Merrimack faculty assess primaries, rise of Trump

Merrimack College political science chairman and associate professor Harry Wessel, assistant professor Gavril Bilev, associate professor Anne Flaherty, and adjunct professor Mary A. McHugh analyze the primaries and November’s election.

Twelve states voted in the so-called Super Tuesday primaries, including Massachusetts, handing convincing victories to Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

Democrat Bernie Sanders won three states and his home state Vermont but Clinton captured the Hispanic and Black regions of the South to capture seven states.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, won only the MInnesota caucus while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won his delegate-rich home state, Oklahoma and the Alaska caucus.

While the U.S. dabbled in primary elections earlier in history, the present reliance on primaries, and to a smaller degree caucuses, comes from reforms in the late 1960s, Flaherty said. Prior to that, the parties’ presidential candidates were determined by party elites. The public and to a large extent the voters were not part of that decision.

The Democrats reformed the process, followed shortly by the Republicans, in order to select candidates who had popular support, policy ideas that resonated with the public, and a reasonable chance of winning the general election.

Clearly, to the surprise of many Republican leaders and many in the media, Trump has gotten popular support, Flaherty said.

“And he has continued to do so,” she said.

What’s your reaction to Super Tuesday results?

Wessel: Politics in general, and elections in particular, are about expectations. Massachusetts, as one of the most liberal states, and a next door neighbor to Vermont, Bernie’s home state, was expected to be a win for the Sanders’ campaign. Hence Bernie losing Massachusetts is a bigger story than if he had won Massachusetts. 

Flaherty: Well, it certainly means that I will keep watching the primaries with great interest!

I don’t see the results from Tuesday altering the course of the Democratic primary very much; Sanders and Clinton will continue to compete.

For the Republicans, Cruz got the support he needed to stay in the race as a legitimate competitor. It is good for Rubio that he did win a state (Minnesota) but his odds as a true contender do not seem to have grown. As for Kasich … he is holding on, but is falling to get needed support. And then, of course, there is the marked success of Donald Trump.

Bilev: On the Democratic side, there are no surprises. On the Republican side, everything is a surprise.

The possibility that Trump will be the GOP nominee has quickly gone from “unthinkable” to “most probable.” It is a highly unprecedented event that a complete outsider to a major party in the US gets this far. We should, of course, mention the fact that there are still scenarios, rather unlikely, that he may be denied the nomination.

This will lead to some rethinking of major arguments and claims in political science. The canonical text on nominations contests in American Politics is a book called “The Party Decides,” the basic argument of which is that elected officials, party organizers, activists and donors exert decisive influence over the process. Clearly, this is not what is happening at the moment.

The Bush campaign and the SuperPAC supporting him collectively spent almost $100 million with nothing to show for. In short, this is a surprising outcome, which will inspire no small number of academic dissertations, papers and books.

McHugh: I was surprised by how poorly Rubio did. I thought he would pick up more delegates than he did especially after taking on Trump directly (and inelegantly).

Clinton winning in Massachusetts might be a signal that the Democratic voters are looking toward the general election (and Clinton won in many of the areas of Mass that usually support Republicans).


Is it a foregone conclusion it will be a Trump- Clinton matchup in the general election?

Wessel: On the Republican side one possible scenario that stops Trump floating around yesterday was that Cruz and Kasich do so poorly (they didn’t) that they drop out. Their votes go the Rubio and he barely wins Florida, his home state. He then has the momentum to win enough states to stop Trump from getting the nomination before the convention. The convention is brokered and the Republican Party professionals rally behind Cruz.

This was far-fetched before Super Tuesday. Now that it is clear Cruz won’t drop out after he won Texas and the North Texas suburb of Oklahoma, the scenario is dead in the water.

Flaherty: Not yet! Super Tuesday is important because of the number of states at play, but there are still plenty - and many with a large number of delegates - to go. With the continued dominance of both Clinton and Trump in terms of the number of wins, it is easy to forget that in most cases we are dealing with proportional allocation of delegates - so coming in second in a state can still earn a relatively sizable chunk of delegates. This is part of Sanders’ pitch right now and his argument for continuing his campaign through the long primary season. Rather obviously, Trump and Clinton are in the lead. And they both appear to be shaping their messages in ways that show that they each expect this matchup to happen. It would be surprising to see a large scale change in the momentum toward Trump and Clinton as candidates, but not impossible.

Bilev: It is increasingly likely that the general election will indeed be Clinton vs. Trump, though again, this is not a certainty at this point.

