Sabato's Crystal Ball

Tuesday’s Super for Trump and Clinton

Continued GOP split helps The Donald. And Hillary is well on her way.

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley March 2nd, 2016

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Note: This report is based on results as of 1 a.m. EST or so Wednesday morning.

As the dust settles from Super Tuesday, we think the race is the same now as it was before the voting: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the favorites to win their respective nominations.

First, the Republicans:

Trump won coming and going. It wasn’t just adding at least seven states and a large pile of delegates to his column. His two top opponents, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, each got enough to stay in, and John Kasich also shows no sign of getting out until after Ohio votes on March 15. Happiness for Donald Trump is a divided opposition. He’s got precisely that and it’s going nowhere for the time being.

This was originally supposed to be Ted Cruz’s big night. His best states were on the Southern board. And yet he carried only his home state and Oklahoma. However, because he had been on the decline, this double win has actually (oddly) restored him. Now he says to Rubio and Kasich — you better win your home state on March 15 or you are out. Score one for Cruz, but score two for Trump. Cruz staked his whole campaign on the conservative, evangelical South, and in reality he does not have a whole lot to show for it. The map gets harder for him now.

Rubio actually did more poorly than anyone in the top tier. Yes, he ran more strongly in Virginia than some had expected (and our suggestion last week that Rubio could run well here was proven correct). But he lost the Old Dominion and almost everything else, although he did notch a win in Minnesota’s caucuses. The establishment’s best, last hope is badly in need of some juice, and fast. It’s amazing that if Rubio carries his home state — the one he has been representing in the Senate for over five years — it will be considered a great victory. Nonetheless, as of this writing, it appears Rubio will fall short of 20% statewide delegate thresholds in Alabama, Texas, and Vermont, which will further depress his lagging delegate count.

John Kasich did well in Vermont, only narrowly losing to Trump, and he got close to 20% in Massachusetts. But he did very little everywhere else, even finishing behind the largely invisible Ben Carson in several states. Still, he can probably stay in too, at least until Ohio votes in two weeks.

Say what you will about Trump, but we do think it’s worth remarking upon the depth and breadth of his appeal. He’s now won a diverse collection of states from Nevada in the west to New Hampshire in the east.

Look at Alabama and Massachusetts. One would be hard-pressed to find two more dissimilar states — the Bay State is one of the strongholds of the modern Democratic Party, while the Yellowhammer State is deeply conservative. Massachusetts’ congressional delegation is totally Democratic, while Alabama’s is almost entirely Republican. They had almost exactly opposite presidential election results in 2012. Table 1 shows how different these two states are — and yet, Trump got nearly 45% in Alabama and nearly 50% in Massachusetts, his two best states (as of this writing, Alaska’s results are still pending).

Trump may not have majority support in the GOP, but he very nearly did in both of these diametrically opposed states. Despite his many silly and offensive antics — or perhaps because of them — he has become a very formidable political figure within the Republican Party.

Table 1: Alabama and Massachusetts — a comparison

Notes: “DW-Nom” is the 1st Dimension score of DW-Nominate for the 113th Congress, a scale measuring the voting habits of members of Congress, with higher positive scores indicating conservatism and higher negative scores indicating liberalism. *Sen. Ed Markey’s (D-MA) DW-Nominate measure is from his House service as he hadn’t been in the Senate long enough to have a score for the 113th Congress.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau 2014 American Community Survey (5-year); 2016 exit polls (AL, MA); Ballotpedia (AL, MA); VoteView.com; Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

Clinton remains on track

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s smashing Super Tuesday victories — she won seven of 11 states as well as American Samoa, most in blowout fashion — confirms once again that she is the towering favorite to win the Democratic nomination.

