Super Tuesday's nominating contests went...roughly as expected, actually, with a notable twists and turns along the way. In short, Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee -- and while Donald Trump remains firmly in the GOP driver's seat, his night wasn't quite as dominant as you may have thought when you fell asleep. Details:
(1) The Democratic race isn't technically over, but it might as well be. Hillary Clinton won seven states to Bernie Sanders' four, but her delegate lead keeps expanding, thanks in part to powerful superdelegates. Between her victories and her party's establishment circling the wagons, she will likely achieve her goal of putting Sanders away in the coming weeks. Perhaps her most symbolic victory last night was pulling out a win in Massachusetts, into which her campaign poured resources and effort in a successful bid to make a statement in Sanders' backyard. She also crushed Sanders in the South, beating him badly among voters of color. Sanders' campaign may be vowing to fight to the Philadelphia convention, but Hillary more or less ignored him in her victory remarks (despite cribbing some of his material), attacking Donald Trump and Republicans instead. It was a "presumptive nominee" speech.
(2) Donald Trump is on track to become the Republican nominee, although warning signs exist that a substantial segment of the party won't go quietly. For example:
(1/2) Nearly 3/4 of non-Trump GOP voters said they would not be satisfied if he became the nominee pic.twitter.com/MTPOob6R22— CBS News Politics (@CBSPolitics) March 2, 2016
Trump fell well short of claiming a majority of the delegates allocated on Super Tuesday; by comparison, Mitt Romney did so by a healthy margin in 2012. Trump also lagged slightly behind Romney's performance in terms of his popular vote victory percentage. (Same goes for McCain in 2008). If Trump's rivals continue bagging chunks of available delegates over the next few weeks, and manage to win several big prizes (Ohio, Florida, etc.) when the calendar moves into the winner-take-all zone on March 15, Trump may be deprived of the 1,237 delegates he needs to stave off a contested convention. Nevertheless, Trump undoubtedly remains the strong frontrunner in this race, and will be difficult to beat at this rate. His decision to hold a press conference, rather than a celebratory speech, was strategic and worked well. The tone he adopted seemed intentionally subdued, as he laid out what is sure to be one of his themes against Hillary Clinton if he is nominated: She's been a huge part of the creating the mess we're in over many years, so she cannot be part of the solution. He expressed hope that he'd get along with GOP Congressional leaders if elected, but also issued something of a threat against House Speaker Paul Ryan. He again disavowed white supremacist David Duke, arguing that he thought he had been clear in his (anything but clear) controversial interview on Sunday. He once again did not explicitly denounce the KKK, a subject that led to much-buzzed-about fireworks on CNN between Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord and liberal commentator Van Jones. Trump backers and some conservatives may believe Lord at least battled to a draw here by invoking the Klan's historical ties to Democrats, but in the 21st century, this is...not a helpful debate for any Republican campaign to be engaged in:
Even though the odds are tough to stop him, this simply isn't the mark of a truly dominant frontrunner:
There we go! Four Trump losses (TX, OK, MN, AK) & three very close shaves (VA, VT, AR) out of 11 ST states. https://t.co/IYAQGdz2P2— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) March 2, 2016
(3) Ted Cruz had a very good night, romping in his home state of Texas, and picking off neighboring Oklahoma while he was at it (with Alaska coming in late as a very close win). Cruz also picked up delegates across a number of Southern states, in which he finished second or third. Following his Texas and Oklahoma triumphs, Cruz gave a rare prepared speech in which he attempted to re-frame the GOP race as a two-person affair (as I predicted), arguing that he's the only candidate who's beaten Trump anywhere. This was before Minnesota went for Rubio. The Texan slammed his celebrity billionaire competitor repeatedly, signaling that Thursday night's debate in Michigan is likely to be another bruising event. As of this writing, he finished the night with at least one hundred more delegates than Rubio -- fueling his point about who is best positioned to fight Trump one-on-one. The trouble for Cruz is that the primary map becomes much less hospitable to him after March 5th. Having seriously under-performed his campaign's targets among evangelicals (whom he's been losing outright to Trump in many places) and demonstrating limited appeal among other Republican demographics, a strong case can be made that by the end of the week, Cruz's best territory will be in the rearview mirror. His "firewall" wasn't what it needed to be to allow him to march down the victory path he'd envisioned. That said, those future concerns don't negate the fact that Ted Cruz enjoyed a much better Super Tuesday than any other Republican not named 'Donald Trump.' Don't believe me? Ask...Lindsey Graham?
