Here’s the biggest surprise to me that’s so far come out of last night’s Super Tuesday presidential primary and caucus voting, and the voluminous commentary and analysis it’s generated: I haven’t seen much discussion of what the results might presage for the general election, other than the odds of a Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump showdown have gotten much better.
Keeping in mind the abysmal fate of political predictions this year, one more specific major point can now legitimately be made in the wake of the just-concluded 12-state extravaganza: If bipartisan appeal will matter significantly in the fall contest, Democratic front-runner Clinton has reasons for some concern, and Republican leader Trump has some reasons for optimism.
Breaking down the voting state-by-state explains why. Including the Super Tuesday tallies, Clinton and Trump have each won 10 of their party’s 15 contests. Much has (rightly) been made of the former Secretary of State’s strong showing in most of the states so far with the great number of Democratic delegates. Think Texas, Virginia, Georgia and Massachusetts. By contrast, the rival campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders can only claim Colorado and Minnesota as comparable wins, and they’re a cut below. (You can see detailed primary and caucus results here, courtesy of Politico.)
But Clinton’s triumphs look much less impressive in terms of general election potential. For the vast majority of states she has won both on Super Tuesday and before are Republican strongholds in which recent history suggests she has no chance of capturing in the Electoral College. Think Alabama – which has supported GOP presidential candidates in every single election since 1980, and where Republican turnout last night topped Democratic by 2.15 to one. Or Texas, which has been just as reliably Republican in presidential terms for just as long, and where the number of GOP primary voters exceeded Democratic by 1.98 to one. Or South Carolina, scene of her initial Deep South obliteration of Sanders, which has also voted for the last nine Republican presidential nominees, and where Republican turnout just about doubled Democratic. (For historical election information, click here.)
By this standard, Clinton’s most important Super Tuesday wins were in Georgia and Virginia. The former is considered by some analysts an emerging battleground state, though its electoral votes have gone to seven of the last ten Republican contenders, including the last five. At the same time, Democrats lost the Super Tuesday turnout battle by a margin of 1.71 to one.
Virginia is more of a fall toss-up, as it supported President Obama during the last two general elections after previously voting for GOP presidential contenders in every fall contest except one (1964) going back to 1952. Clinton thumped Sanders by a 64-35 percent margin, but she can’t have been thrilled by the news that a third more Republican voters turned out in the state yesterday than Democratic. Nevada belongs in this category as well, having cast two Obama votes, but its caucus system is a shaky basis on which to make general election predictions.
One state in a class by itself: Arkansas. Clinton more than doubled Sanders’ Super Tuesday total here, too – but after all, she did used to be its First Lady. Indeed, Bill Clinton won his home state’s electoral votes both in 1992 and 1996. But other than those elections, Arkansas has been a Republican stronghold since 1980, and the Republican turnout edge last night was 1.84 to one.
Of course, Trump’s unconventional nature in so many respects makes him the ultimate political wild card, so forecasting an election might really be a mug’s game. But assuming that past might be prologue to some extent in a Trump-Clinton contest, the primary results so far indicate that he might have real possibilities for expanding Republican ranks.
To be sure, many of Trump’s wins have come in traditionally Republican states, like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina. But since he’s anything but a traditional Republican, that’s arguably no mean feat. More intriguing from a general election standpoint have been his successes in newly purple (and possibly blue) Virginia, Nevada, and New Hampshire. Trump’s victory in Virginia came, as noted above, in a primary in which Republicans voted in significantly greater numbers than Democrats. The relatively strong Sanders showing, moreover, could signal that a non-trivial group of Democratic voters is angry enough at the political (and/or economic) status quo to abandon the clear choice of their party’s establishment.
New Hampshire has voted Democratic in the last three general elections, and Sanders’ insurgency emerged victorious on the Democratic side in its first-of-season primary. So Clinton animus could be even greater. In addition, though the Vermont Senator comes from a neighboring state, Republican turnout was slightly greater last month than Democratic.
And now I’ll go out on a limb: The Super Tuesday results could be saying that Massachusetts is in play this fall for Trump as well. Yes, it’s the ancestral home of the Kennedys and other Democratic legends like former House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Yes, it has lots of institutions of higher education, filled with typically liberal faculty members. And yes, it’s voted for Democratic presidential candidates in eight of the last ten general elections, including the last seven.
But the Commonwealth has elected more Republican governors than Democratic since 1970 (including incumbent Charlie Baker, last year). And even though Baker says he’s in the “Never Trump” camp, his state’s Republican primary voters gave the New York real estate magnate his biggest Super Tuesday margin of victory. The biggest obstacle Republicans still face in the Bay State: the Democrats nearly doubled their turnout yesterday.
More support for my analysis comes from this chart, appearing on the Washington Post website today, illustrating the high levels of independent backing for Trump revealed by the official exit polls from the early primaries. (I haven’t yet examined comparable numbers for Clinton or other contenders.)
The next big clues to the 2016 presidential candidates’ crossover appeal will come March 8, in the Michigan primary, and in the big group of big-state primaries on the 15th, highlighted by Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio. Most of these states, incidentally, can point to major damage suffered from the trade policies staunchly opposed by Trump (and Sanders) and, shall we say, less staunchly opposed by Clinton. That’s largely why I feel confident that Trump will stay successful with voters across the political spectrum, and that Clinton’s strength will be more heavily concentrated among Democrats than ever.