A Day for Frontrunners to Forget (Except UConn)

Except for the UConn women’s basketball team, it was a bad day for frontrunners as Donald Trump’s march to the GOP nomination got trickier and the cloud grew grimmer over Hillary Clinton’s candidacy as the Democratic nominee.

Except for the UConn women’s basketball team, it was a bad day for frontrunners as Donald Trump’s march to the GOP nomination got trickier and the cloud grew grimmer over Hillary Clinton’s candidacy as the Democratic nominee.

The only frontrunner to win Tuesday was the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, which captured its historic fourth straight national championship. Meanwhile, the Republican and Democratic presidential frontrunners lost in Wisconsin, and not by buzzer beaters.

Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders each racked up more than 50 percent of the vote in the Wisconsin Republican and Democratic primaries, respectively. Their wins on Tuesday mean more intrigue in the nominating process, which already has had more twists and turns than whodunits.

The Cruz victory could be the turning point for the “stop Trump” movement. The delegates Cruz won in Wisconsin make it that much harder for Donald Trump to accumulate the required delegates to capture the GOP nomination before the national convention in Cleveland this summer.

The Sanders victory – his sixth straight triumph over frontrunner Hillary Clinton – may not derail the Clinton locomotive to the nomination, but it raises questions about how high her campaign can fly in the fall general election, especially if the young voters activated by Sanders skip voting.

The storylines in the two parties are comically different. The GOP presidential primary has careened from reality show to peep show. The Democratic primary has resembled a coronation disrupted by a grumpy janitor with an agenda.

However, in many ways the nomination process in both parties is eerily similar. “Outsiders” such as Trump, Cruz and Sanders have drawn more votes than anyone would have predicted before the Iowa caucuses in January. Yet, the unpredictability of the outsiders has added an element of suspense that has largely been absent in recent presidential primaries. 

Cruz may block Trump’s march to the nomination, but he may not be the beneficiary of his success. There is rampant talk of a white knight – AKA Speaker Paul Ryan – riding into a contested convention and leaving with the prize in his saddlebag. Even the conservatives who are bent on denying Trump the nomination don’t have much faith in Cruz as a viable national candidate. Lindsey Graham endorsed Cruz, after saying "if you killed Cruz on the floor of the Senate and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”

Sanders’ insurgency has a different effect on Clinton. His outsider campaign emphasizes her insider connections. His plainspoken criticisms of Wall Street, big business and drug companies has underlined her cozy relationships. His bluntness contrasts sharply with her finesse.

Sanders' at times wobbly command of details, as reflected in his interview with the New York Daily News, gives some of his supporters pause. Even though the policies Sanders advocates seem unachievable to most observers, he still comes across as more honest than Clinton. In fact, exit polling shows Clinton failing the honesty test for a hefty chunk of Democratic voters.

Despite the mathematical improbability of Sanders winning enough delegates to elbow aside Clinton at the convention, his string of victories poses more than an inconvenience for the Clinton camp. Sanders only netted a 10-delegate gain from his win in Wisconsin, but that isn’t the real significance of his victory – or victories to come in other states. Democrats have to wonder whether Clinton is too bruised to win in November.

The way the races are shaping up in both parties, Oregonians may be treated to an actual primary contest in May. Sanders has set up a campaign office in Portland and others are likely to follow. We may actually see the candidates and shake their hand while eating an ice cream cone instead of catching a glimpse as they limo in from the airport to a closed-door fundraiser.  

All this means the craziness of the 2016 campaign season will continue into the foreseeable future. There will be more Trump tweets and perhaps even more positions he adopts on the abortion issue. Cruz will step up his crusade against Trump, even as his pessimistic supporters push a “Lose with Cruz” meme. Clinton will have to keep answering questions about a slow-motion FBI investigation into her private email server while secretary of state. Sanders will have to keep explaining how he will turn America into Norway with Medicare and free college tuition for all.

It is a rollercoaster ride that just won’t stop.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.