On the eve of crucial Super Tuesday primaries, the frontrunners in both parties are consolidating their lead and emerging as near-certain candidates in the November presidential elections. But while the Democratic Party is starting to accept the inevitable victory of Hillary Clinton and to coalesce around her, the growing strength of Donald Trump is wracking the GOP to the point of raising doubts about its very future.
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A new CNN poll released on Monday showed Clinton’s national lead over Bernie Sanders growing to 55%-38%, while Trump’s support reached an unprecedented 49%, 30 points more than either one of his main rivals, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. Clinton is in position to win most if not all of the 12 states in which Democrats will vote tomorrow, with the exception of Sanders’ home state of Vermont. Trump is likewise slated to win in most if not all of the 13 states in which Republicans will vote, with the exception of Texas, which might prefer its own representative in the Senate, Cruz.
The Super Tuesday ballots will allocate 865 of the 4765 delegates that will be going to the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia in the summer and of 595 out of the 2472 that will attend the Republican Convention in Cleveland. Even the most resounding of victories won’t give Clinton the 2383 delegates she needs to clinch a nomination or Trump the 1237 that the GOP requires. Both, however, seem poised to break away from their competitors and to gain a substantial lead in their respective delegate count, which, in Trump’s case, may force some competitors to suspend their campaign: Neurosurgeon Ben Carson seems to be first in line.
Clinton’s overwhelming victory in the South Carolina primaries on Saturday has changed the dynamics of the Democratic contest and, consequently, diminished the media’s interest in the race, which had peaked after Sanders’ unexpected success in Iowa and his resounding win in New Hampshire. While the Vermont senator has pledged not to quit the race and may pick up a significant number of delegates if the margins of his losses are small, most observers in the party and in the media are assuming that the race is effectively over. Both candidates, in fact, have decreased their mutual attacks and concentrated their fire at the emerging Republican nominee Trump.
In the GOP, the opposite trend is occurring: the stronger Trump gets, the greater the internal turmoil among Republicans and the louder the calls to fight him. The criticism seemed to reach new peaks following Trump’s refusal in a CNN interview to distance himself from white supremacist David Duke or from the Ku Klux Klan in which he once served as Grand Wizard. Trump’s was savaged for his claim that he wasn’t familiar with Duke or the Klan, which he later ascribed to problem with the earpiece supplied by CNN. No less incredible was the fact that Trump did not seem to recall that in 2000 he had left the Reform Party that he once joined because he did not want to be associated, as he said at the time, with racists like Duke.
The incident was immediately used by Rubio to attack Trump but was widely condemned throughout the party. The most prominent of the protestors was popular MSNBC morning show host Joe Scarborough, a former GOP Congressman, who said that Trump’s comments disqualified him from the presidency. He cited a previous conversation that followed Trump’s call for a blanket ban on Muslims entering the U.S. in which he asked: “Is this like Nazi Germany in 1933?”
The incident intensified the angst and misgivings in the GOP establishment and in the party’s conservative wing about Trump’s candidacy. Many are upset not only with what they describe as Trump’s race-baiting tactics but with the ripple effect of his harsh tone on the Republican discourse as a whole. Within the past 48 hours, Trump dismissed Rubio as “little” and mocked his sweating; Rubio ridiculed Trump’s orange skin tone and small hands, and Cruz went for broke by citing Trump’s alleged ties with the Mafia.
Republicans are worried that the Democrats will turn their harsh campaign against them in the general election campaign and use the attacks on Trump to highlight his weaknesses. They are even more concerned that the former reality star is burning the party’s bridges with minority voters, making a November victory all but impossible. Conservatives, for their part, are concerned that Trump’s true positions are incompatible with their ideological principles and some have even floated the idea of running a third candidate against him.
A measure of the internal turmoil in the GOP was shown in the harsh reactions to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s endorsement for Trump. Christie was condemned far and wide, most prominently by one of his top supporters, Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman who said that Christie was an opportunist, Trump was a “dishonest demagogue” and that the governor's supporters should distance themselves from both.
But the brouhaha and simmering controversy don’t seem to be diminishing the growing support for Trump among Republican voters. He is widely slated to sweep most of the GOP primaries and caucuses on Tuesday, with the exception of Texas and possibly Oklahoma and Arkansas as well. For Cruz, of course, Texas is a make or break vote because a loss in his home state would demolish his candidacy. If Cruz wins Texas and manages to take one or two more states he could replace Rubio as the only viable alternative to Trump, especially for archconservatives who don’t trust Trump.
Rubio, on the other hand, will most likely have to use his proven talent to spin his continued electoral losses as PR victories. His aim is to come out a respectable second in as many contests as possible in order to collect delegates under the primaries’ proportional system and to remain in contention for future races in which he thinks he’ll do better. If Ohio Governor John Kasich’s underperforms and is forced to leave the race, Rubio’s chances might well improve.
On the Democratic side, Clinton is expected to win big in states with substantial minority populations, including Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Texas, which has a large Hispanic contingent. Her lead is somewhat smaller in Minnesota, Oklahoma, Colorado and, most importantly, Massachusetts, which neighbors Sander’s Vermont. Sanders’ candidacy will suffer another harsh blow if he fails to win in any other state but his own Vermont or if he loses by vast margins as in South Carolina, but his home state will provide him with a sort of consolation prize: according to the admittedly sketchy polls from Vermont, leads Clinton 90%-10%.