Curiouser and Curiouser

On Tuesday, March 4, 11 states held their primaries and caucuses and an interesting situation arose.

For Democrats, Clinton won in seven states, primarily in places where racial minorities make up a relatively large portion of Democratic voters, and the situation remains the same — if everything continues in this way, she will be the Democratic candidate without a problem. Some time ago, Nate Silver gave the numbers which can be used as a kind of “benchmark,” and so far Sanders is significantly lower than the level necessary to reach something close to parity at the Democratic National Convention.

In general, all Democratic presidential campaigns in the last quarter century have followed the same scenario: From a multitude of just about equals, one candidate quickly (by the middle of February) excels, and all others are removed or recede into the shadows. Of course, 2008, when Obama and Clinton went “head to head” until summer, was an exception, but generally, everything was similar. However, if you look further, at 1984 or 1988, in these years there were candidates who went until the end, gathering scores of interest, and yet, they did not present a serious threat — Jesse Jackson, in particular. Sanders, it seems, is the same kind of candidate; he will compete until the end, but his limit is 30 percent of delegates.

For Republicans, Trump won almost everything, except Texas and Oklahoma (Cruz) and Minnesota (Rubio). Votes in these primaries are converted to a number of delegates according to some tricky formulas, but the important thing is that the number of the delegates acquired by the winner is not everything, so, formally, complete victory is far away. However, a large portion of commentators and analysts already consider Trump’s victory a done deal. Of course, with reservations after everyone — simply everyone — strongly underestimated him last summer and even at the end of the fall, but all the same, victory is expected.

It’s difficult to explain to what extent the “Trump phenomenon” — the victory in the primaries of a man lacking political experience and violating all conceivable notions of what voters do and do not like — is an impossible thing. American politics is a matter of incredible competitiveness. You really can’t assess it from the outside. Local politicians are interviewed two to three times a day for several months; they lead 1000 – one thousand! – meetings in a year, at which they speak with voters, and carry out a multitude of other things in one week which Russian, German and Japanese politicians would do in several months. In all my life in Russia I have seen maybe three people who are capable of living and working at such an intense level; one is the rector of a major university, two are billionaires. I’m not talking about the quality of work and results — maybe they are better, maybe worse — but the intensity of their activity is comparable to the life of an active athlete. That someone from the outside could win this competition, even if they are very talented, is about as believable as a self-trained, gifted athlete from a remote place winning the Olympics. I’m not saying it’s “impossible” — it’s possible, probably, to make a drink that could oust Pepsi and Coca-Cola or a search engine that supersedes Google …

Of course, erudition helpfully suggests examples of “people from the outside.” In 1912, the president of Princeton became governor of New Jersey for two years and then president of the United States. In 1940, a businessman without any kind of political experience passed the elite of the GOP (he lost in the main election.) In 1952, the disgruntled Republican minority brought to the party a general who defeated Nazi troops. In 1960, a young Catholic shoved himself down the throat of his own party’s establishment, to which he was almost as alien as Republicans. In 1976, a man with two years of experience as a governor in a state far away from the center of events beat all the insiders. For the American political system, “people from the outside” are, in fact, a part of the structure. But not to the same degree from the outside!

For those who aren’t following Trump, he is — in his own words, confirmed by a small amount of real data — a billionaire/developer (that he is a developer, that’s for certain) and a successful host of a famous TV show. His political views are rather characteristic of Democrats — really, virtually all his positions are a challenge to Republican orthodoxy — with elements of extremism. His campaign proposals — to build a wall at the Mexican border, to evict 11 million illegal immigrants, to murder the families of terrorists, to deny Muslims entry into the U.S. — are all accompanied by words that are never said on the American political stage. He contradicts himself, easily denying what was said the day before, devising new versions on the run and … constantly winning over voters who say that they are “voting for a politician who tells it like it is.”

Now then, everyone is sure that the Republican candidacy is already guaranteed to Trump, but I, rather, will not rush to the coronation. Yes, I know that in the history of American elections no one has ever lost the race for the nomination after such a number of victories in the primaries — primaries began playing the deciding role about 50 years ago. Yes, all polls show a large advantage in the remaining states. And yet, in a way, the election campaign has only just started. It was just last week when Rubio, and then Cruz, switched to the same speech as Trump. Only last week they began spending serious money (tens of millions) on negative ad campaigns – the possibilities for this with Trump’s history and speech are plenty. Only yesterday it became clear just how unwilling Republican leaders are to support Trump. There is little they can do to stop him from being nominated, but without them he won’t win the election in the fall.

Up to last week, the remaining candidates were spending tens of millions competing against one another. Each of them has been thinking that if he remains alone against Trump he will win — Trump does not get 50 percent of voters. It’s a good exercise in game theory: “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” for newcomers to strategic analysis, a survival game for advanced audiences. And yes, they are really “killing” each other in competition for the title of “sole anti-Trump.” Of course, money and negative ads are not everything, and perhaps they will amount to nothing — see Bush, John Ellis — still, it will be interesting to see what happens to Trump’s ratings after two weeks of daily anti-advertising. If on March 15 Ohio votes for Kasich, and Florida for Rubio, then maybe Trump will not have enough votes at the Republican National Convention. What will happen at the convention if not one candidate has half the votes, no one knows. The last time was in 1976, and properly in 1940.

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