The results of the Republican primary in South Carolina and the Nevada caucuses served to further clarify the race for the presidential nomination in both parties. It is no longer premature to speculate on a presidential election in November pitting Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton.
So far, voters in only 3 out of the 50 states have expressed their presidential preferences. The frontrunners still have to prove that they can turn their current leads into convention delegates who will ultimately decide the nominations. But barring outside events or a major stumble, Clinton and Trump are the most likely to emerge as the candidates vying for the White House in November. The outside event most likely to prevent Clinton from winning the nomination would be a federal indictment on charges of mishandling the classified information on her e-mail server, and then lying about it, as well as conflicts of interest created by donations to the Clinton Family Charitable Foundation intended to influence her work in the State Department.
A long front page article in the New York Times on Monday made the case that Clinton holds a serious advantage over Sanders in the Democrat delegate count. One has to get to the 10th paragraph of the Times story to learn that all of Clinton’s current 502-70 delegate lead over Sanders consists of Democrat superdelegates. These are party leaders and elected officials who are not legally bound to either candidate. They are backing Clinton at this point only because she has the support of the party’s establishment. If she runs into any further serious political trouble, many of those superdelegates will quickly drop their support.
Clinton does hold a distinct organizational advantage as she tries to implement a carefully mapped out strategy for Super Tuesday on March 1. She hopes to win the lion’s share of the 880 delegates the 11 states voting that day will send to the Democrat national convention. In the immediate wake of the Nevada caucuses, Clinton and Sanders were actually tied in the number of delegates who have been selected in the 3 states which have voted already, with 51 delegates each.
Even that statistic is misleading. The Democrat party in Iowa still refuses to release the raw vote tallies in that state’s caucuses, held February 1, which many believe would show Sanders the clear winner. There were also bitter complaints that Iowa Democrat party officials tilted the outcome of the vote counts in several of the caucuses in Clinton’s favor. In six districts, the winner was decided by coin tosses. Mysteriously, all of them were won by Clinton, casting serious doubt on the narrow victory she claimed in Iowa.
EXPOSING CLINTON’S VULNERABILITIES
Sanders’ massive 22-point triumph over Clinton in the New Hampshire primary momentarily shook the party’s confidence in Clinton as their “inevitable” candidate. It also exposed her weakness with female and young voters.
Their support is crucial to the Democrat strategy for winning the White House this year and in years to come, by reconstructing the coalition that led to Obama’s decisive victory in 2008. The enthusiasm and hope that young voters invested in the Obama campaign were among the keys to his victory. Clinton has been unable to attract that enthusiasm, which has been the driving force in Bernie Sanders’ strong challenge to Clinton.
DEPARTING FROM THE DEMOCRAT SCRIPT
Democrats found it hard to believe that their carefully scripted scenario calling for Mrs. Clinton to walk away with the nomination was in danger of crumbling before their eyes. All of the well qualified potential challengers to Clinton’s nomination, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vice President Joe Biden, had been dissuaded by party leaders from entering the race. Those who remained, such as Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, were supposed to provide no more than token opposition, just enough to keep the media and the public interested. Meanwhile, the large field of qualified Republicans was expected to tear each other apart in a replay of the 2012 campaign. Clinton was supposed to emerge with the Democrat nomination unscathed, with the party united behind her, while Bush, the most likely Republican nominee, was expected to come out politically wounded, with his weaknesses exposed, as the general election campaign started.
Then Donald Trump came out of nowhere to become the leading GOP candidate. He has proven to be immune to the bitter criticisms of his rivals so far, while the Democrats have had trouble executing their political script.
CLINTON PLAYS HIDE AND SEEK WITH THE MEDIA
Last year, when Clinton’s campaign stumbled coming out of the gate, forcing her to restart it several times, Democrats told themselves that she still had plenty of time and expert help to get it right. Her campaign became a source of ridicule when frustrated reporters suggested that she was in a witness protection program because she refused to answer unscripted questions from reporters.
Clinton then proved unable to come up with a credible story to explain her use of a private e-mail server while she was secretary of state. Her Democrat supporters initially argued the e-mail scandal was just another trumped-up accusation by her political enemies rather than the serious national security problem it appears to be. Now the subject of an FBI investigation, the e-mail server has become a serious self-inflicted political wound for Clinton.
Clinton has continued to resist making unscripted media appearances. She began granting news interviews only when the criticism became too great, or when she was facing the specter of defeat.
She still resists giving interviews with Fox News, the news channel with the highest ratings. Clinton’s last appearance on the network was in June 2014, when she was promoting her book.
