30%-plus-plus range, as the remaining five candidates split the remainder, it is conceivable he will have built up sufficient momentum to be able to go into the final primaries and then on into the July nominating convention in a commanding position, albeit without a sufficient majority of the delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot. With that, the convention would go into overtime with no one able to game out how the whole thing would end.

Even before things get that tangled, the question of Trump’s campaign advantages looms increasingly large. As the Post judged it, “As the campaign moves soon from a series of isolated contests in single states to primary days with multiple contests across a much wider terrain, Trump holds some key advantages. The principal one is that the race will become ever more nationalized, favoring someone who has shown mastery for dominating media coverage at the expense of his rivals.

A second is that his coalition appears similar to that of past winners of the nomination, as he is doing better than the others among Republicans who call themselves ‘somewhat conservative’ or ‘moderate,’ rather than those who say they are ‘very conservative.’ A third is that against a divided opposition, Trump can continue to win primaries and caucuses with less than half the vote. That could become significantly more valuable starting on March 15, when states award delegates on some version of a winner-take-all basis.”

This, not surprisingly, has begun to generate an increasingly high-pitched keening sound from a growing chorus of Republican strategists, office holders, consultants and contribution bundlers – most of whom are beginning to contemplate how to figure out a way to come to terms with the raucous Donald Trump as their nominee without losing their breakfast, or, alternatively, coalescing around an alternative – Cruz, Rubio or just possibly Kasich – they can harness themselves to in order to stop the stampede of those “mad as hell” Trumpians who would likely bring the party into disrepute and probable massive electoral disaster, come this November.

And such an outcome will have occurred even as Trump continues his bumptious, narcissist behaviour. Presumably he will be picking more fights with people like the Pope and continuing to issue his off-the-cuff rants disguised as policy pronouncements, all without setting out a definable set of policies he supports beyond building a bodacious wall to the south of the country, slapping tariffs on Chinese imports, rounding up Muslims or preventing their access to the nation entirely, along with other such visibly presidential ideas.

Meanwhile, among Democrats, the problem is expressed in slightly different terms. While the Hillary Clinton campaign continues to roll forward, its two wins – Iowa and Nevada – have been relatively uninspiring, far-too-close-for-comfort affairs. And the unexpectedly surprising, feisty challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders continues to give the Clinton forces fits in figuring out a way to close the gate on her nomination. In New Hampshire’s primary, and among a wide variety of surveys and polls, Sanders has been able to make major inroads into the various constituencies of the Democratic Party, except, perhaps, with minorities like African Americans. Crucial for Clinton’s chances in the upcoming South Carolina primary on 27 February, and in many of the Super Tuesday primaries, is the fact that in the country’s southern states (and a number of others) African Americans are a major constituency within the party, albeit somewhat less important for the general election, of course since that election includes independents and Republicans.

Still, in recent days, Clinton’s gloves have come off a bit, moving from treating Sanders with great care, to arguing that while she feels strongly and favourably disposed towards many of Sanders’ ideas (and in fact was she was there first), his pugnacious, nearly messianic, millenarian approach and that his sums don’t add up, all mean that the Republicans in Congress will block everything he wants. Moreover, those problems plus his single-issue fixation (the big banks and Wall Street are satanic and are the cause of all the nation’s misfortunes) simply don’t reflect the reality of how one governs successfully. And then add his minimal interest in foreign policy and the challenges therein to the nation and you have the makings of a wonderful old codger who is simply unable to embrace the reality of today’s world.

Now her challenge is to sell that critique in a way that doesn’t turn the matchup truly sour – and thereby turn off all those Democratic voters who feel strongly in the direction of Sanders’ nostrums to fix inequality in economic outcome, deal with the student debt burden, and solve the costs of medical care. And she has to do it in such a way that she doesn’t sound like the class scold or an apocalyptic Cassandra, thereby squelching enthusiasm for her candidacy once Sanders is put away.

If things go according to her team’s plan, a victory in South Carolina will be followed by a virtual sweep through the South and Midwest during Super Tuesday and the two succeeding Tuesdays. That will give her some serious momentum and together with the likelihood that she has corralled the vast majority of the so-called super-delegates (around 20% of the total delegate count needed to win the nomination), the Clinton forces see their way forward to a first-ballot win.

Those super-delegates may well turn out to be the Clinton magic weapon, if the primary delegate counts continue to be split proportionately between the two candidates in close races through the primary season. Those super-delegates are largely current Democratic Party office holders and party officers and such delegates came into being some years back to ensure that actual party officials weren’t written out of the process for the presidential nomination.

Some are now criticizing these delegates on the grounds they were not selected in primaries, although the rejoinder has been they are the actual people who have put their necks on the line winning elections and being the backbone of the party. But, if the margin of victory for Clinton for the convention is ultimately seen to be such delegates, it is possible to see a contentious floor fight about the right of such delegates to decide the nomination. With three and a half states heard from, this one ain’t over for Democrats and Republicans. Not by a long shot. DM

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia February 21, 2016. REUTERS/Tami Chappell.

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