Shortly after the polls closed Tuesday in Wisconsin, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was declared the victor in the Republican primary and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was called as the winner among Democrats. Minutes later, I got a text from my wife: “Bernie/Ted general election?”
My sweet spouse is as big a political junkie as I am, and I was intrigued that she came up with a provocative question that no one else has asked up to this point. A year ago, the conventional wisdom was that the Democrats would nominate Hillary Clinton for president, the GOP would nominate Jeb Bush and the general election would be a contest between two political dynasties. In recent months, the bet has been that Hillary would, instead, be facing off against Donald Trump, the billionaire reality TV star who has been the central protagonist of the Republican primary race. That still seems likely, but what if?
The vote in Wisconsin makes a remote “what if” scenario — an autumn battle between Sanders and Cruz — just a bit more plausible.
Trump’s significant loss in Wisconsin has many pundits predicting he will fall short of the 1,237 delegate majority needed to lock down the nomination. If that happens and the GOP national convention in Cleveland becomes a free-for-all fight over convention rules, Trump might be easily outsmarted by the party veterans who are convinced he would bring disaster on down-ballot Republican candidates in November. The establishment folks are no big fans of Cruz; however, having dumped Trump, they might be wary of totally overturning the primary results by shunning Cruz as well.
Cruz has a real path to the nomination. It may be narrow, but it is there. Sanders is much more of a long shot, but his campaign, like Trump’s, has been an unexpected phenomenon in this election cycle, so it would be presumptuous to predict he has no chance at all.
During CNN’s primary night coverage, one Sanders backer insisted Democrats should expect a contested convention of their own. Sanders has been on a roll, winning most of the primaries and caucuses in recent weeks. If he could pull off a surprise in New York or Pennsylvania, he would have powerful momentum going into the campaign finale in California on June 7. That is a big if, of course, but not an impossibility. Because Democrats award all their delegates proportionally, an increase in the share of votes going to Sanders in the remaining states could keep Clinton from reaching the goal of 2,383 delegates needed to win the nomination.
Unlike Trump, who horrifies leaders of his party, Clinton is the favorite of establishment Democrats, so, even if she arrives at the convention in Philadelphia at the end of July with a shortage of delegates, it would be shocking if they turned on her and gave the nomination to Sanders. On the other hand, if Sanders continues to do better in general election polls against a Republican candidate and — this is probably key — some unforeseen development comes along to damage Clinton’s already shaky favorability ratings, Sanders may look like the winning choice.
Speculation about politics is a great sport, and it has been especially fun in campaign 2016 with high numbers of voters in both parties so deeply engaged. The Bernie/Ted scenario is not likely, but, should it happen, America’s choice for president would be stark. On one side would be the most left-wing Democratic candidate ever. (The 1968 Democratic nominee, George McGovern, was the anti-war darling of the New Left, but he never claimed to be a socialist.) On the other side, Republicans would put forward their most right-wing candidate of all time. (Barry Goldwater, the 1964 nominee, was a conservative champion, but he was a libertarian who warned against religion intruding on government.)
Sanders vs. Trump would truly be a choice, not an echo.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times.