Nevertheless, Clinton continues to benefit from stories by a cadre of media reporters whom her campaign trusts to spin the news in her favor.
In a contest between Trump and Clinton, she is likely to suffer the same fate as the Republican candidates who came under direct attack by Trump. He destroyed the candidacies of Rick Perry, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, and his criticism no doubt played a major role in Ted Cruz’s disappointing showing in the South Carolina primary. The demise of Trump’s Republican opponents, one by one has helped those who remain to consolidate their support. But Trump has expressed confidence that he will also inherit his fair share of their voters.
DEMOCRATS NO LONGER WISHING FOR TRUMP
As conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh points out, Democrats are no longer expressing the wish that Donald Trump emerge as the GOP candidate. “If you really think beating Trump is the best option you could have if you’re a Democrat, then wouldn’t you want to be promoting him? Wouldn’t you want to be talking positively? Wouldn’t you be trying to secure his primary victory and nomination on the Republican side?”
Clinton is a weak political candidate. She has never won an election against a competent opponent. Her successes to date have been largely due to the formidable Clinton political machine which has steamrolled her opponents and intimidated her critics. She won a New York Senate seat in 2000 because then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was forced to drop out of the race due to health concerns. He was replaced by Rick Lazio, an obscure Long Island congressman who never recovered after committing a blunder in a debate against Clinton.
FEARING A REPEAT OF 2008
When Bernie Sanders fought Clinton to a virtual tie in the Iowa caucuses and then defeated her by a massive 22 point margin in the New Hampshire primary, panic began to grow within the party’s leadership and even within Clinton’s own campaign. If Clinton, with all her advantages, could be so easily defeated by someone as lightly regarded as Sanders, Democrats worried about how she could stand up to a charismatic Republican opponent like Trump.
As in 2008, when she faltered against Barack Obama, there were reports of angry criticism of campaign tactics by husband Bill Clinton, and whispers of an imminent staff shakeup. They were put to rest by Clinton’s victory in the Nevada caucuses.
It was still uncomfortably close. Her victory was largely the result of Clinton’s allies in the powerful hotel service unions in Las Vegas making special arrangements to enable their members to caucus at their places of work. Clinton also maintained her high level of support in the black community, but her support from Hispanic voters was disappointing.
According to one entrance poll of those participating in the Nevada caucuses, Sanders won a 53-45% majority of Hispanics. This conclusion was immediately attacked by the Clinton campaign and the New York Times. But even if you accept their technical arguments questioning the way the poll was conducted, it is clear that Clinton’s support among Hispanic voters is weaker than expected. This could be significant in the remaining primaries and in the general election, especially if the Republicans put a Hispanic candidate, such as Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, on the national ticket in the first or second slot.
OVERCOMING CLINTON’S EARLY ADVANTAGE
The Clinton campaign enjoyed an early advantage in Nevada, having set up its professional campaign operation there in the spring of 2015 with experienced operatives who know the state. At a kickoff campaign event in Las Vegas last May, Clinton emphasized her support for an immigration reform plan even more progressive than Obama’s, to appeal to the state’s Hispanic voters.
The Sanders campaign, buoyed by a huge influx of small donations in January and February, poured money into Nevada to set up a serious local campaign organization and to buy a host of ads in an effort to make up for lost time.
Sanders’ political strategist, Tad Devine, said that Sanders would campaign to Latino voters by portraying himself as “a guy whose father came to the United States as an immigrant who spoke very little English. It’s the story of a life shaped by his activism in college.”
He also sought to deal with Clinton’s lock on the leaders of organized labor by appealing directly to the rank-and-file membership with his fiery message focusing on income inequality and the exploitation of American workers by big business.
CLINTON ANTICIPATED POSSIBLE DEFEAT IN NEVADA
In the immediate wake of its loss in New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign embarked on a media effort to discount the possibility of a Sanders win in Nevada. Campaign spokesman Brian Fallon told reporters that such a Sanders victory would not be a cause for concern, because despite, “an important Hispanic element to the Democrat caucus in Nevada, it’s still a state that is 80 percent white voters.” The inaccurate comment outraged Nevada Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who had lobbied to make Nevada one of the earliest voting states because of its large minority population.
A CLOSE CALL
Assuring a win in Nevada required a special effort by Clinton and her allies in the Democrat party establishment to pull out all the stops on the campaign trail in the final days to try to break Sanders’ growing momentum in Nevada. During the week before the caucuses, Clinton pulled out all of the stops. Her campaign set a furious pace and organized extra last minute events at the Las Vegas casinos to shore up her support among union, Latino and black voters.
