Hillary Clinton got hammered by Bernie Sanders in Wisconsin on Tuesday, but she is still the favorite in the Democratic presidential race. Donald Trump was clobbered just as hard by his main rival Ted Cruz, but his injuries could turn out to be critical: Trump’s prospects of securing enough delegates to ensure his nomination as the Republican candidate have now moved from slim to minimal. Without such a majority, the GOP will dump Trump like a hot potato and appoint another candidate instead.
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The difference between the two major parties isn’t just mathematical, though that’s a factor as well: The Clinton-Sanders face-off facilitates a binary either/or result, though the unpledged Super Delegates leave some room for maneuver. On the Republican side, in addition to Cruz’s 514, the 300 plus delegates siphoned off to Marco Rubio and John Kasich have significantly narrowed Trump’s path from his current 740 delegates to the required 1237 majority. After Wisconsin, Trump needs to win over 60 percent of the remaining delegates, but after Wisconsin, that goal seems less attainable than ever.
The Democrats are holding a conventional race in which the candidate who wins the most delegates wins, if there are no shenanigans. For Sanders to start closing the 250-delegate gap with Clinton he needs to repeat his stellar performance in Wisconsin in all of the upcoming primaries. But even with his six straight primary victories, which could become seven after Wyoming votes on Saturday, he would still need a complete Clinton meltdown in order to achieve victories that are sufficiently decisive to seal the deal. Possible? Yes. Likely? Not very, at least not yet.
On the Republican side they’re playing a different ballgame by different rules. In the GOP, it’s less a contest between rivals and more a targeted political termination of one D. Trump versus the world and vice versa. No one expects the victorious Cruz or the fading Kasich to come close to the 1,237 majority or even to Trump himself, if he fails to reach that number. The collective GOP objective is to prevent Trump from crossing the threshold needed for a first round win at the Republican National Convention. Once that’s done, Trump will be toast, and the hitherto petrified GOP stalwarts can finally start talking.
Trump, apparently, understands this, but instead of pondering why he’s gone off the rails in recent weeks and how he’s morphed from invincible Superman to mere mortal, he reacted last night in a wild outburst that could have been scripted by Saturday Night Live’s Drunk Uncle. Trump not only lambasted “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” he explicitly accused him of illegally coordinating with his Super Pacs. The New York tycoon painted a wide-ranging conspiracy in which “Ted Cruz is worse than a puppet - he is a Trojan horse, being used by the party bosses attempting to steal the nomination from Mister Trump.” With such vain and heated rhetoric, Trump will hardly win new friends, just when he’s starting to need them.
Wisconsin was never in Trump’s pocket: he went up and down in the polls in recent weeks, like a seesaw. But a series of unfortunate events, from Trump’s point of view, turned what could have been an acceptable defeat into a 49-35 percent drubbing. Trump’s controversial statements on women being punished for abortions, the energetic campaigning carried out by popular Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker on behalf of Ted Cruz, the spreading assessment that a Trump candidacy could spell a GOP disaster in Congress as well - all of these combined handed Trump his worst setback since his loss in Iowa at the start of the primary season.
Trump is right to say he is the only candidate with any chance of securing the 1,237 majority. It’s also hard to imagine Cruz or Kasich erasing the commanding 30-point lead that Trump holds in advance of the crucial April 19 primaries in New York. Nonetheless, and despite the risk involved in once again forecasting Trump’s impending political demise, there was a sense on Tuesday night that his spell might have broken, that the magic was wearing off. Trump’s allure in the eyes of his voters was his image as an almighty winner, but once his aura of invincibility evaporates and Trump suddenly seems vulnerable, Republicans can just as well make do with a standard-issue GOP loser, albeit one who is more conservative and less controversial.
Cruz’s double digit win positions him as Trump’s heir apparent, especially in light of Kasich’s dismal showing. Cruz and the conservative wing of the party will now increase pressure on Kasich to suspend his race so that Cruz can unite the anti-Trump forces behind him, but the stubborn Ohio governor is hoping that he will now surge in more moderate northeastern states in which Cruz’s rigid ideology is less attractive. Kasich knows, just like Cruz knows, that once Trump is gone people will start to remember that they can’t stand Cruz either.
One way or another, the GOP is facing almost certain internal convulsions: If Trump becomes the party’s candidate, his critics will start to distance themselves and possibly even field a third party rival who will serve as a spoiler. If Trump is deposed, there will mutiny in his ranks, which could lead to a different kind of third party challenge that would also ensure a crushing GOP defeat. If Trump goes all the way, even a knight in shining armor such as House Speaker Paul Ryan won’t be able to save the day.
On the Democratic side the battle is not as fierce, though that could also change soon. Although Sanders' victory was more or less expected in recent days, no one foresaw his 12 percent advantage. Reports from the Clinton camp indicated that the Democratic frontrunner has finally come to terms with the fact that Sanders is no mere nuisance, but a clear and present danger to her hitherto inevitable nomination. Clinton activists told television networks on Tuesday night that gloves are coming off and the days of playing nice will soon be over.
Conveniently, Sanders has supplied his rivals with valuable ammunition: in an unfocused interview with the New York Daily News, Sanders seemed insufficiently primed on everything from gun control to breaking up the banks to West Bank settlements and even to New York’s subway. Wishing to impress with his first hand knowledge of the underground train, Sanders mentioned that the subway token, which, he later found out, was last in use in 2003.
Sanders’ convincing win in Wisconsin has certainly given him turbo-momentum that could help him whittle down Clinton’s already shrinking advantage in New York. Wisconsin, after all, wasn’t just a small state holding a caucus, but a full-fledged primary with unprecedented and enthusiastic Democratic participation. Sanders won big with younger Democrats, with men more than women, with the avowedly liberal as well as the politically independent.
On the other hand, Wisconsin, with all due respect, isn’t New York, or Pennsylvania, New Jersey or California, for that matter. It is whiter, it is more liberal and it has a long tradition of attraction to the kind of egalitarian/socialist politics that Sanders represents. In order to try and close the gap with Clinton, Sanders will have to make inroads with African Americans and Hispanics, and he’ll have to do it quickly. It still seems like a mission impossible, unless Clinton panics, starts making foolish mistakes and goes into a tailspin. If she is perceived as going down she will soon find herself, just like Trump, crashing to the ground.
Which could leave us with the utterly fantastic, Ripley’s Believe it Or Not scenario of a contest between two extremes, Cruz versus Sanders, capitalist versus socialist, hard right against deep left, messianic Evangelism pitted against devout secularism, a Christian from Texas going head to head, God Save Us, with a Jew from Brooklyn. It brings to mind the curse disguised as a blessing “May You Live in Interesting Times,” which is erroneously ascribed to ancient Chinese wise men. The origin of the saying is in Europe in the 1930s, and we all know how that ended.