Deep South gives Santorum hope

Rick Santorum’s victories in Alabama and Mississippi might spell the end for Newt Gingrich.

Mitt Romney didn't stay in the Deep South after the results of Tuesday's primary vote came in. Perhaps it was because Alabama and Mississippi were his "away game", as he said. Or maybe it's because, even if he lost, he'd still be ahead of the others in number of delegates.

Indeed, he expected to run third, behind Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, and even so, he'd gain a third of the delegates, give or take. That's enough, as he said, to inch closer to 1,144 needed to win.

Indeed, events unfolded pretty much like that. Santorum bested the field in both states. In Alabama, with 98 per cent of the vote counted, the former US senator from Pennsylvania had 34.5 per cent of ballots compared to Gingrich's 29.3 and Romney's 29.

The race was much closer in Mississippi, where for much of the evening, it was a statistical dead heat, with Santorum taking only a slight lead. But around 11pm EST, the TV networks projected Santorum as the winner. He took 32.9 per cent of the votes while Gingrich took 31.3 and Romney 30.3.

"We did it again," Santorum told supporters.

True grit

The media narrative in the run-up to Tuesday was by now familiar. Can Romney win the conservative stronghold of the Deep South where he must woo evangelical Christians and white, working-class voters? The answer is going to be no for most political observers. He is a rejected suitor. Yet again.

But as I say, that may not matter. Though he didn't do himself any favours talking about eating grits and saying "ya'll," he did come in to Tuesday's primaries with more delegates than Santorum, Gingrich and Ron Paul combined. Leaving with a third of the delegates (both states are proportional, not winner-takes-all) gets him just a little bit closer to the "magic number", as Romney put it.

What about the general election? If he struggles in the Land of Dixie, can Romney beat President Barack Obama? Even if, as some have said, a Romney nomination means conservatives stay home in November, there is no way Obama will take Alabama or Mississippi (or most likely any of the states in the American South). According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, more than half (52 per cent) of voters in Mississippi erroneously believe that Obama is a Muslim.

Meanwhile, Santorum and Gingrich have been making themselves completely unelectable by competing for the title of Mr Most Conservative. Both have pandered to evangelicals by railing against "anti-Christian bigotry" and the like. Gingrich used similar dog-whistle rhetoric as we saw in South Carolina – that Obama favours infanticide and that the US genuflects to the United Nations. He even promised to bring gasoline down to $2.50 a gallon with more domestic drilling.

Keep things in proportion

This might be the end for Gingrich. He's said he will carry on, but his main backer, Shelton Adelson, a billionaire casino magnate, has already hinted that he's as likely to put money in Romney's super-PAC as he is into Gingrich's. Without Adelson's support (for Gingrich, he's written cheques of roughly $10m), Gingrich would have quit long ago. But now, with only South Carolina and Georgia in his pockets and an ascendent Santorum, there's little reason to keep pushing, unless you count the practical get-out-the-vote value of making this nomination process appear to be exciting. Politics is sleight of hand, after all.

As for Santorum, if the rules didn't allot delegates proportionally, his wins on Tuesday would be more significant. As it is, he would have to crush Romney by wide margins in big states like such as New York and Illinois to make up ground, but that's unlikely, given Romney's lead and the amount of money flowing into his super-PAC, which has the luxury of attacking Santorum every chance it gets.

The best Santorum can do is to keep pushing ahead and making the case for a run in 2016 or 2020.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in English at Yale University.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

Getty
Show Hide image

Bernie Sanders is America’s most popular politician – and he’s coming after Donald Trump

Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision. As of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020.

“I like Bernie Sanders,” my four-year-old niece in Texas said to me last month. “Why isn’t he president?” More than six months on from the defeat of Hillary Clinton, it’s a question that countless frustrated progressives across the United States continue to ask aloud.