(4) Marco Rubio learned the hard way that the difference between earning a shining media narrative and being branded the loser of the night can hinge on a handful of percentage points, and the timing of breaking news. At the onset of the evening, Rubio caused a stir when exit polls showed him winning late-deciders and running neck-and-neck with Donald Trump in Virginia -- where public polling had pegged Trump's lead at 15 points. He'd stormed into a virtual tie, it seemed, and had a chance to win the state. Ultimately, Trump hung on by less than three points, winning just one more delegate than Rubio in the Old Dominion. Still, because Rubio hadn't won a state at that point, the "winless streak" talking point began to fly. By the time Rubio finally claimed a victory in Minnesota, all of the candidates had already addressed supporters and the conventional wisdom had begun to congeal. The good news for Rubio in Gopherland is that he shed the "no wins" monkey off is back, beat Cruz soundly, and crushed third-place Trump by double digits. The bad news is that because of the state's delegate rules, his sizable win didn't build him much of an advantage on that front. Rubio picked up delegates in a slew of states, finishing in second and third place across the board. But his failure to hit statewide delegate thresholds in Alabama, Vermont and especially Texas was costly. As was John Kasich's strong showing in northern Virginia, which played a large role in denying Rubio a major upset win early in the night. Because of the Cruz dynamic mentioned above, Rubio isn't going anywhere. His gloves-off broadsides against Trump appear to have worked in some places, but were neutral or even negative elsewhere. One thing is for certain: If he fails to win Florida on March 15 (as he's now vowing to do), it's basically lights out.
(5) John Kasich finished a close second in Vermont, but was hardly a factor anywhere else (he and Rubio effectively tied for a very distant second behind Trump in Massachusetts). His play is Ohio. If you're in the 'stop Trump at the convention' camp, Kasich sticking around and winning his home state may not be the worst thing. Unless, of course, his supporters torpedo another not-Trump candidate in another crucial state. All of the avenues to stopping Trump are shaky at best at this point. Ben Carson is a nonentity in this race. His campaign concedes that they have no path to victory, but insist that they'll continue to lurch along so long as "we the people" are giving them money.
(6) The enthusiasm gap continues to be a significant storyline in the 2016 cycle. Two data points:
GOP: ~7million (not counting Kasich/Carson)— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) March 2, 2016
Dems: ~5.5 million https://t.co/vqAanvymY5
More than 1 million people voted in Virginia's GOP primary today, passing Cuccinelli's gubernatorial vote total in '13.— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) March 2, 2016
I saw a lot of oohing and ahhing over the 2016 Virginia turnout vs. 2012, but four years ago, the outcome was preordained and only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul qualified for the ballot. The 2013 comparison is more impressive. I'll leave you with a few observations about where this Republican race may be headed. A sea change seems to be underway, wherein the GOP's large anti-Trump contingent shifting from a "coalesce" strategy (this field is not thinning) to a "deny Trump the requisite delegates" approach. Translation: Trump is winning, his opponents are flailing to stop him, but it ain't over yet.
Cruz and Rubio camps are no longer pretending they can win this nomination before Cleveland. Both camps pushing convention scenarios.— Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) March 2, 2016
Once you accept that nobody is leaving (barring the hard $ spigot running dry), it's easy to see a useful strategic role for everyone.— Liam Donovan (@LPDonovan) March 2, 2016
It's much easier to envision a two-front war in which Cruz siphons delegates from Trump in red zones, Kasich/Rubio in blue zones.— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) March 2, 2016
The "you drop out, no you drop out" talk is as useless now as it was 2wks ago. Cruz and Rubio need to continue the all-out assault on Trump.— Sean Davis (@seanmdav) March 2, 2016
Again, the math suggests this is not a foregone conclusion. Republicans in four states will vote on Saturday, followed by Puerto Rico on Sunday, then four more states next Tuesday. Fox News is hosting a debate in Detroit this Thursday evening.