Last night two more states added their thoughts to the presidential landscape, as South Carolina Republicans went for Donald Trump and Nevada Democrats gave Hillary Clinton her first decisive victory of the cycle. The wins for the two New Yorkers comes at a crucial juncture for the campaigns, as we are only nine days out from Super Tuesday, when twelve states will cast their ballots and likely be the last point in the election where someone can frame a narrative in a significant way. As is our usual after major elections, I've written down the five things that most struck me about last night's election:
Donald Trump had a moment in Iowa where it appeared his campaign may have been in trouble, and Hillary Clinton's walloping in New Hampshire set off similar alarms, but last night both candidates had little trouble in gaining victories in their states. Yes, some may quibble that Clinton should have done better in Nevada considering the state's racial background and yes, Trump didn't quite hit the highs that some had thought he might according to polling in South Carolina, but these are the quibbles of those wanting to find fault lines. Make no mistake, both candidates gave their campaigns major victories last night. After all, Clinton and Trump will now head into Super Tuesday with likely three victories (looking at the exit polls, it seems impossible that Clinton loses South Carolina and Trump is the favorite in Nevada), and they are leading in every single state that votes on March 1st. As we've seen this season, polling and results can swing wildly as the race progresses, but the other side is running out of time, particularly in the case of Trump whose position in national polling continues to expand. Looking at Super Tuesday states like Georgia, Texas, and Virginia are all delegate-rich and have large African-American populations that could gain significant victories for Clinton as she tries to seal away the race, while Bernie Sanders doesn't have a lot of options outside of places like Colorado and Minnesota. Conversely, Donald Trump's continued aura of winning is going to have an effect on candidates (no one wants to get behind a politician that looks like a tossed-aside vote). The race isn't over, and I suspect that Bernie Sanders and Marco Rubio still have room in their arsenal, but Trump and Clinton both got bigger victories than just one state last night.
Last night Jeb Bush ended what was once considered to be a surefire race to the nomination, and perhaps redemption for his father's loss in 1992 to the husband of the women he seemed assured to be facing in the general election. There are a lot of things to consider how Bush lost, particularly that it happened in a state both his father and brother scored crucial victories in in their first runs for the White House, and that it happened when Donald Trump, the victor of the night, was bashing Bush's brother, the most recent Republican president. Make no mistake, the Bush Era is now over, and one wonders if that fact will cause a continued exodus of a number of moderate Republicans from Congress, seeing their time pass. As a result of Bush being out of the race, the establishment now has their candidate in Marco Rubio, which has seemed likely for several weeks even if his botched debate performance put that somewhat in doubt. Some people have already started to float the idea that Rubio pick John Kasich as his running-mate, knowing that he can't really afford to be losing 5-6% of the vote (or, in places like Michigan and Ohio in the next few weeks, considerably more) to the governor. It'd be unorthodox, but not the worst idea and Rubio's probably considering it right now, particularly since Kasich was going to be one of his best options anyway and there's no way Kasich will end up on a ticket with Cruz or Trump. Even so Kasich seems likely to stay in for a while, but even with him running it seems difficult for any Republican establishment voter to see that Rubio isn't their best option. I suspect that Donald Trump, who has made sport of the likes of Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush before him, can't see that the only real candidate left in the race who can challenge him for the nomination is Rubio, and I anticipate that his focus is going to shift to the Florida senator. The question here is, will that matter (Rubio has rivaled Trump in terms of teflon for most the race, the New Hampshire debate debacle aside)? Rubio keeps getting glowing press, but he has to actually start winning states and not just outperform in order for him to actually win the nomination. Super Tuesday will almost certainly give Rubio a victory somewhere, but if he can't start locking down the race by then, will it be possible for Trump to actually falter? After all, waiting for a contested convention, particularly when you'll be in second or third place in terms of the popular vote, has too much risk and backlash potential involved to be a truly viable strategy. The establishment's power hasn't really been able to score victories so far this cycle-are we putting too much stock in their prowess now that they actually have a candidate?