Clinton’s gigantic, nearly 50-point victory in South Carolina on Saturday proved to be predictive of other states in the South. She swept the whole region in impressive, unsurprising fashion. Sanders, as we suggested was possible in our preview last week, won Oklahoma with the support of conservative Democrats, who made up 19% of the electorate and backed Sanders 54%-22%, with 24% not supporting either candidate. We’re interpreting this as a protest vote against President Obama as expressed through a vote against Clinton. Sanders also did well with liberals there, and it is worth noting that Oklahoma has a strong though ancient Socialist tradition — Socialist Party presidential candidates routinely did very well there in the early 20th century, including Allan Benson winning 15.5% in the Sooner State in 1916 despite getting just 3.2% nationally (Oklahoma was also frequent Socialist candidate Eugene Debs’ second-best state in 1912).

Clinton made up for her loss in Oklahoma by stealing Massachusetts from Sanders, very narrowly. Given Sanders’ strength in New England, losing the Bay State has to be a psychological blow.

After Super Tuesday, it will probably be more obvious to everyone that Clinton will be the nominee. She added to her delegate lead, and when superdelegates are added in, her edge is a wide one. Sanders has plenty of money and his disproportionately youthful backers are very enthusiastic. So he can continue to campaign for as long as he wants, accumulating delegates and influence at the convention in shaping the platform. But the nomination is out of reach, just as it probably has been all along. Again, we’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: The main threat to Clinton are the unanswered legal questions surrounding her use of private email while secretary of state.

Finding parallels for 2016

In the last few months, we’ve often been asked, “Is there anything comparable to the 2016 election in American history?” There are over 250 days until the election, so we’ll reserve final judgment. If you want some tentative suggestions, here are a few for your consideration:

— Some observers think the current Republican split is deep enough to kill off the GOP (a theory to which we do not subscribe). There is precedent for such a calamity, though. One of the nation’s great early parties, the Whigs, dissolved in discord in the early 1850s, leading to the formation of the Republican Party and its first presidential nominee, John C. Frémont, in 1856. (Trivia question: Who tried but failed to become Frémont’s vice presidential running mate? Answer: An obscure former congressman named Abraham Lincoln, who succeeded Frémont as the GOP nominee in 1860 and, we are told, did rather well.)

— Then there’s 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt — having challenged his handpicked presidential successor, William Howard Taft, for renomination — stormed out of the “boss-controlled” GOP convention to form the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party. TR and Taft together accumulated the lion’s share of the November vote (with Roosevelt finishing ahead of Taft). Yet the party split enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the White House with 42% of the popular vote. History can only repeat itself this year if one or more strong third-party and independent candidates emerge in the next few months.

— Wendell Willkie was a successful businessman who had never held office, and a total dark horse when he decided to try for the Republican nomination in 1940. Amazingly, the convention eventually turned to him, hoping to stop President Franklin Roosevelt’s third term with an unorthodox choice. Though Willkie fared much better than the GOP nominees in 1932 (Herbert Hoover) and 1936 (Alf Landon), Willkie still lost to FDR in an Electoral College landslide.

— If 2016 means tumult and chaos to you, then we would refer you to the 1968 presidential election. Not since the Civil War had the country appeared so torn. It was a year marked by the forced retirement of sitting President Lyndon Johnson, the assassinations of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (while running for president) and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam War raging out of control, and race riots burning large sections of dozens of cities. The general election featured a deeply divisive three-way contest — former Vice President Richard Nixon (R), Vice President Hubert Humphrey (D) (nominated as the LBJ surrogate despite not having competed in a single primary), and former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, known best for declaring “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and then standing in the schoolhouse door while trying to prevent college desegregation in 1963. You’ll actually feel a bit better about our current situation if you watch the UVA Center for Politics’ documentary, Ball of Confusion, which aired throughout the country recently on PBS stations. Check it out. Things can’t possibly get that bad in 2016. Can they?

Coming up next:

There are several states coming up this weekend and over the next few weeks. For a refresher on what to expect from now through March 15 — effectively a second Super Tuesday — refer back to our previews of the Democratic and Republican races.

We’ll be back on Thursday with our regular Crystal Ball newsletter.