In the weeks following Donald Trump’s decisive victory in Indiana, effectively clinching the Republican nomination for president, general election polls indicate he is rapidly closing the gap with Hillary Clinton, his likely opponent in the fall. Trump’s numbers have improved since his opponents dropped out and Republicans began to unite behind their nominee. The single largest factor contributing to their unification: Hillary Clinton.
In contrast, it looks like Clinton is unlikely to consolidate Democratic support any time soon with Bernie Sanders refusing to accept the will of voters who have overwhelmingly chosen her. His argument for pushing on is a long-shot belief that he will win the final 6 primaries – by greater margins than the 49 that preceded them – to overcome his large deficit in popular votes and pledged delegates. If that doesn’t close the gap, as seems likely, then his justification for receiving the nomination despite losing the popular vote is that these final wins are indicative of a larger shift in mood; therefore, all the states he lost before shouldn’t really count.
Sanders furthers his argument by pointing to general election polls that indicate he does better against Trump than Clinton does, and demands with no sense of irony that superdelegates, who he has spent 6 months excoriating as the corrupt machinations of the DNC, give polls more consideration than the will of the voters in 55 primaries. It’s worth noting that general election polls conducted six months in advance are not historically predictive, and only offer a glimpse into what might happen if the election were held today – not after the Republican smear machine has had its way with a Democratic Socialist whose platform promises would raise taxes $15 trillion and add $18 trillion to the debt over 10 years.
If current trends continue, Clinton will clinch her lead in popular votes and pledged delegates after New Jersey and California vote on June 7, and with her overwhelming lead in superdelegates, she will secure the minimum number required to secure the nomination well before the convention in late July. However, Sanders remains undeterred, insisting he will continue courting superdelegates through the convention even if he loses the popular vote.
It’s not just his refusal to concede a nomination he is positioned to lose fair and square that is preventing Clinton from consolidating party support. Sanders continues to stir up consternation by insisting the DNC has rigged the nomination process against him and that Clinton, by extension, is an illegitimate candidate.
This false perception dovetails directly into a narrative that allows two men (Trump and Sanders) with less experience to claim Clinton isn’t qualified, which implies she has somehow lied and cheated her way through an exceptional career as an attorney, senator, secretary of state, and First Lady. This belief manifests itself in places like Nevada, where Sanders supporters, angry about the allocation of two delegates, levied death threats against the chairwoman of the state’s Democratic Party.
Despite reporting by PolitFact that the delegates were allocated in accordance with established rules provided to the campaigns weeks in advance, Sanders defended the behavior of his supporters in a defiant statement as the frustrated reactions of voters to a system that “used its power to prevent a fair and transparent process”, and which is ignoring the will of the people; i.e. his supporters.
Fivethirtyeight recently performed a regression analysis using demographic patterns of previous contests to predict what would happen if all primary elections were open, as Sanders favors, and found that Clinton would be winning by an even larger margin. His problem isn’t that the system is rigged against him – it’s that he has failed to expand his appeal beyond mostly young, white men.
At the same time, Clinton’s likability problems long preceded this primary contest. They continue to worsen with a recent report from the State Department on her use of a private email server. The findings have largely been received as further evidence of her compulsion for secrecy and lend evidence to the perception that she is guilty of hiding something. She is the only former secretary of state who declined an interview with the Office of the Inspector General on her use of email. The report also found she did not comply with State Department policies by failing to seek permission for a private server.
Although it appears unlikely the FBI will be handing down any indictments, it confirms the larger public narrative that Clinton is untrustworthy, and her opponents are using it against her to great effect. After 25 years of false accusations and predictably cautious and evasive responses on her part, “Crooked Hillary” writes itself as a campaign slogan, and it is the single most effective tool Trump has to wield against her in the general election.
Many Sanders supporters, angry and duped into believing the nomination has been stolen from them through a corrupt DNC that can’t wait to “anoint” Clinton, have promised they will never vote for her, and are looking at Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, as an alternative. This is terrifying for those of us who remember the 2000 Election when 537 votes in Florida were enough to swing the presidency to George W. Bush even though Al Gore won the popular vote. Many Nader supporters would come to regret their protest votes.
To be clear, this isn’t a prediction that Trump will prevail in November. Democrats go into the general election with many key advantages: the electoral map favors them at the outset, they do better with women and minorities; they have a popular surrogate in President Obama along with a legacy worth defending, and despite Clinton’s likeability problems, Trump's are actually worse. Furthermore, Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson, could further chip away at Trump’s support.
However, an energized Republican electorate should not be underestimated against an opponent in the midst of an identity crisis. Donald Trump was supposed to be the divisive character whose rise would lead to the implosion of the existing Republican coalition, but it’s looking more like the Sanders movement could fracture Democrats for years to come. Short of a Clinton/Sanders presidential ticket, it’s difficult to see how Democrats unify behind their nominee. The question is to what degree this prolonged primary process will impact the outcome of the presidential election, and whether it ends up costing Democrats a contest they should have won.