You could make the argument last night that all of the remaining viable candidates had some sort of victory, except for Ted Cruz. The Texas senator did nearly as well as Marco Rubio, of course, and is the only person to have beaten Donald Trump this election cycle (I'm sure you can find multiple tweets from his account to back up that assertion), but South Carolina is the exact sort of state that Cruz, the evangelical and very conservative Texas senator, should be scooping up with ease. If Ted Cruz can't win here, where are his victories going to come from? While it's relatively easy to make the assertion that Donald Trump, who will say anything for a vote, can rival Marco Rubio in places like California and New York, if Cruz can't take the South what is his plan, exactly? He has to start growing his base or finding a way to make a dent out of some of the candidates running right now in order for him to be anything other than a spoiler. There's a reason that Cruz was talking to Ben Carson in a closet (aside from giving late night hosts solid punchline material)-he needs every vote in this race he can muster, and Ben Carson, much like John Kasich is for Marco Rubio, is a distraction that he needs to stamp out (unfortunately for Cruz, Carson kind of hates him in a way I doubt Kasich hates Rubio, so there's probably no incentive here). Cruz has been near the top of the potential future president list for months now, but unless he can make a serious play for some states that either Rubio or Trump are bookmarked for in the next week, he risks becoming Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee-an Iowa wonder that couldn't sustain his momentum.
I look on the exit polling in Nevada with a little bit of skepticism, if I'm being honest. While Hillary Clinton won the state, she managed to lose both white voters and Latino voters according to the exit polls, leaving her with only African-American voters in terms of demographics that she won. While I question that this is what happened (caucuses being ridiculously hard to poll and also it's hard to imagine a state with such a small African-American population could swing the vote to Clinton like that), it does show that Sanders has an opening with Latino voters that should make the Clinton camp very worried, particularly with states like Texas and California still in the race with mountains of delegates at stake. Part of Clinton's firewall has been Latino voters, and if she isn't polling nearly as well as she expected amongst this population, that could be a significant problem for her as the race rolls on, and perhaps even into the general election (not for nothing, but Clinton is now underperforming with two of the Democratic Party's most crucial but notoriously elusive demographic groups-Latinos and young voters). Clinton, I suspect, will be making a major play for such voters as the next week goes on (especially after South Carolina, where she's expected to scoop up most of the delegates), but Sanders clearly has to see an opening to try and expand his base, something he desperately needs to do if he wants to be more than just an issue candidate and be the actual nominee.
After last night, to be honest, one wonders if this became a three-person affair. Lots of Republicans called their primary a three-man race, but honestly, I think we only have the names Trump, Clinton, and Rubio left in the running to be our 45th president. Ted Cruz's seismic loss in the Palmetto State shows that he doesn't have a clear shot at the nomination unless Trump implodes, which doesn't seem possible no matter what anyone does, and Bernie Sanders, while much MUCH closer to the nomination than Cruz, is seeing his path to the nomination close in the same way it started to do at this point in 2008 for Hillary Clinton. What this means for the general election, though, is anyone's guess. Don't put a lot of stock into national polling numbers that put Clinton ahead of Trump but behind Rubio-this far out the race is too volatile and has too many Sanders Democrats or Cruz Republicans who will say "if my candidate doesn't win I'm not voting!" that will sing a different tune as the year wears on, but it has to be noted that each candidate brings with them both some major personal baggage as well as incredible assets. Marco Rubio has a personal story that feels written by Aaron Sorkin himself, and comes from a major battleground state, but it's hard not to say at this point that he's underperformed this cycle and that his debate performance has shown Democrats where the weaknesses in his armor are. Clinton surely should have locked away this primary earlier, and her email scandal continues to be a distraction that riles up both sides of the aisle, but she continues to have an Obama coalition that Democrats have to assume will hold together long enough for her to defeat someone who is so politically the opposite of the current president. And Donald Trump has proven himself arguably the best natural politician to come onto the political stage in years, though he'll soon have to contend with voters who genuinely hate him in the form of Democrats and potentially swayed Independents. One of these three individuals is about to become the president, but I suspect a pretty ugly battle before we learn which one.