Political Gabfest

What the Hell Happened on Super Tuesday?

Slate’s Political Gabfest comes to the rescue with a special Super Tuesday recap of the primaries. 

Super Tuesday 2016

Super Tuesday’s victors.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock, Tom Pennington and Scott Eisen/Getty Images.

We’re posting transcripts of Slate podcasts exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for the Political Gabfest’s special Super Tuesday extra episode.  

In this bonus episode of the Political Gabfest, host David Plotz recaps the results of Super Tuesday with Slate’s chief political correspondent, Jamelle Bouie. What do the results mean for Donald Trump’s chances in the general election? And is there anything the GOP can do to stop him from being their candidate? Jamelle weighs in. Plus, have Hillary’s wins finally put the #Bern out? Or is there still a chance Bernie can stoke the flame?

To learn more about the Political Gabfest, click here.

David Plotz: Hello and welcome to a special gabfest extra, extra, extra, extra for March 2, 2016, that really was a Super Tuesday edition. I’m David Plotz of Atlas Obscura. Jamelle Bouie, Slate’s chief political correspondent, joins me from New York.

Hello, Jamelle, how are you doing?

Jamelle Bouie: Hello. I’m very, very tired. I’ve been up a long time following these insane results from Tuesday.

Plotz: Good, well, we’ll talk about that in a minute.

We’ll have a regular Gabfest too this week on Friday—John Dickerson, Emily Bazelon, and I will do a regular show. But for now we have a Super Tuesday treat. We will start with the Republicans because they’re more interesting and crazier.

So the theory of the case is, actually this is the best possible result for Trump, even better than running the table, because all of his rivals are going to stay in the race after this. Does that make sense to you?

Bouie: That makes sense to me. Everyone winning a little something: Cruz winning Texas and Oklahoma, Rubio winning the great state of Minnesota, and Kasich doing very well in Vermont (but not quite winning) gives them all a reason to stay in.

And by dividing any potential anti-Trump vote—I want to say potential because there’s no guarantee that if other candidates are winnowed out that Trump won’t benefit from the departure of other people. So as long as that vote of not-Trump is divided, Trump retains really the lion’s share of the Republican primary vote. Upwards of 40 percent. Despite the fact that when you compare Trump to previous front-runners, he’s actually a bit weaker than he looks.

I’m looking at the numbers from last night. I think it’s very clear how you could beat Trump—it’s just that there’s no one in the Republican field capable of doing it. It’s really not difficult to imagine even someone like Mitt Romney having the credibility across the party to be able to successfully challenge and beat Trump.

Plotz: Well is it just that they’ve caught on to this too late? Is it that the three or four remaining candidates are not in fact that person who could do it? That was what Jeb Bush was supposed to be, right?

Bouie: I feel like I’m this voice of—not just Jeb Bush skepticism—but what faction of the party Jeb Bush represented … I think that from the beginning Jeb Bush was a donor’s candidate. And that was abundantly clear. And he never was anything more than that. The only reason why anyone thought so was because donors happen to have a pretty large mouthpiece as far as national media goes.

I think that part of the problem is that the entire Republican Party decided that it would be a good idea to not seriously challenge Trump on his core claims about himself for eight months. And essentially allow Trump to build up a strong reservoir of goodwill among his supporters. And by attempting to bind Trump to the Republican Party through pledges, through that recurring refrain that every Republican will vote for the eventual nominee, they legitimized Trump. Here we are now and to many voters, Trump is a completely legitimate choice.

Plotz: What should they have knocked him down with eight months ago? What would have been the strategy eight months ago to have taken him out?

Bouie: The strategy eight months ago would have been to directly challenge his myth about himself. One refrain I’ve often heard from Trump voters is that he’s already wealthy and successful, why would he need to be president?

So that becomes on its face evidence that Trump is selfless in some regards. And that he is successful. That he is the greatest dealmaker ever. And that he’ll bring that talent to the United States. None of those things are true.

Rubio brought this up, and I think it was the right choice it was just too late, from Trump University to a variety of failed Trump business, to the widely held suspicion that Trump isn’t nearly as wealthy as he says he is. It was entirely possible for Republicans in September or in August to start every week airing a different ad showing a different person screwed by Donald Trump.

Plotz: Yeah but Jamelle, that’s a hindsight-20/20 argument if I’ve ever heard one.

Bouie: I don’t think it’s a hindsight-20/20 argument.

