Conventional wisdom for the past two weeks has been that the nomination of Trump and Clinton as their party’s champion in the fall general election is virtually inevitable. The Super Tuesday contests on March 1st and the subsequent two weeks added numerous states into their columns and both candidates developed almost insurmountable leads. When Marco Rubio was knocked out of the race following his home-state loss the Republican field shrank to include only one credible candidate to defeat Trump, with diminishing probability. However, in the wake of events in the last 10 days or so, both Clinton and Trump have appeared less entrenched and, especially for the Republicans, Trump’s detractors smell blood in the water. Are these developments simply an attempt by the media to create controversy or inklings of something more substantial?
The last few weeks have been marked by a swirl of anti-Trump support as the establishment rallies behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Six months ago, the idea of the establishment-sponsored candidate being Ted Cruz would appear utterly preposterous and yet a coterie of Scott Walker, Mitt Romney and Sen. Ron Johnson has been touting Cruz’s campaign line all across Wisconsin ahead of its primary on April 5th. What seemed impossible a couple of weeks ago has now been reintroduced on the agenda as a combination of crushing margins for Cruz in Utah, Kasich’s win in Ohio and has shrunk Cruz’s delegate deficit to 273. Trump’s relative decline or loss of momentum has been chalked up to several reasons. Most obvious are the scandals that have enveloped his campaign in the last two weeks. The emergence of footage revealing Trump’s campaign manager battering Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields, thus disproving his earlier account of non-implication and redeeming Fields, has put the campaign into defense mode and diverted attention from his campaign message. Also, the Trump campaign was swamped by critique as Chris Matthew’s assiduous questioning of Trump prompted the frontrunner to admit to espousing punishment for women having had an abortion. Gaffes have previously been unable to make even a dent in Trump’s primary poll numbers, a feat which may be imperiled now. Cruz’s outmaneuvering of Trump in the quest to fill North Dakota’s delegate slate awarded him 18 delegates committed to Cruz in contrast with Trump’s sole commitment is not unprecedented in Northern states but its arrival on the tails of the loss in Utah and Trump’s ten-point deficit in the Wisconsin polls beckon a shift in momentum and signs that the turmoil around Trump’s campaign has left a mark.
Trump’s hemorrhages is good news for the anti-Trump movement. Former adviser to Gov. Walker’s bid and Republican National Congressional Campaign Committee operative and current leader of anti-Trump super PAC Our Principles Ed Goeas views Trump’s decline as a turning point when voters have ceased to window-shop and instead direct their attention toward credible alternatives. Despite Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus’ repeated proclamations of neutrality the consensus within the Republican Party apparatus is that, breaking with tradition, Trump will not be granted the nomination unless he gathers a majority (1237 delegates) even if he wins a plurality and with Trump’s tally of 736 to Cruz 463 and Kasich’s 143 the possibility of a brokered convention is increasingly likely. An unsuccessful win on the first ballot will open up unbound delegates to be cajoled over to other campaigns in a series of ballots until a majority is attained for any candidate.
In order to turn the tide, Trump will need to further his mantra of offsetting lower than usual Republican support by increasing Republican chances in blue and purple states in bringing new members to the party, by winning Wisconsin.
For the Democrats Sanders faces an equally critical juncture. His recent overwhelming majority wins in Utah, Idaho, Washington and Hawaii along with his upset in Michigan has breathed life into his formerly ailing campaign. The Clinton campaign’s refusal to debate Sanders is a testament to a recognition that Sanders is yet to have been disposed of. However, the prospects of Sanders overtaking Clinton is more pie-in-the-sky than a brokered Republican convention. To secure a majority of the delegates, Clinton only needs to add 760 delegates out of 2042 remaining out of which Sanders needs to claim 56 percent to stop her in her tracks. The upcoming Wisconsin primary with its 86 delegates is a must for Sanders, not only for the actual delegates but to retain his viability with the Democratic electorate in the blue-collar state. Sander’s roughly 1000 delegates are unlikely to grant him the nomination in the end but his latest upswing shows that Clinton’s Super Tuesday and March 15 wins were not enough to knock him out and that the contest will most likely be heated all the way to the convention.