Super Tuesday made plainly visible the vein of discontent that is running through the American electorate. On the Republican side, it amounted to a primal scream from voters who are fed up with the status quo and have thrown in their lot with the one man they believe is brash enough to beat the establishment at its own game — billionaire businessman Donald Trump.
Hillary Clinton, after watching Sen. Bernie Sanders ride a similar tidal wave of discontent on the Democratic side, has managed to come back strong by moving her own message to the left and adding a populist theme that carries echoes of Sanders’ message. But she still faces a powerful challenger; Sanders took four states on Tuesday, including Minnesota.
More important than the latest tally are growing indications that electorate is shifting, maybe even dramatically, on both sides.
From primary and caucus voters in state after state comes the message that despite low unemployment and a recovery from the Great Recession, people feel left behind and overlooked. From this point on, candidates will be measured by how well they address these anxieties and the extent to which they are willing to challenge the existing order.
Trump has now demonstrated his ability to win broadly, picking up states from Massachusetts to deep in the South despite various self-inflicted wounds. But he is not unstoppable. Sen. Ted Cruz remains viable after winning his home state and Oklahoma. Sen. Marco Rubio came back to life with his first win in Minnesota, where Republicans kicked Trump to an ignominious third place.
Clinton and Trump will carry special responsibilities as the national front-runners. Trump’s challenge is to show that he can moderate his rhetoric and curb the tendency to go to Def Con 1 every time someone takes a poke at him. He began that work Tuesday night, with an unusual victory news conference in which he cast himself as a “common-sense conservative” who said he intended, incredibly enough, to unify his party and the country. Sounding almost conventional, Trump pledged a commitment to women’s health, the middle class, a rebuilt infrastructure, job creation and competitive tax rates to woo businesses back to the U.S. Voters should watch closely to see whether he sticks to this lane or strays back into Muslim-banning, immigrant-bashing bullying.
Clinton should be mindful that it is not enough to tackle Trump on hate speech. She, too, started that work Tuesday night, saying she would go after companies that did not stand with America and its workers. In a direct shot at Trump’s fabled wall, Clinton said she would build “ladders of opportunity” to make the country whole.
Voters who are still on the fence should not comfort themselves with idle chatter about a brokered convention on the GOP side or a third-party candidate who could sweep up the middle. Given the strength demonstrated by the front-runners so far, those remain unlikely prospects.
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