Yesterday’s five primary contests in north-eastern states (Tuesday in the US) didn’t hold much suspense – they were nearly all runaway victories and in line with expectations. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t important, for both sides.
First, the Democrats. Hillary Clinton won four of the five, including Connecticut, the only one that was at all close, where she had 51.8% to Bernie Sanders’s 46.4%. In the biggest prize, Pennsylvania, she beat him by twelve points. Sanders had a clear win in Rhode Island with 55.0%.
The Democrat race is now effectively over. Sanders has not officially conceded, and will remain a candidate until the convention, but he is drastically downsizing his campaign and has all but acknowledged that he is only staying in to try to influence policy, not from any hope of being the nominee.
The Republican contest, however, rolls on. Donald Trump swept all five states yesterday, winning an absolute majority in each – Maryland, with 54.4%, was his worst result. John Kasich was runner-up in four, but couldn’t manage better than 28.4% (in Connecticut). Ted Cruz, in the least hospitable part of the country for him, scored a second (21.6% in Pennsylvania) and four thirds.
In terms of delegates, according to the Green Papers that gives Trump an additional 141, Kasich eight, Cruz seven and 16 uncommitted (all from Pennsylvania; its 54 local delegates are all nominally uncommitted, but most have indicated a preference). Totals now stand at Trump 988 to Cruz 566; Kasich has 157, still behind the withdrawn Marco Rubio with 173, also-ran candidates have another 16, 70 are uncommitted and there are 502 still to be elected.
For election watchers this is a rare treat. Not since the Ford-Reagan contest of 1976 have the last few primaries actually meant anything. But this time, interest will be maintained right up till the last states vote on 7 June.
Indiana is the next state to vote, next Tuesday, and with 57 delegates chosen winner-take-all both statewide and by congressional district, it could make or break the “Stop Trump” campaign. From there, there are another nine states to go, all but two of them in the west.
The other comparison now to make with 1976 is that it was the last occasion when a trailing candidate announced his vice-presidential pick in advance, in an attempt to grasp the narrative and shake loose some uncommitted delegates. Ronald Reagan anointed Richard Schweiker, a leading liberal Republican, for the job; the move gained Reagan some media attention, but he was unable to overtake Gerald Ford for the nomination. (Schweiker was later rewarded with a cabinet post in the first Reagan administration.)
Now Cruz has tried the same tactic, naming Carly Fiorina, a former candidate who withdrew after the New Hampshire primary, to be his running mate.
The story of the latter part of the Republican campaign is all about how the Stop Trump movement has been fatally weakened by the fact that Cruz is its de facto standard-bearer. Whatever their feelings about Trump, most Republicans are just not going to die in the last ditch for the chance of making Cruz president.
And that evidently includes Kasich. Although the Cruz and Kasich campaigns earlier in the week announced a limited degree of co-operation – the Kasich people will give Cruz a clear run in Indiana, and Cruz’s team will return the favor in New Mexico and Oregon – it’s much less (and much later) than was needed.
Brian Beutler in the New Republic points out that co-operation against Trump has to extend right up to the convention if it’s to have any hope of success. But the Cruz-Kasich pact “isn’t aimed at Trump’s claim to legitimacy at all. It is instead a narrow, and possibly ill-fated, one meant to shave down his delegate lead. And it completely fails to lay the groundwork for what happens if they succeed.”
Writing before the Fiorina announcement, Beutler suggests that Cruz needed to name Kasich as his running mate and conduct a joint campaign. But while that would make some sense for Cruz, it’s much less appealing for Kasich. Why commit himself irretrievably to Cruz if they’re quite likely to lose anyway, when he could go to the convention as a powerbroker and possibly end up as running-mate on the Trump ticket instead?
So the three-legged race continues. And with six weeks to go, and another six from there to the convention, the western states are going to enjoy their all-too-scarce moment in the sun.