Sanders was able to close Clinton’s lead in Nevada polls from more than 25 points early in January to just 5 points at the caucuses. But the extra last minute effort paid off. Clinton’s political firewall in Nevada against the Sanders surge held.
In her victory speech to supporters at the Caesar’s Palace hotel in Las Vegas, Clinton tacitly admitted that it was a close call, saying that while “some may have doubted us, we never doubted each other!”
CLINTON’S SUPPORT AMONG BLACKS
Clinton’s support among black voters in Nevada was apparently decisive. According to CNN, she won the support of 76 percent of black participants in the caucuses. Clinton won all the delegates in districts with at least a two-thirds black population.
After losing the Nevada caucuses, Sanders indicated that his campaign has essentially given up on trying to close Clinton’s lead in South Carolina where blacks make up more than half of Democrat voters. That advantage was reflected in a poll released Monday showing Clinton holding a prohibitive 57-32% lead.
Sanders said that he was turning his focus to the Super Tuesday contests on March 1, implying that he was effectively conceding the South Carolina primary.
CLINTON’S APPEAL TO THE BLACK VOTE
Black political leaders have always strongly supported Bill Clinton and his wife. In recent years, some black leaders have criticized the results of some of the more moderate policy initiatives instituted by Bill Clinton while he was president. These include a law and order initiative which resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of large numbers of black criminals, and reforms which added incentives for work to the federal welfare system. While some black leaders have spoken out against these policies, the overall support of the black community for Mrs. Clinton does not appear to have been affected.
After criticism of Mrs. Clinton by leaders of the radical “black lives matter” movement earlier in the campaign, she adjusted her rhetoric to support their claim that the US law enforcement establishment on the local level, and particularly police, is systematically biased against blacks and Hispanics.
Clinton has continued to attract endorsements from respected figures in the black community, while Sanders is struggling to match her by building his own base of support among prominent blacks who share his progressive views. The Sanders campaign has been citing his long record as a civil rights activist going back to the 1960’s.
The political reality is that Sanders must increase his share of the black vote in future Democrat primaries and caucuses if he hopes to stay competitive with Clinton.
CLINTON MOVING FORWARD WITH RENEWED CONFIDENCE
The Clinton campaign counted itself as fortunate to be able to emerge with a victory in Nevada, regardless of how slim it was. Despite any blemishes, it broke the momentum Sanders enjoyed based upon his better than expected showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.
As a result of the victory in Nevada and her expected win, virtually by default, in South Carolina on Shabbos, the advantage going forward swings back to Clinton. She continues to rely on her extensive campaign organization and her support from virtually the entire Democrat party establishment.
The Clinton campaign expects her to benefit, as she did in Nevada, from the significant black and Hispanic voting blocks in several of the Super Tuesday states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
The Sanders campaign admits her advantage in those states, but claims that it sees prospects for success on March 1 in the other states voting that day, including Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and, of course, Sanders’ home state of Vermont. They also hope to win enough votes, even in the states where they expect Clinton to prevail, so that the proportional distribution of delegates will prevent her from building up an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates.
The Sanders campaign is powered by the enthusiasm of his youthful supporters and their frequent small donations which is giving them enough money to remain competitive at least through the contests in the crucial month of March.
Even though the party’s political agenda has moved far to the left during Obama’s presidency, most Democrat elected officials oppose Sanders. They feel that his openly socialist economic agenda is too radical for most American voters to support, and will prevent him from being able him to win the White House.
CAMPAIGN APPROACHES POINT OF NO RETURN
They hope that Clinton’s strong finish in Nevada signals that she has finally hit her campaign stride, but will be watching her performance in the Super Tuesday contests on March 1 for confirmation that she can win in November.
This late in the campaign, Democrats realize they have no further room for error. If Clinton shows further signs of weakness in the Super Tuesday contests against Sanders or is indicted for security violations over her use of a private e-mail server, we can expect the party leadership and the superdelegates to shift their support to Vice President Biden or another consensus Democrat, such as Secretary of State John Kerry, as an emergency substitute for Clinton.
Such a switch would have to take place before March 15, when winner-take-all rules will begin to be applied to delegates selected by the primaries in the remaining larger states. The candidate who holds the momentum at that point will have a decisive advantage in quickly wrapping up the 2,383 Democrat convention delegates needed for the nomination.
