Trump's on fire, Bernie's in trouble: Why the post-New Hampshire primaries tell a tale of two candidates

Even after his resounding NH win, Sanders still faces an uphill battle to the nomination. And Trump? Not so much

Published February 10, 2016 10:49PM (EST)

Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Christopher Aluka Berry/Joshua Roberts/Photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Christopher Aluka Berry/Joshua Roberts/Photo montage by Salon)

Life is about to get considerably easier for Donald Trump and increasingly difficult for Bernie Sanders.

Sure, on the surface it's confounding to hear that Sanders' odds for the winning the nomination will literally worsen following an unprecedented and well-deserved victory in the first primary matchup against Hillary Clinton, defeating the former Secretary of State by more than 20 points. But that appears to be the case. We’ll get into the primary calendar and the polling math presently. Meanwhile, Trump's easy New Hampshire victory portends a lengthy slate of celebratory primary nights to come for the New York billionaire.

How can we be so sure of either outcome? Naturally, we can't be unequivocally sure, but the numbers according to Nate Silver and his eerily accurate predictive math show both a difficult February and March for Bernie and an increasingly winnable couple of months for Trump.

Let's start with Sanders.

It goes without saying that, apart from early pre-Labor Day polling, Sanders was always favored to win New Hampshire. Duh. It was less clear by what margin, but Sanders massively exceeded expectations by, at this reporting, besting his widest polling margins. New Hampshire was a glorious moment in time for the left, brought on by Sanders' candidacy and illustrated by the fact that his campaign has successfully managed to yank the Overton Window leftward. The Thursday MSNBC debate, moderated by Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd, along with the New Hampshire results will be remembered by political scientists as the beginning of a six-day high water mark for Sanders and, with it, increased popular support for the left flank of the party. Indeed, whenever Democratic presidential candidates argue over who's more progressive, it's very simply a win for liberalism. And Sanders deserves all the credit.

However, time isn't on Bernie's side. The Sanders campaign has fewer than ten days to cut into enough of the Clinton coalition before his campaign runs face-first into a log jam of primaries where Clinton is heavily favored to win. In other words, the biggest enemy of the Sanders campaign is the calendar itself.

On a long enough timeline, it's possible for Sanders to chip away enough Clinton voters and undecideds in order to carve out a path to the nomination. The conundrum is whether there's simply enough time for Sanders to achieve that goal. February 20 is the Nevada caucus, where Clinton is favored by 23 points. (The last poll in that state was conducted in December, so things could have changed. But it's hard to predict that they will without some solid numbers to back up it up.) Nevada is followed seven days later by South Carolina, where Clinton is up by 31 points. Then it's Super Tuesday three days later where Sanders might win a few of the 12 states, including Vermont and but not nearly enough to narrow Clinton's growing delegate total. Most of Texas' 252 delegates will likely be awarded to Clinton who defeated Barack Obama there in 2008. Super Tuesday is followed by primaries on March 5, 6, 9, 12 and 15 -- the latter of which includes Florida with its 246 delegates at stake. Three more election days follow Super Tuesday, rounding out the month.

With the existence of "internet time," anything's possible. Though modern precedent for such a turnaround doesn't really exist.

Take a look at FiveThirtyEight's polling forecast for several of the big ticket primaries, and it's really, really difficult to work out the math in Sanders's favor unless his campaign works hastily to secure the necessary support, both in terms of voters and party superdelegates, between now and the onslaught of primaries leaning significantly in Clinton's favor. Again, there's always a chance that events could continue to propel Sanders into a place where he could overtake Clinton state-by-state. But all things being equal, the window for this series of unforeseen waves of support to occur is rapidly closing. Likewise, there's really no way, come March, for any of the candidates from either party to dedicate quality time stumping in those states with the same vigor employed in Iowa and New Hampshire. Metaphorically speaking, Sanders' first two albums were hits perhaps because, like most first albums, a lifetime is spent composing the initial batch of songs; the subsequent albums too often tend to fall off dramatically in terms of quality. That could be the case here.

As far as Trump goes, the bewigged reality show celebrity shares similar advantages to Hillary Clinton as he emerges from New Hampshire and Iowa. Based on numbers alone, Trump appears to be on course to secure the nomination, perhaps even before one of the Democrats has done so. The sooner the Republican Party comes to terms with the reality of Presumptive Republican Nominee Trump, the sooner it'll be prepared for triage when the party buckles under the weight of an unmanageable mess of a nominee.

There are only two somewhat significant threats to Trump's dominance in the upcoming contests.

First, of course, there's Ted Cruz, who will likely win the Texas primary, but little else between now and the end of March, according to available polls. Much like Sanders, time is running out for Cruz -- but for a different set of reasons than Sanders. The longer Cruz is making news, the more people dislike him. Put another way: the longer Cruz is exposed to the light of day, the more voters will cringe at the mere sight of him -- even if they agree on the issues.

Secondly, don't count Jeb Bush out of contention. Jeb, as we all know, has a massive war-chest and could potentially wait for the rest of the field to drop out, reducing the contest to Trump, Cruz and Bush. Nomination by attrition. At the very least, it'd put Bush within striking distance should the party get cold feet about nominating either a Twitter troll from New York, with all of his so-called "New York values," or a scuzzy, unlikable ideologue from Texas. The odds are slim for either Cruz or especially Bush, but Trump is so undisciplined and unpredictable, anything can happen at any time. And Cruz, if not Bush, is ready to step up. Frankly, I'd wager that many observers from both parties would prefer it if Bush became the second-place contender. How twisted is that, by the way? Ted Cruz is so insufferably loathsome he makes a Bush seem like a more reasonable option.

Nevertheless, most of the intra-party bickering occurring at the moment will gratefully draw to a close sometime in the next 30 to 40 days or so. In the absence of a major news event, an irreparable gaffe or a significant illness, there's no other way to view outcome other than through the prism of the numbers and, in particular, Nate Silver's magical algorithm. This is, of course, great news if you're in either the Trump or Clinton camps, and not so great news for everyone else.

Jane Sanders: Bernie And Trump Share One Similarity, Many Differences

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aol_on Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elections 2016