Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz had a surprisingly good day on Saturday. They both took their parties’ caucuses in Kansas, then Sanders added a win in Nebraska and Cruz came in with an unexpected victory in Maine. But while most Democrats noted Sanders’ wins with a shrug and then went back to business as usual, Cruz’s similar achievements sent a jolt of excitement throughout the GOP and sparked anxious anticipation for things to come.
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The gap in the attitudes was a result, among other things, of the different reactions of the two front-runners. Hillary Clinton spoke in Michigan to her followers, barely acknowledged Sanders and kept on hammering Donald Trump and the Republicans as if her primary race was a mere formality.
Trump, on the other hand, convened a rather bizarre press conference at his Palm Beach golf club where he appeared before an audience that included an apparently bewildered contingent of hoity-toity vacationers in addition to several agitated journalists. Trump seemed quieter than normal, more subdued, even more hesitant, not quite himself. The only news he made was a threat against his own party that if they put up a third candidate against him he would lose the White House and they would lose the chance to appoint a justice after their own heart to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Clinton had good reasons to remain calm, even though she won only Louisiana, while Trump had every justification to feel jittery, even though he took both Louisiana and Kentucky. Clinton, after all, thrashed Sanders in Louisiana, the only state to hold full-scale primaries, and she beat him again by a whopping 50-point advantage, proving her continued prowess among African Americans. Not only that, by the end of the night she had won more delegates to the Democratic Convention, as Sanders’ potential path to victory continued to grow narrower, despite his victories.
Trump, on the other hand, was forced to repeatedly postpone his appearance before the press, because his margins of victory were smaller than expected, the networks took their bloody time before declaring him the winner and at a certain point were even said to be considering a recall of his win in Louisiana. The reason for the hiccoughs should worry Trump even more than a win or loss in one state or another: there was a great discrepancy between early and absentee voters, who went with Trump, and primary day voters, who ran way from him and Marco Rubio to Cruz. Trump is a great performer, but he is well aware that trends matter no less than results, and if the trends have turned against him it’s no wonder he seemed a tad nervous.
Trump vented his frustration on his favorite whipping boy, Rubio, who was declared Saturday’s big loser by universal acclaim. The Florida Senator failed to get more than 20 per cent of the vote in any of the contests, and in Maine he even fell to a humiliating, single-digit fourth place, behind John Kasich. Leave the race, Little Marco, Trump ridiculed him, but there was unusual bitterness in his tone. Trump could very well blame Rubio for having goaded him on about his supposedly small hands, making Trump react with his vulgar allusion in Thursday night’s debate in Detroit to the size of his sexual organ. For all Trump knows, this may have proven to be a vulgarity too far, even for his hitherto ultra-tolerant fans.
“If Trump does fall, narrative will (plausibly) be that by taking the schoolyard-insult route Rubio pulled a murder-suicide,” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat tweeted. Mitt Romney, who lambasted Trump on Thursday as a phony and a fraud, might also take some credit for Trump’s fall, if it materializes.
Cruz was quick to seize on the new situation by adopting Trump’s call for an old fashioned two-man duel, head to head, mano-a-mano. He called on the other competitors to suspend their races and line up behind him for the common good and against Trump, conveniently neglecting to note that for many Republicans, the cure that Cruz is proposing is worse than the disease itself. The GOP’s obsession with Trump’s steamrolling bandwagon may have relegated their aversion to Cruz to the sidelines, but you can rest assured that Cruz, who has arrogance coming out of his ears even when he’s trying to play modest, will soon remind them what they’ve been missing.
Cruz can rightly point to his significant achievements. He’s won six states to Trump’s 11, is trailing in delegates by a bridgeable 378-295 and has an organization working for him that’s worth a few percentage points on any given day. But Cruz’s problem isn’t only that party leaders detest him or that he is the Democrats’ number one favorite rival in November, but that he is soon going to run out of conservative states with large evangelical blocs like the ones in which he’s made his biggest gains. Alaska and Maine are exceptions to the rule, that’s true, but they’re still Alaska and Maine.
This is what Kasich is banking on, anyway. Although he didn’t have any spectacular achievements on Saturday, he didn’t fall flat on his face either. Kasich hopes to secure his first great victory on Tuesday in Michigan, where he is leading in the polls, and the following week in his home state of Ohio, where he is running a close second to Trump. Like Cruz, Kasich will pounce on a Rubio loss on March 15 in Florida to tell Republicans that he is their last barrier before surrendering to Trump or Cruz.
Which brings us to another significant difference between Clinton and Trump. While the Democratic front-runner may not be everyone’s cup of tea, to say the least, and though many of her party’s supporters view her as flawed if not corrupt, the establishment is backing her to the hilt and her opponents have no intention of committing suicide in order to prevent her candidacy. On the contrary, they will come out in full force for her in November, especially if Cruz or Trump are the GOP’s candidates.
Trump, on the other hand, is vying to lead a party in which many would prefer to lose the elections as long as he then goes home and leaves them alone. Others, it’s true, have begun to come to terms with the New York tycoon, especially after his Super Tuesday victories, telling themselves that anyone is preferable to Clinton and that Trump is the best chance they’ve got.
But in order to maintain the steady flow of GOP acceptance, Trump must keep on winning, because nothing succeeds like success, while any hint of failure rekindles the hope that there is still a way forward without him.
Perhaps Saturday’s warning signs will remain just that, and Trump will go back to his winning ways while his rivals continue to bicker and divide the vote against him. But there’s no doubt that his enemies put themselves on alert on Saturday. They smelled something different, perhaps the whiff of fear, the scent of anxiety. Some of them, it was clear, were already starting to drool. If it now turns out that a corner has indeed been turned, that Trump’s magic is wearing off, that he is suddenly vulnerable, they won’t hesitate to pounce on him and devour him and then throw him to the dogs, with no regrets whatsoever.