TENSIONS REVEALED IN THE DEBATES
The political tensions generated by the success of the Sanders campaign became visible at the Democrat debates in New Hampshire and Milwaukee. While the discussion on stage between the two candidates remained relatively polite, especially when compared to the raucous GOP debates, the claims and accusations exchanged between the two Democrats became noticeably more pointed.
In the New Hampshire debate, Clinton accused Sanders of engaging in “an artful smear campaign” because he implied that the integrity of any politician who took money from Wall Street, the big banks and Super PACs had been compromised, without actually accusing Clinton of being influenced by the millions in contributions she received from those sources.
In the Milwaukee debate, Sanders accused Clinton of “a low blow” after she noted that he had once called Obama “weak” and “disappointing.
Campaign spokesmen for both sides accused each other of mudslinging, negative campaigning and innuendo, with good cause. It is, after all, still a political campaign. While both candidates have declared their support for President Obama’s policies and extending them for another four years, that is where their similarity ends.
CLINTON CALLING SANDERS IMPRACTICAL
Sanders is an idealist. He admits that his proposals requires a political revolution in Washington in order to be fully realized. Clinton campaigns as an idealistic pragmatist. She now claims to share Sanders’ progressive ideals, but is willing to accept the limitations of Washington politics on what can be passed into law by a Republican-dominated Congress.
After Sanders’ New Hampshire win, Clinton developed a new response to deal with the effectiveness of his radical economic message. She argues that Sanders is overly focused on the issue of income inequality, and that his proposals are impractical.
At a campaign event in Henderson, Nevada, Clinton asked the audience rhetorically, “Not everything is about an economic theory, right? If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, and I will, if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk; will that end racism?” The crowd answered, “no.”
“Will that end gender discrimination? Will that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight? Would that solve our problem with voting rights and Republicans who are trying to strip them away from people of color, the elderly and the young?” Once again the crowd’s answer was no.
While Clinton’s argument is based primarily on pragmatic considerations, Sanders’ argument appeals to the progressive idealism of left-wing voters.
Clinton claims that Sanders’ new spending proposals cannot be paid for with the tax increases he has proposed. Gerald Friedman of the University of Massachusetts, a Sanders economic advisor, issued a paper arguing that the Sanders plan pays for itself, but Austan Goolsbee, a former Obama chief economic adviser says that Friedman’s assumptions about US economic growth are unrealistic.
CLINTON RECOGNIZES SOME OF HER PROBLEMS
At the same time, Clinton seems to be learning some practical lessons about motivating an audience from Sanders’ initial successes. For example, her victory speech after the Nevada caucuses had many more references to “we” rather than “I” than Clinton’s speeches to her supporters earlier in the campaign. The deliberate change in language was intended to convey the message that Clinton’s campaign is more about her supporters than herself.
Sanders has noted the change in her tone, and said that he had seen a new Clinton ad which sounded very much like his own.
In an interview with CNN, Clinton acknowledged that she has a problem getting independent voters to trust her. “I understand that voters have questions … and that is, ‘Is she in it for us or is she in it for herself?’
“I think that’s a question that people are trying to sort through. And I’m going to demonstrate that I’ve always been the same person, I’ve always been fighting for the same values, fighting to make a difference in people’s lives.”
In Clinton’s original campaign narrative, her candidacy supposedly represented all women seeking to break the “glass ceiling” preventing them from achieving success at the highest levels of American society. But after the election of Barack Obama as this country’s first black president seven years ago, Clinton’s role as an icon of equality has largely been eclipsed. Today’s young women have grown up seeing many women in positions of significant political and economic power across the country, and no longer feel that they need Clinton to champion their cause.
As the exit polls and many media interviews with young female voters in this election cycle have proven, Clinton is the candidate of choice only for women who came of age while she was First Lady 20 years ago.
For their daughters Clinton is yesterday’s feminist candidate. They see her as out of touch with the issues of most concern to them, and believe they are better represented by Bernie Sanders’ radical socialist agenda.
Mrs. Clinton’s support today is strongest among voters over age 45. They are old enough to remember her from the time that she and her husband burst onto the national scene during the 1992 presidential campaign. They watched her evolution into a new political force to be reckoned with, first in the White House, and then the US Senate. During those years, she was widely cited on media lists as one of the most admired and influential women in the world. The largely positive impression she made with the public during that era has lingered with that generation, and helps to explain her deep base of support among older voters today.
