Hillary Clinton won Super Tuesday decisively.
She decimated her rival Sen. Bernie Sanders in the South and managed to eke out a victory in Massachusetts, an especially white and liberal state in which she was considered particularly vulnerable to her populist rival. At the end of the night, she triumphed in seven out of 11 states holding Democratic nominating contests on Tuesday, bringing her lead over Sanders in the pledged delegate count to 543 to 349, according to the latest figures from RealClearPolitics.
For some political analysts, Clinton's strong performance on Tuesday made it clearer than ever that she has this in the bag. Even as he becomes more well-known, Sanders is not making progress among black voters, who make up a crucial swath of the Democratic electorate. Clinton also performed extremely well among Latino voters in Texas. She has built the kind of edge that could snowball in upcoming primaries.
But looked at through the lens of the general election, Super Tuesday tells a slightly different story. As Salon's Ben Norton noted, among five states that Democrats won in 2008 and 2012 — Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Colorado and Virginia — Sanders beat Clinton in three of them. The Clinton campaign would do well to take note of that breakdown, not because of what it means for winning the nomination, but because of what it means for winning the White House.
Why it matters: As Clinton marches toward clinching the Democratic nomination — which is increasingly likely, but not guaranteed — the takeaway for political analysts shouldn't just be the amount of delegates she wins, but also where she wins them. Should she secure the nomination, they'll provide important clues about her priorities and challenges come November.
Clinton's dominance in the South is real and underscores at least one important thing about her candidacy: She has the overwhelming trust and support of black voters. But as far as the general election concerned, the South isn't in play for Democrats. With the exception of Florida and Virginia, both of which are swing states, the GOP has a lock on the South. In 2008, Obama managed to pull off a victory in North Carolina, but the rest of the South has remained faithful to the Republican nominee in the past two presidential election cycles. For the foreseeable future, most of the Southern states that Clinton won on Tuesday — like Alabama and Tennessee — will not be part of any Democrat's path to the White House.
When they compete in territory vital to succeeding in the general election, there's a very tight competition going on.
States like Colorado and Minnesota are states that Democrats need to carry in the general election. Sanders not only won them, but won them handily — according to the latest results, he beat Clinton by nearly 20 points in Colorado and by about 24 in Minnesota. His victories there are part of a broader pattern of him either winning or just barely losing states outside the South to Clinton. In other words, when Sanders and Clinton compete in territory that's vital to succeeding in the general election, there's a very tight competition going on.
Now, it's worth bearing in mind that the primary electorate and the general electorate are very different. Primary voters tend to lean toward the more extreme views of their party, providing only partial insight into how voters will act in a general election setting.
That being said, attracting the kinds of voters likely to show up at primaries — people who feel more inspired to be civically engaged — are essential to driving the level of voter turnout needed to win a general election. Winning elections isn't only about being a desirable candidate, but also being a candidate so desirable that you can motivate people to get to the voting booth for you, or better yet, also work on convincing others to do so.
If Sanders loses the nomination, it won't render his supporters irrelevant. Clinton and her advisers will have to figure out how to ensure that his followers won't be so demoralized that they won't turn out to vote in November. And the most straightforward way to do that is be more like Sanders: Adopt more of his policies, appropriate his populist affect and work harder than ever to convince voters that she's willing to take on powerful special interests.
Clinton is different enough from Sanders ideologically that her attempt to woo his supporters may just end up reinforcing a concern that already exists among some of the Democratic electorate — that she's willing to change her values and persona however she needs to in order to win. And that will be doubly difficult as the general election will also bring new pressure to appear more moderate to sway centrist voters in swing states.
Such is the impossible task of being an American president: attempting to appeal to millions of people with often diametrically opposing views, all while desperately trying to convince them all that you're an honest person.