Plotz: In August people still believed this campaign would a) flame out or b) was a joke. There was also, in the game theory of it, there was no one person for whom it was worth it to do it. It was a “tragedy of the commons” problem. For the collective it was certainly worth it. But for no individual candidate, they would have had to suffer. It would have been the murder-suicide.

Bouie: Maybe that’s right, I see Trump is extremely dangerous, I’m just very frustrated that key decision makers in the Republican Party, including its presidential candidates, were so short-sighted—were so arrogant, to think there’s nothing we need to do about this demagogue building strength in their party. And now it’s going to be left to the rest of us to do something about it, if we even can. Which I think we can.

Plotz: How do you think the fact of his deep creepy racism is going to affect him as the GOP nominee if he gets there?

Bouie: I think it will have two broad effects. The first is that I do think it will mobilize nonwhite voters like few other things could. Having a candidate that wants to deport 11 million unauthorized immigrants, who refuses to disavow the Klan, is the perfect recipe for getting the black turnout, the Asian American turnout, the Latino turnout high. And then for a Democrat to win not just the lion’s share but close to all their votes …

I think part of Donald Trump’s success is that he is actually loosening taboos about the use of racist rhetoric in public. And there are a lot of people eager to embrace it, in part because they don’t see that rhetoric as racist, they see it as simply common sense that’s been kept down by politically correct elites. I don’t quite know how Trump will do in a general election, I have my hunches, but I do think that he will end up at least increasing his share, relative to Mitt Romney, of white voters. Simply because I think there’s a not-trivial portion of the electorate that will come out to vote for a racist.

Plotz: What is it that the GOP establishment can do to make the racist part go away?

Bouie: At this point, assuming Trump is well on his way to becoming the nominee, I think the only thing they can do is just not support him. If you definitively want to defeat Trump in the general election, if the Republican establishment such that it is decides that it would rather hand the presidency to Hillary Clinton than allow Trump to establish himself as the leader of the Republican Party, and Trump-ism as its new creed, then you just have to say, alright then we’re not going to support Donald Trump.

Plotz: Do you think we’re going to have an 1860 “rump,” are we going to do that? Are we going to have different parties, parties are going to split because of this? Do you really think that the GOP establishment, which is so invested in victory, is going to be willing to say, OK we’re just going to toss this one away, we’re just going to give this one up. Completely disavow him and try to hold the Senate.

Bouie: I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I would hope for the good of us all [that] Republican elites see Trump as dangerous and decide to just say, we’re not going to vote for him, we’re not going to support him. Which I think would free up a lot of Republican voters to allow themselves at least not to vote. They don’t have to vote for Hillary Clinton but just to sit this one out. But I don’t know.

Plotz: Going to the practicalities of how Trump gets to be the nominee, are there credible scenarios remaining whereby he does not get to be the nominee. And what are they?

Bouie: So the next set of major Republican primaries are on March 15. And those are the big winner-takes-all primaries. So in Ohio, in Michigan, in Florida, voters will go to the polls and whoever wins those states, whether it’s a majority or not, gets all the delegates. And those are hundreds of delegates at stake.

If we get there March 15, and Rubio wins Florida, and Kasich wins Ohio and Michigan, or some combination like that, someone other than Trump wins each one of these, then I think there’s a plausible way to stop his domination. And you do it in a convention fight, because Trump will not be able to get enough delegates to win on first ballot.

If that happens, if Republicans manage to stop Trump’s nomination at the convention, then they have essentially forfeited the general election, because you will have a lot of very angry Trump voters who see that he won most of the votes, who see that he won most of the states, and he’s only not winning the nomination because of a technicality. That will doom the party’s odds. It’s a totally I think plausible outcome.

Other than that, I don’t think there’s really one way to stop him. I think it’s very clear that if you wanted to stop Trump early on, the choice you should have made was to put your weight behind Cruz, who seems to be the only one who knows how to fight him and how to beat him. No one else does.

Plotz: God, that’s an unappealing choice. Let’s close the Republican section with just a few words about Trump’s strange victory press conference. Which actually, the strangest part of which was Chris Christie, who has now not merely endorsed Trump but who seems to have attached himself to Trump and yet looked deeply uncomfortable at the Trump press conference yesterday. What do you make of their strange relationship?