The Clinton campaign is still in shock at the 11-point advantage that Sanders scored over Clinton among women voters in New Hampshire. It is also struggling to find a message that will resonate with voters under the age of 30, with whom Sanders has enjoyed a 6-1 advantage so far.
Women and younger voters are two of the key components of Obama’s 2008 electoral victory. Without their support, Clinton would be at a significant disadvantage against almost any of the remaining Republican presidential candidates.
CLINTON’S FREE PASSES
It is also worthwhile to note that Sanders has mounted a serious challenge to Clinton’s candidacy without mentioning some of the more obvious vulnerabilities in her record. Politically, it is the equivalent of fighting with one hand tied behind his back, and winning.
From the first Democrat debate, Sanders declared Clinton’s private e-mail server and the many questions about her judgement and the security violations it created, to be off limits. With the exception of his criticism of Clinton’s 2002 Senate vote in favor of the Iraq War, Sanders has been virtually silent on the failed foreign policies she has supported, especially during her four years as Obama’s secretary of state.
These include her role in the early preparations for the nuclear deal with Iran (which Sanders supports) and the pressure which she helped Obama to apply on Israel’s leaders. She played a key role in orchestrating the US military intervention in Libya, which ultimately resulted in the collapse of Libya as a country, as well as the 2012 terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, in which many questions about Clinton’s role remain unanswered. She was at least partially responsible for the failed “reset” of US policy with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and the failed US policies toward the civil war Syria which directly contributed to the rise of ISIS and an ongoing humanitarian disaster of historic proportions.
Instead, Sanders has praised her performance as secretary of state and generally supports Obama’s foreign policy record.
ECONOMIC CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
Sanders has been outspoken and effective in criticizing Mrs. Clinton’s longstanding ties to Wall Street, including the generous speaking fees she and her husband have collected over the years from the big banks and Wall Street firms responsible for the 2008 financial collapse.
Sanders has correctly said that it is hard to believe that she would represent the interests of the middle class as president in regulating the financial industry after she and her husband accepted tens of millions of dollars from them since they left the White House in 2001. However, Sanders has been silent about the apparent conflicts of interest involved in the major donations that were accepted by the Clinton family charitable foundation from foreign sources which had business with the State Department while Mrs. Clinton was secretary of state. The donors may also have sought to influence Clinton’s policies if and when she becomes president.
While Sanders has chosen not to challenge Clinton on these issues, they are certain to be raised against her by whoever the Republican presidential candidate might be.
Bill Curry, who once served as Bill Clinton’s White House Counselor, says that even though he respects Mrs. Clinton, her position has been fatally compromised by the soft corruption of big money influence which pervades the political system.
Since leaving the White House, the Clintons have netted $153 million in speaking fees. According to Curry, Mrs. Clinton’s biggest problem is that she sees nothing wrong with it. Curry prefers to believe that Clinton is not dishonest, but deep in denial.
WHAT TRUMP AND SANDERS SHARE IN COMMON
It is hard even for many other Democrats like Curry to believe that her policies as president will not be influenced by the tens of millions of dollars she and her husband have accepted from Wall Street and foreign donors.
The GOP candidate who would be most qualified to raise these ignored conflict of interest issues against Clinton in the general election campaign would be Donald Trump, by virtue of the fact that he has largely self-funded his campaign.
Trump also has tapped into the same voter anger and frustration that fueled the Sanders campaign, even though their economic philosophies and other political agendas are diametrically opposed.
Curry argues that the public’s disgust with the soft corruption of big money in politics is the driving force behind the unexpected popularity of both Sanders and Donald Trump.
CLINTON RUNNING AGAINST HERSELF
Clinton freedom of action and credibility is also limited by her long political record. As Democrat pollster Peter Hart said last week, in many respects, Clinton “is running against herself.”
Clinton was long associated with her husband’s relatively moderate “New Democrat” economic and social policies while he was president. In later years, her relatively hawkish record on foreign policy as senator and secretary of state open her to more accusations of hypocrisy from Democrats who support President Obama’s systematic attempts to disengage the US from foreign military commitments.
Ever since she declared her candidacy last year, Clinton has been trying to adjust her policies in response to the radical demands of the left wing activists who have reset the Democrat agenda, as well as Obama’s progressive policies to which she has now committed herself. During the presidential election, endless questions will be raised about Clinton’s past policy positions and actions as an elected official and cabinet official.
These questions all reinforce the doubts about her honesty and integrity raised by her handling of her e-mail server for which she is under active investigation by the FBI.
While Clinton is likely to run as the Democrats’ presidential nominee, she will not be able to hide from her own record.