Primary season moves west

There were no big surprises in yesterday’s primaries (Tuesday in the US). Donald Trump took the winner-take-all contest in Arizona by a healthy margin, 47.1% to Ted Cruz’s 24.9%, and Cruz won a crushing victory in Utah with 69.2%. Trump could only manage third in Utah, taking 14.0%, behind John Kasich on 16.8%.

On the Democrat side, Hillary Clinton wasn’t troubled in Arizona, winning 57.6% against 39.9% for Bernie Sanders. Sanders racked up big wins in the other two: 79.3% in Utah and 78.0% in Idaho. (Idaho Republicans had already voted, for Cruz, a fortnight earlier.)

That gives Sanders a small net gain in delegates, but he remains a long way behind. Trump also remains well clear of his rivals, but because Republican races are often winner-take-all or something like it (whereas the Democrat ones are all proportional), it’s easier for a leader to be overhauled. Trump’s nomination is not yet a foregone conclusion.

If you were not already convinced that this is a completely ludicrous way to select presidential candidates, yesterday’s contests highlight one of its more indefensible aspects – the way that different regions play quite different roles.

Prior to this week, 29 states had held Republican primaries or caucuses (Democrat numbers are much the same, although there are small differences throughout). Another eleven (counting yesterday’s) vote up until the end of April, and the remaining ten in May or early June.

You could perhaps justify such a spread-out calendar if each part of the country was getting the same say. But it isn’t: those first 29 states are overwhelmingly in the south and mid-west, with 13 and six states respectively. Only three states in those two regions are yet to vote (Wisconsin, Indiana and West Virginia).*

On the other hand, the north-east is four down and seven to go – six of them next month – while the west, prior to this week, was six down and eleven to go, with four of them (including California, the largest) not voting until 7 June, the last day of the primary season. (Green Papers has the full calendar.)

So the story is not just about changing dynamics of support for the different candidates as time goes on, but also very different territory that they have to fight for. Cruz, for example, has a more difficult task ahead of him than might appear from the numbers, because his strongest territory, in the deep south, has already voted. (Although today he picked up an endorsement from Jeb Bush.)

Sanders, by contrast, has a much friendlier part of the calendar coming up: his natural strength is in the north-east and the west. Barring miracles it still won’t be enough to get him the nomination, but his position isn’t as hopeless as you might think from just looking at the results so far.

In most years, states that vote in the second half of the season get essentially no say in the decision, because the nomination has already been sewn up in the early contests. This year, at least, that particular unfairness isn’t there. But there’s still a huge difference between voting, like Iowa, when there are eleven candidates in the field and all is still in flux, and coming in at the end with just three to choose from.

If the United States was a more homogeneous nation, that would matter less. But regional differences are tremendously important. While Iowa and New Hampshire get more publicity, a significant prop of conservative strength in the Republican party has been the status of South Carolina (the state that started the civil war) as the first big primary contest.

So as the race on both sides moves into new territory, there could still be some surprises to come.


* Note: Although the regions are mostly clear-cut, there is room for dispute at the margins about which states go in which. I’m counting Oklahoma and West Virginia as south, Missouri as mid-west, and Delaware and Maryland as north-east.

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