Ides of March

When the 2016 primary calendar was released, March 15 was a day you might have circled in red. It was designed to be the beginning of the end of the primary season, the day when the waning hopes of also-ran candidates would dissipate under the weight of electoral math. Iowa and New Hampshire would eliminate pretenders, South Carolina and Nevada would winnow the field to the very few with enough money and support to compete on Super Tuesday, and those who lingered would lack the money and momentum to win tomorrow’s big-state contests in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Florida and North Carolina. Six weeks of marathon campaigning would put an end to ungainly primary politics and provide the victors with a long, clear runway to the summer nominating conventions and the general election beyond.

So it didn’t quite work that way. Hillary Clinton has a comfortable delegate lead, which becomes commanding when you include pledged super delegates. She will likely expand it tomorrow. But Bernie Sanders has ignited a small-donor grassroots effort large enough to keep him in the contest regardless of what happens on Tuesday. Sanders can survive a weak showing in the Midwest and remain a presence in the race, but he will be a significant force if he follows his Michigan victory with strong performances in Illinois, Missouri and Ohio. On the Republican side, the primary process may have worked too well. Donald Trump’s dominant position would be strong enough to clear the field if the party establishment wasn’t desperately trying to derail him. Marco Rubio and John Kasich would be also-rans trying at best to save face with wins in their home states rather than the last hope of #nevertrump to deny the frontrunner all the delegates in Ohio and Florida and make it hard for him to clinch the nomination before the convention.

Tomorrow will provide a turning point of sorts, just not in the horserace sense. It will determine how much influence Bernie Sanders will have over the balance of the primary campaign and set the odds of a deadlocked Republican convention, which is to say it will establish how far the Democratic Party will move in a progressive direction and whether Republican voters want to validate or hinder the increasingly violent Trump campaign. These choices will have implications far beyond November.

After Tuesday, the contest will slow down as the primary calendar spreads out. The next intensive day of voting won’t happen until April 26, when five states will vote, with Pennsylvania the big prize. There will be noteworthy individual contests along the way in Arizona (March 22), Wisconsin (April 5) and New York (April 19), but nothing like the frenzy of primaries we’ve seen in the past few weeks. After Pennsylvania, things slow down further until California and New Jersey vote on June 7. This means wherever the campaign stands on Wednesday morning will likely be where it remains for a long time.