Bouie: You know, it was really strange. I just want to say real quickly, it was very bizarre to watch Chris Christie caught in this existential panic. I think that’s actually a warning to potential Trump endorsees in the Republican Party, which is that you may think you’re joining team Trump as a partner but what you’re actually joining as, is a minion or a supplicant. That you’re there to be shown and not really to say anything. Because man did Chris Christie just look beaten down by his decision.

I’ll say [this] about the substance of Trump’s, I think intentionally staged-to-look-presidential, press conference: He took a conciliatory and more moderate turn. And I think that has convinced a lot of people that he would be a successful general election candidate. But no one looks as good as they do after victory. And I myself am skeptical that the kind of candidate that won’t disavow white supremacists is somehow extremely viable to win in November. If that’s the case then I think we’re all much worse off than we think.

Plotz: Let’s move on to the Democrats, who also had a Super Tuesday last night. But it was not as super, it was a lot less interesting. But still important. The conclusion of Super Tuesday is that Hillary Clinton is in very, very, very, very, very good shape to move on to the nomination.

The Sanders campaign got a few wins last night. They won his home state of Vermont, Minnesota.

Bouie: Colorado and Oklahoma.

Plotz: But Sanders doesn’t seem to be able to make any inroads with nonwhite voters. What did you make of Hillary’s pretty solid performance across the South yesterday?

Bouie: You have one candidate who’s devoted a lot of resources to cultivating and building ties in a community in which she’s already well liked and favored. And one candidate who just didn’t have the time and resource to do this. And we’re looking at the predictable consequences of that. Unfortunately for Bernie Sanders, you can’t win a national primary in the Democratic Party without taking at least some share of the black vote. Probably upward of 40 or 50 percent. You have to at least get that high, because black voters are such a critical part of the Democratic Party electorate. They’re almost the center of it. You can’t win without them, primaries or national elections.

Plotz: I don’t know what to make of this. That Hillary Clinton won seems to have clinched her nomination yesterday, by winning Democratic votes in states where the Democrats have no chance of winning in the general election.

Isn’t there some kind of odd thing that happens where you can lock in primary victories by winning in states that are actually not battleground states. Not just not battleground states—not states that could even provide general votes to you.

Bouie: I don’t think so, because I don’t think the purpose of the primary is to begin to test out the electability of a candidate. Because even if you do win in a state that is a battleground state, that doesn’t say anything about your ability to win in the general election. Mitt Romney won in Virginia pretty handily in the 2012 primary and lost it pretty handily.

I think the purpose of primaries is to give all the party’s voters a chance to participate and have a say in who they want to nominate. And for the Democratic Party, which is hugely reliant on black voters, you take black voters out of the equation and Democrats cannot win national elections.

I think it’s actually very appropriate to give black voters, although they are concentrated in red states, an outsides voice because they are an outsides force in the Democratic Party.

Plotz: What do you think the Sanders campaign is going to do for the next few months? Is he going to keep campaigning even though it’s clear he has no chance, and serve as a prod and a strong voice for his causes around inequality in particular? Or is he going to fold up?

Bouie: I hope he stays in. During his victory speech he says he intends to go all the way to Philadelphia, which is where Democrats are holding their convention. I hope he stays in, I think he has the money and resources to, I think he keeps Hillary Clinton on her toes as a presumptive nominee.

He’s not going to win the nomination. I just don’t see a path to that, baring some catastrophic collapse from Hillary Clinton. But I think he should stay in, I see no reason for him to leave the race.

Plotz: Should Democrats be at all concerned about their relatively weak turnout compared to the Republicans? Or is that a complete red herring for the general?

Bouie: I think that’s a red herring. It’s not a red herring that doesn’t make any sense. It seems to make intuitive sense that if you have high turnout in your primary you’re in good shape for the general. But if you actually just look at primary turn out numbers since 1972, or really 1976 when the modern system kind of got solidified, there’s no relationship at all.

And so one of my favorite tidbits about this is that before 2008 the highest Democratic primary turnout was in 1988. Twenty-three million Democrats voted in that primary. And Michael Dukakis went on to be humiliated by George H.W. Bush. On the other side, Republicans had record turnout for their primaries in 2000, and when George Bush won that election it wasn’t through the popular vote.

All primary turnout tells us is the degree to which primary voters or party voters are excited to choose a nominee. But it doesn’t give us any gage into how that nominee will perform once they’re in the general election.

Plotz: Thank you Jamelle Bouie for helping out on this Gabfest extra. As I said, we will have a regular Gabfest for you on Friday too. Jamelle, have a good rest of your week.

Bouie: Thank you, same to you.