McHugh: Clinton is more than likely the Democratic nominee. The delegate math is in her favor. Even without the super delegates because of proportional allocation of delegates, Sanders would have to beat her with margins like his Vermont victory in order to make up ground. She can play it safe and most likely win.

Trump is also well on his way to winning. From all reports the delegate math is in his favor as well. He is the only one on the Republican side that will be able to accumulate the necessary number to win. The only way to stop him is for the three others to get enough delegates to deny him the majority. With the Republican race now turning toward winner take all, there is a slight possibility that a scenario could emerge that no one gets a majority of delegates and it becomes a contested election. There are also some rumblings from the Republican Party that there could be some rule changes going into the convention that would unbind delegates. While this is always a possibility, the GOP is also wary of upsetting Trump and his supporters.


How do you explain the rise of Donald Trump?

Wessel: I can only say that the new “disenfranchised” older, white, male, less educated, and suffering economically have rallied around Trump. But they have been joined by racist, homophobic, sexist, and anti-Semitic people to form a new voting bloc (supporting both Trump and Cruz).

Flaherty: I think Trump is tapping into frustration with the state of party politics as well as frustration with a long, slow economic recovery. Many Americans have trended toward being independent of party affiliations or affiliated but less than pleased with their existing parties; this shows when there is a push for “outsiders” as we are clearly seeing on the Republican side of the primaries.

There also seems to be a common perception among Trump supporters that he says what he thinks; he does not try to be politically correct or balance his remarks. This candor is appealing to the many Americans who are convinced that politicians are always lying to them or trying to hide something.

Bilev: Much can be said about Trump’s appeal. First, there is a strong and undeniable undercurrent of racism, xenophobia and chauvinism. After all, the statements that propelled his candidacy forward were exactly of this nature.

Additionally, as a candidate, he managed to consistently position himself as the champion of an idealized past: a pre-politically correct, majority white “great” America in which people knew their place (meaning all minority groups held an inferior position). This a well-targeted message for its respective audience - white, male, elderly voters who do not hold a college degree.

Second, the most consistent factor which predicts a high favorability rating for Trump is a preference for something we call “authoritarianism” - a strong apolitical figure who will act outside of the traditional democratic channels to undo major injustice and restore a “great” country to its rightful superior place. This is what brings all the references to fascism. In this respect, the Trump phenomenon is not unprecedented internationally - a string of similar figures have risen in Europe in the past few decades with a similar profile - Berlusconi of Italy, Orban of Hungary, Putin of Russia to name a few. The anti-establishment, anti-democratic politics sentiment as well as the promise to rise above the fray of corrupt politics explained at least some part of their success.

Third, Trump was the beneficiary of a mind-boggling amount of free, meaning unpaid, time on national television - it is difficult to quantify the effect of this much exposure.

McHugh: We know that in some elections there is a strong tendency to want to vote for outsiders and the party out of power (especially after two terms of a presidency). We also know that there are some parts of the electorate who are angry at government or distrust the government and the media. He has been able to consolidate and capitalize on these two elements in the Republican party.

Trump likes the attention he receives and he also doesn’t seem to be worried about providing details or changing his mind.


What are the trickle-down effects for Congress and lower offices?

Flaherty: A successful Trump campaign for the Republican nomination already has shaken things up in the Republican Party. He has alienated and alarmed many of the GOP leaders, and they will certainly have to figure out how to change and get along with this popular leader, or get out of his way.

Parties exist as functional alliances; so for Republicans this primary season has shown a challenge for keeping the alliance built on common ground and goals. Even if Trump does not take the nomination, his success has pointed to a frustrated electorate that wants something other than what has been offered in the past; this will take reassessment on the part of leaders at all levels.

Bilev: A difficult question to answer this early. While many Republican elected officials whose terms are up in November are undoubtedly now fretting, it is not clear whether this will be beneficial or harmful to their prospects. The phenomenon of down-ballot pressure is a well-documented feature of American politics, it is just not apparent yet how the Republican voters who dislike Trump will behave come Election Day — turnout may be affected in either direction.

McHugh: With Trump on the top of a ticket there would be serious consequences for the Republican Party. He most likely will not campaign (nor be asked to) with senators or representatives so he won’t be building any sort of coalition for governing. In fact, there are stories out there that Mitch McConnell is telling vulnerable Senate Republicans that they would be free to campaign against Trump in order to save their seat and preserve the majority.

By Office of Communications
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