The Circular Reasoning of Conventional Wisdom

If you’ve been following mainstream election coverage during the current slog phase of the campaign and it doesn’t seem to make much sense, then you’ve been paying attention. On the Democratic side, we are told Bernie Sanders faces a must-win election today in Wisconsin, without which he would have no chance of winning a nomination that’s already out of his reach. On the Republican side, we are told a big loss by Donald Trump would be a huge blow to a candidate who, win or lose, will continue to be hundreds of delegates ahead of his nearest rival and, win or lose, faces a concerted effort to block his nomination. In other words, Wisconsin is both critical and irrelevant, or maybe critically irrelevant, or perhaps irrelevant in a critical way.

These are challenging times for pundits, many of whom are struggling to explain contradictions between the horserace narratives and delegate math without the benefit of new primaries every few days to move the story along. It’s as if the Democratic and Republican races are trapped in a slow-motion world where the frontrunner’s eventual victory is simultaneously inevitable and under siege.

If you were to spell out the story line, it looks a little like this:

  • For Democrats, Hillary Clinton is the prohibitive delegate frontrunner. Bernie Sanders would have to win the remaining contests at a much higher rate than polling or past performance suggest he will in order to surpass her in earned delegates, then would need to convince an overwhelming number of superdelegates to defect from Clinton. This is unlikely to happen, even if Bernie wins big in Wisconsin. But Clinton is on a losing streak in recent contests. And if she loses big in Wisconsin, it would give Bernie momentum going into New York, a must-win state for Clinton because she represented New York in the Senate. If she loses New York it’s a game changer. Except for the part about her having an insurmountable delegate lead.
  • For Republicans, Donald Trump is the prohibitive frontrunner opposed by much of the Republican establishment. But his campaign is in big trouble following his bad, awful day in which he managed in one interview to alienate the five remaining independent women open to supporting him while raising the possibility of launching nuclear armageddon. He is performing poorly in Wisconsin polling and if he does badly it could be a game changer. Except even a big Wisconsin loss would leave Trump in a commanding position.  He is certain to go to the convention with the most delegates and is the only candidate with a path to winning an outright majority.

Sound confusing? The problem is that neither story line follows the well-worn horserace narrative of the frontrunner mopping up the remaining opposition on the way to claiming the nomination. April is supposed to be the time when ambiguity yields to inevitability, when victors work to heal primary wounds and parties are unified. That’s not happening in either contest. Democrats may be hurtling toward a Clinton nomination, but Sanders continues to raise tons of money, draw larger and more enthusiastic crowds, and win contests in demographically favorable states. Republicans may be inching toward a Trump nomination, but they don’t want to be – or at least party leaders don’t want to be. These situations are hard to process in a coherent media narrative. Voters and elites are supposed to accept the inevitably of the apparent winners, but they aren’t, and it’s confounding the storyline. The narrative has become detached from the math.

We can sort through this by paying less attention to the horserace and more to the underlying dynamics of the two contests, where little has changed since the beginning. Bernie continues to run a movement insurgency, capturing the imagination of progressives tired of an incremental neoliberal politics of accommodation to wealthy interests. He is winning states with high concentrations of sympathetic voters, especially caucus states where his energized supporters participate disproportionately, so his success in recent weeks is an entirely predictable outcome of the calendar. His coalition has not been broad enough to carry him to victory, but it has been significant enough to move Hillary – and the Democratic Party – in his direction. Win or lose, the Wisconsin outcome will not change this. Hillary would be in command of the delegate race even if Bernie were to win big and ride the momentum to an upset victory in demographically challenging New York. That she would not be in command of her party would be plainly evident, but it would also not be a new development. She is not in command of her party now.

On the Republican side, whatever cracks appeared last week in the Trump campaign also have been there all along. Although a poor Wisconsin performance will naturally raise questions about the commitment of Trump’s base, there are enough Republicans of the Scott Walker/Ted Cruz variety to make the state a bad match for him.  And while it is possible that future contests will reveal an ebb in his support, Trump’s real problem is and always has been with a deeply hostile general electorate. A decline in Trumpmentum over the final months of the primary season, should it materialize and translate into a lower delegate total, would give breathing room to a party elite whose best shot at stopping him would be if he fails to achieve a first ballot convention victory, but this will neither be determined by the results in Wisconsin nor alter the fundamental reality that Trump has animated millions of voters who believe he has already earned the right to the nomination. The cause of that rift and how Republicans handle it remain the real stories on the Republican side.