Here are five takeaways from the Republican primary in South Carolina and the Democratic caucuses in Nevada.
1. Populism Is Still Rising
The populist revolt in both parties continues to build. In South Carolina, Donald Trump scorned George W. Bush, who is immensely popular among the state’s Republicans; denounced the Iraq War in a pro-military state; savaged U.S. trade deals, was opposed by the governor, both senators and the Pope – and still won big.
Trump is infamous for his nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim screeds. He also attacks ruinous establishment trade policies, condemns the “special interests and lobbyists” and money in politics, calls for rebuilding the country, brands corporate lobbyists “blood suckers” and more. He’s rewarded by conservative Republican voters who see him as someone who “tells it like it is,” is an “outsider,” and will bring change.
In Nevada, the Sanders surge fell just short of Clinton, but only after she donned much of Sanders’ garb from getting “unaccountable money out of politics”; to making certain “Wall Street does not threaten Main Street again”; while promising to do even more to address “systemic racism,” sexism, and immigration. The establishment candidate eked out a victory by becoming more populist with each passing day.
2. Republicans Are Lost
Trump, now the odds-on favorite for the nomination, is an unelectable blowhard, the most disliked candidate in America. Ted Cruz, who came in a virtual tie for second in South Carolina, is so distrusted that he lost evangelicals to Trump.
Marco Rubio, the other side of the second-place tie, is now crowned the “establishment” candidate in the race. But Rubio is a career politician, a remarkably empty suit with a dodgy record of corruption. He was elected as a Tea Party insurgent, and is known in the Senate mostly for missing votes and for flip-flopping on immigration reform. His current domestic platform – a goofy pledge of $11 trillion in tax cuts, largely for the very rich (ending the estate tax and the capital gains tax for starters), combined with larding $1 trillion more on the military over 10 years while passing a constitutional amendment to balance the budget offends addition, much less reason. His foreign policy consists of rousing calls for getting tougher everywhere – Libya, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine; tearing up the Iran nuclear deal; reversing the normalization of relations with Cuba. He offers nothing except continued wars without end and without victory.
Led by Trump, Republicans are intent on offending Hispanics, suppressing black votes and insulting women. They would repeal Obamacare with no clear plan to replace it, and, with the exception of Trump, cut Medicare and Social Security. This is a party intent on committing seppuku. And nothing seems likely to get in the way.
3. The Sanders Surge Continues
Sanders lost the “expectations game” by a far greater margin than the caucuses in Nevada. In fact, the surge was stunning. Clinton once more had all the advantages – universal name recognition, the state party gatekeepers, lots of money, and skilled organizers on the ground early. Six months ago, Sanders barely registered among voters; a month ago Clinton led by nearly 25 percent. As it was, she barely edged out a victory, saved largely by significant margins among the AARP crowd and black voters.
Once more Sanders captured truly breathtaking support from the young, winning voters under 29 by 82 percent to 14 percent, and those under 44 by 62 to 35. Entrance polls showed him winning Hispanic voters by 8 percentage points. (The Clinton campaign disputes these results, but who would have imagined a month ago that Clinton operatives would have to challenge entrance polls about who won Hispanics?) National union endorsements and support for Clinton was telling, with Sanders losing union workers 54-43. For the first time, a gender gap showed up, with Sanders winning men and Clinton women.
Once more Clinton won big among those who cared most about electability and experience. Sanders won huge margins of those who most valued a candidate who “cares about people like me” (72-26), and is “honest and trustworthy” (82-12). Eighty-two to 12 on those voting for honesty. Think about that.
Sanders is still introducing himself to voters, while Clinton enjoys both a long history, universal recognition, and nearly unanimous party and institutional endorsements. Against those odds, Sanders continues to rise. He faces a formidable obstacle in closing the gap in African-American support, but his surprising showing among Hispanics showed once more the power of his message.
4. Clinton: The “Special Interest” Appeal
After the drubbing in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton sensibly moved to adjust her message and positioning. She wrapped herself around Barak Obama, using him as justification for taking Wall Street money, and condemning Sanders for criticizing him. This transparent effort to firm up her support among African Americans was reinforced by a new rhetorical trope. She echoed Sanders populist themes, but argued that she is not a “single-issue candidate,” calling for action on systemic racism, on immigration, on women’s rights.
In substance, this is tripe. Sanders is championing, among other things, breaking up the big banks, Medicare for all, tuition-free college, a $15 minimum wage and union rights, paid family leave, a massive program to rebuild America and put people to work, aggressive action on climate change, fair taxes, while challenging our foreign policy on trade, regime change and global policing. He is hardly a single-issue candidate.
Rhetorically, however, the pivot gives Clinton a way of making special appeals – what she and the Democratic Leadership Council used to scorn as “liberal fundamentalism” – to various constituencies in the Democratic coalition: blacks, Hispanics, women.
For those with a memory, there are particular ironies to this posture. Hillary Clinton is using racial signaling – Ferguson, Flint, criminal justice reform, voting rights – to firm up support among black voters. In 1992, Bill Clinton consciously used racial signaling – executing Ricky Ray Rector, “end welfare as we know it,” “three strikes and out,” Sister Souljah – to firm up support among white voters. (Few were fooled: he ended winning 43 percent of the total vote, with a lower percentage of white votes than Michael Dukakis got in 1988). Obviously, this reflects the growing importance of people of color in the Democratic coalition and the Democratic primaries.
The second irony, as Michelle Alexander has forcefully argued, is that Hillary Clinton’s appeals require tacit disavowal of her husband’s record – his crime bill, welfare repeal, support for a racially discriminatory death penalty, and for harsh and discriminatory sentencing and more.
Clinton criticizes Sanders because universal programs – redistribution, growth and jobs, Medicare for All, tuition-free college – don’t address the specific concerns of African Americans. Sanders agrees, joining in championing criminal justice and voting rights reforms as well as targeted investment policies.
But in fact, one of the major reasons Clinton enjoys strong support among African Americans comes from the last years of her husband’s administration when the dot.com boom produced sustained jobs growth that disproportionately benefited African Americans, and lifted wages on the bottom – supplemented by universal programs like lifting the minimum wage and expanding the earned income tax program – again disproportionately benefiting black people. That didn’t “end systematic racism” – in fact Clinton’s other policies added to it – but it certainly made life better for many African Americans.
5. Establishment Foreign Policy Questioned
With the exception of muscle-flexing about ISIS, the primaries have been focused largely on domestic policy. Even so, it is clear that in both parties, the pillars of establishment foreign policy are getting shelled.
On the Republican side, both Trump and Cruz question both the trade policies and the liberal interventionism of the past years. Both Trump and Cruz challenge our ruinous trade policies. Trump denounces the Iraq intervention and fighting wars we do not win. He also clearly has no stomach for the emerging cold war with Russia over Ukraine. Cruz wants us to focus on ISIS, which attacks us, not regime change in Syria, which does not. Both promise to strengthen the military, posture tough on torture and bombs – but both want a military strong enough that we need not use it.
On the Democratic side, Sanders is a skeptic about regime change and is opposed to trying to police the world. He’s made opposition to our global trade and tax regime, developed by for and with the global corporations and banks, a case study of how the rules get rigged. The debate is only beginning, but it is clear that a global strategy that has not worked for most Americans is now under question.