Remember that the election of Donald Trump was not the only political earthquake to shake the US establishment last year. A 74-year-old, self-declared socialist and independent senator from the tiny state of Vermont, in a crumpled suit and with a shock of Einsteinian white hair, came close to vanquishing the Clinton machine and winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders began the campaign as the rank outsider, mocked by the former Obama strategist David Axelrod as the candidate with whom Democratic voters might “flirt” and have a “fling” before settling down with Clinton. By the end of the campaign he had won 13 million votes and 23 states, and raised more than $200m.

In this dystopian age of Trump, it is remarkable that Sanders is now by far the most popular politician in the US – and this in a country where “socialist” has long been a dirty word. Increasing numbers of Americans seem nevertheless to “feel the Bern”. As such, Sanders supporters cannot help but ask the big counterfactual question of our time: would Trump be the president today if he had faced Bernie rather than Hillary in the election? Throughout the campaign, polls showed him crushing Trump in a head-to-head match-up. In a poll on the eve of the election, Sanders trumped Trump by 12 percentage points.

Democratic voters were told repeatedly that Clinton was more “electable” – but had they opted for Sanders as their candidate, there would have been none of the backlash over her emails, Benghazi, Bill, her Iraq War vote, or her Goldman Sachs speeches. So did the Democrats, in effect, gift the presidency to the Republican Party by picking the divisive and establishment-friendly Clinton over Sanders the economic populist?

I can’t prove it but I suspect that Sanders would have beaten Trump – although, to be fair to the much-maligned Clinton, she, too, beat Trump by nearly three million votes. Also, one-on-one polls showing Sanders ahead of Trump in a hypothetical match-up fail to tell us how the independent senator’s support would have held up against a barrage of vicious Republican attack ads during a general election campaign.

Then there is the matter of race. Clinton, despite deep support in African-American and Latino communities, was unable to mobilise Barack Obama’s multiracial coalition. Sanders would have done even worse than she did among minority voters. Trump voters, meanwhile, were motivated less by economic anxiety (as plenty on the left, including Sanders, wrongly claim) than – according to most academic studies, opinion polls and the latest data from the American National Election Studies – by racial resentment and an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus. Sanders, who at a recent rally in Boston defended Trump voters from accusations of bigotry and racism, would probably have struggled as much as Clinton did to respond to this “whitelash”.

Nevertheless, Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision and I would argue that, as of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020. His support for greater Wall Street regulation, debt-free college tuition, universal health care and a higher minimum wage is not only morally correct and economically sound but also hugely popular with voters across the political spectrum.

The Democrats have a mountain to climb. They have to find a way to enthuse their diverse, demoralised base while winning back white voters who are concerned much more by issues of race and identity than by jobs or wages. A recent poll found that the party had lower approval ratings than both Trump and the Republicans as a whole.

Yet press reports suggest that at least 22 Democrats are thinking about running for president in 2020. This is madness. Few are serious contenders – thanks to the dominance of the Clinton machine in recent years, the party doesn’t have a deep bench. There is no new generation of rising stars.

The only two people who could plausibly prevent Sanders from winning the nomination next time round are the former vice-president Joe Biden and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. The good news is that all three of these Democratic contenders are, to varying degrees, economic populists, willing to stand up passionately for “the little guy”. The bad news is that the Democratic base may fantasise about a young, dynamic Justin Trudeau or Emman­uel Macron of their own but, come the 2020 election, Sanders will be 79, Biden 77 and Warren 71. (Then again, they’ll be up against a sitting Republican president who will be 74, behaves as if he has dementia and refuses to release his medical records.)

Bizarrely, that election campaign has already begun. On 1 May, Trump released his first official campaign ad for re-election, 1,282 days before the next presidential vote. Biden visited New Hampshire last month to give a speech, while Warren is on a national tour to promote her new bestselling book, This Fight Is Our Fight.

Sanders, however – riding high in the polls, and with his vast database of contacts from the 2016 race as well as a clear, popular and long-standing critique of a US political and economic system “rigged” in favour of “the billionaire class” – is the man to beat. And rightly so. Sanders understands that the Democrats have to change, and change fast. “There are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo,” he said in March. “They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

0800 7318496