The caucus overfloweth.

Photographer: Leonid Bershidsky/Bloomberg

Super Tuesday Didn't Stop Sanders's True Believers

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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East High School in Denver, Colorado, home to 14 precincts for the Democratic caucuses, was a mob scene on Tuesday night. It was hard to judge the turnout, but one of the organizers told me there were about 5,000 people there, and I believed him: Rooms designated for caucusing were overflowing, and several precincts gave up and held their votes in the stairwell or outside the building.

This shows how special this election is -- and how obsolete the U.S. two-party system has become. Throughout the Super Tuesday states, vote organizers reported record or near-record turnouts fueled by several campaigns that are really revolutions, or counter-revolutions, in the making. The people who support them aren’t giving up easily. If Super Tuesday was supposed to be about winnowing, it’s not happening just yet.

By the numbers, Hillary Clinton did well enough to start concentrating on the general election, and Donald Trump did well enough for Clinton to start strategizing about beating him. That, however, would be too simplistic a story. 

At East High, the enormous crowd was made up mostly of first-time caucus-goers, as demonstrated by a show of hands in the school’s parking lot before the chaos was organized haphazardly into precincts. I watched one precinct after another vote overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders, his supporters cheering loudly when the counts were announced. Sanders was winning in Colorado at the time of this writing. He also carried his home state of Vermont, plus Oklahoma and probably Minnesota, and he was almost tied with Clinton in Massachusetts. There’s no reason for him to drop out of the race. 

Clinton has ended up with many more delegates, and the people I talked to at East High said somewhat reluctantly that they would probably back Clinton in the general election if Sanders is not on the ballot. But it’s clear that this demographically and ideologically distinct group of people is not going to melt into the Democratic Party as we knew it. These people are going to be disappointed if Clinton settles for minimal change and doesn’t push any of the ambitious socialist plans that Sanders has espoused. In four years’ time, Sanders probably won’t be back as a candidate, but his people will be back as voters, and Clinton needs to think about engaging them before they turn into more active opponents. 

On the Republican side, there’s no need for anyone, except perhaps Ben Carson, to drop out. Marco Rubio recorded his first win, in Minnesota, though he wasn’t expected to carry other states. There was talk -- backed up by some polling data -- of Ted Cruz losing narrowly or tying Trump in his home state of Texas, but Cruz coasted to victory there, and also claimed Oklahoma, where a Trump win had been predicted. John Kasich ended up almost even with Trump in Vermont, and he hasn’t scored any victories, but he’s not leaving the race at least until his home state of Ohio votes on March 15. 

The reason every candidate, Republican and Democratic, still has something to look forward to is that the six people still seriously in the race (I’m not counting Carson) all represent distinct platforms that cannot really be squeezed into two parties. The rules push them toward consolidation, but they are too far apart ideologically and their voter bases are too distinct. 

This is a centrifugal election. The elemental democratic forces at work in it defy the pull toward the selection of clear leaders. To use the U.S. topology (which might be misleading to Europeans because the entire American political spectrum is far to the right of what they’re used to), Clinton’s center-left party is distinct from Sanders’s far-left one. Trump’s nativist-populist political force has little in common with Cruz’s ultraconservative Christian one, Rubio’s hard-right secular party or Kasich’s center-right one.

The emerging multi-party reality is what’s driving the record turnouts in almost every state this year. The people who are taking part in this early stage of the political process for the first time in their lives aren’t excited about the candidates themselves (Trump supporters, focused on his flamboyant personality, are an exception). They are excited about the ideas that set the candidates apart.

The Republican cage fight, with insults flying and debates turning into shouting matches, overshadows the real-life divisions in the grassroots party. The Democrats, who have avoided the mud-slinging, will reluctantly close ranks around Clinton, but their differences are pronounced as well.

I have heard many times from the smartest people I’ve talked to while covering the primaries that the two-party system is here to stay. Years of observing the process shaped in the last two centuries create a bias toward the status quo. Yet the growing number of voters who do not align with the major parties is nothing to sneeze at. It will lead to the emergence of more nationally competitive parties than two and to a greater number of viable candidates on the presidential ballot. It will take courage to begin dismantling the system, but it already appears to be imploding. The fact that the leading candidates are also the two with the highest negative ratings -- Clinton and Trump -- is just one sign of this: When a system no longer reflects the democratic impulses it’s supposed to amplify, the outcome can only be suboptimal.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net