The 25 winners and losers of the 2016 primaries

Greg Nash

One of the most dramatic primary seasons of all time came to an end on Tuesday, after Democrats in the District of Columbia went to the polls.

{mosads}Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have emerged as the presumptive nominees of the two major parties. But it’s been a long and winding road to get to this point. Whose star has risen, and whose luster has dimmed?




Businessman Donald Trump

Trump’s achievement in becoming the GOP nominee will be talked and written about for years to come, whatever happens in the general election. The billionaire businessman has transformed the political landscape in the year since he launched his presidential campaign, confounding expectations and delivering an astonishing defeat to the Republican establishment forces arrayed against him. Love him or hate him — and there are plenty of people in both camps — he is the most compelling figure of this election cycle.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Clinton’s path to the Democratic nomination was much rockier than she would have hoped. But she got there in the end, pushing aside the surprisingly strong challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). In the process, she put to rest many of the ghosts from her 2008 primary defeat at the hands of Barack Obama. There are still question marks over Clinton’s abilities as a campaigner, particularly when it comes to inspiring younger voters, but right now she is the clear favorite to win the White House in November.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Sure, the 74-year-old democratic socialist lost. Unless lightning strikes, he won’t win the Democratic nomination or the White House.

Yet his stature has been vastly enhanced. Few people believed that Sanders was a serious challenger to Clinton at the outset of his campaign. In the end, he won 23 primary contests and more than 12 million votes, invigorating progressives with his calls for a political revolution. Sanders, who has spent much of his career on the political margins, is now a major figure and is sure to play a starring role at next month’s Democratic National Convention.



Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

Cruz ultimately became the most serious challenger to Trump for the GOP nomination, cementing his status as the leading social conservative voice in the party. The manner in which Cruz left the race — “Our movement will continue,” he told supporters — left little doubt that he harbors presidential ambitions in future cycles. But Cruz lost heavily in the end, and Trump clearly got under his skin in the final days. The Texan hit out at Trump as “utterly amoral” and a “pathological liar,” but it was all to no avail.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson

Carson led polls of the Republican field for a moment last November. But his ratings tanked as questions about his foreign policy knowledge rose in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris. Carson was no longer a serious contender by the time the voting got underway, but his run raised his political profile significantly.



Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R)

The 2016 campaign turned into a succession of embarrassments and indignities for the early front-runner. Tagged as “low energy” by Trump — a label that became a millstone around his neck — Bush slid in the polls and left the race after the third contest, in South Carolina. Bush and his allies spent almost $140 million to support his campaign, only for its most emblematic moment to be the former Florida governor forlornly telling an audience, “Please clap.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

The Kentucky senator entered the race having been hailed by Time magazine as “the most interesting man in politics” and with high hopes of expanding upon the libertarian base that had so passionately supported his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), during his presidential runs. But his bid went nowhere. Often confined to the edge of the stage in the early, multi-candidate debates, Paul simply never gained traction. He dropped out after the Iowa caucuses, where he drew less than 5 percent support.

Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker (R)

Many people fancied Walker’s chances as the 2016 GOP field was first forming. The governor of a large blue state who had won three elections in four years, Walker placed second in The Hill’s rankings of the GOP field in July 2015. On paper, he was very strong. In practice, not so much. Walker’s poll ratings crumbled after two mediocre debate performances. By late September, it was all over.




President Obama


The president had to play a careful hand in the 2016 primary race as his former secretary of State battled with a left-wing candidate who enthused the same Democratic cohort that had so strongly backed Obama during his own 2008 bid.

The president was spared one element that would have added greatly to the awkwardness: Vice President Biden backed away from the race.

Obama sought to remain neutral, even if some of his remarks were interpreted as favoring Clinton’s pragmatism over Sanders’s more sweeping idealism. “Trying to find common ground doesn’t make me less of a Democrat or less of a progressive,” he said in a February speech. “It means I’m trying to get stuff done.”

As the process played out, Obama saw his approval rating steadily climb. By the time he finally did endorse Clinton, last week, it was an authoritative move — the party’s leader calling a de facto end to the primary process.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Warren’s position as the leading hero of the liberal grass roots at one point looked under threat when she declined to run for the presidency and Sanders’s campaign gained unexpected altitude. But in recent months, her attacks on Trump have delighted Democrats. Speculation is rife that Clinton could name Warren as her running mate. Clinton feigned shock when asked about the Massachusetts senator last week. Whether she is named as the vice presidential choice or not, Warren is a force to be reckoned with.



Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee

The 2016 GOP primary dealt Priebus a rough hand. The RNC chairman had been the driving force behind a post-2012 election “autopsy” report that called for Republicans to be more sensitive to Hispanics and other minorities. The best-known policy proposal of the presumptive 2016 nominee is to build a wall on the southern border. Priebus has avoided the intense criticism that rained down upon the head of his Democratic counterpart, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, but he can hardly be thrilled about how things have turned out.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)

The most senior Republican officeholder in the nation has drawn a sharper distinction between himself and Trump than have most of his Capitol Hill colleagues. The Speaker condemned Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States in December. He told CNN in early May that he was “just not ready” to endorse the businessman. He did endorse him a month later, only for Trump to promptly suggest that a judge in a case involving Trump University was unfair because of his Mexican heritage. Ryan condemned the remarks as racist. It’s been a fraught season for Ryan, but if Trump crashes and burns in November, the Speaker’s relative moderation could be the remedy to which the GOP turns.



Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee

The Florida congresswoman has drawn fury from Sanders supporters, who believe she has placed a thumb on the scales to help Clinton throughout the primary process. They cite the scheduling of debates at times when they were unlikely to garner large audiences as one of many examples. Wasserman Schultz’s role became so controversial that, by late May, The Hill revealed that Democratic senators were discussing whether or not to replace her before the party’s national convention in July.

2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney

Romney has been one of the most vigorous voices raised against Trump. In early March, when the campaign was still very competitive, Romney assailed the real estate mogul as a “phony” and a “fraud” who engaged in “absurd third-grade theatrics.” But the GOP electorate was in no mood to take its marching orders in 2016 from a pillar of the establishment such as Romney. As for Trump’s view? Romney is a loser who “walks like a penguin,” he told a rally in California in May. 

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R)

Palin endorsed Trump at a rally leading into the Iowa caucuses, which he lost. The bigger problem for Palin is just how far her star has fallen since her 2008 high point as the GOP vice presidential nominee. The idiosyncratic style of her endorsement speech — “No more pussyfootin’ around. … He is from the private sector, not a politician, can I get a hallelujah?” — was widely mocked. Palin received a noticeably chilly response stumping for Trump later in the primary process as well.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R)

Christie’s own bid for the GOP nomination never took off, though he did inflict politically fatal damage on Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in a debate just before the New Hampshire primary. It was Christie’s decision to endorse Trump in late February that shocked even some erstwhile supporters. During early primary campaigning, Christie had numbered Trump among “the carnival barkers of today.” Christie’s already low approval ratings in New Jersey fell further after the Trump endorsement.




Yes, Sanders came up short, but not before nudging Clinton to the left on issues from trade to the minimum wage. The 2016 primary also made clear that the centrism associated with Clinton’s husband, former President Clinton, has become indigestible to a large swath of the Democratic Party’s base. Progressives didn’t carry the day on this occasion but, given how heavily Sanders won over young voters, they are in the ascendant.


The social media platform has played a more central role in this election than ever before. Trump, an inveterate and often incendiary tweeter, is one reason. But Twitter is also becoming one more political battlefield. Last Thursday, when Trump blasted Obama’s endorsement of Clinton on Twitter, a rejoinder in kind came from Clinton’s account. Her “Delete your account” counterpunch had been retweeted 440,000 times by the following evening. 

The Libertarian Party

Libertarians have been an asterisk in past presidential elections, generally getting 1 percent or less of the votes cast. But the party is reveling in unusually favorable conditions this year. Trump and Clinton have the highest unfavorable ratings of any major-party nominees of recent times. Republicans who find Trump unpalatable could be especially drawn to a ticket headed by Gary Johnson, with Bill Weld as his running mate. Both are former members of the GOP who served as two-term governors of sizable states: New Mexico and Massachusetts, respectively.

The South Carolina primary


The Palmetto State contest was crucial in both party battles. Among Democrats, it gave Clinton her first resounding win. It also provided the earliest unambiguous evidence of the enormous advantage she enjoyed over Sanders among African-Americans. For Republicans, Trump’s victory established him as the clear front-runner. It also made clear another important lesson: His foes’ hopes that he would come unstuck in states with large evangelical populations were misplaced.



Black Lives Matter


The loose alliance of black civil rights activists claimed headlines by disrupting some early Sanders rallies. Sanders subsequently added a “racial justice” section to his website and made more frequent mention of racial issues in his speeches. Clinton, too, met with Black Lives Matter activists. But it is unclear how successful the movement will be in translating its demands into political action. Meanwhile, the first major venture into electoral politics by an activist identified with the movement — DeRay Mckesson’s attempt to become mayor of Baltimore — ended in ignominious failure. He received less than 3 percent of the votes cast in the Democratic primary.



The Democratic and Republican establishments


The era when the establishment could prod voters into selecting the nominee of its choice is clearly and definitively over. Yes, Clinton became the Democratic standard-bearer — but she only clinched the nomination on the penultimate day of voting, facing a rival who had been derided as a fringe figure when his campaign began. The result on the GOP side speaks for itself.



The idea that big-money donors can determine the outcome of presidential nomination battles also took a serious beating. Exhibit A was Bush’s lavishly financed and spectacularly unsuccessful campaign. Among Democrats, Sanders repeatedly inveighed against the corrupting power of super-PACs — and his message resonated so loudly that an army of small-dollar contributors ensured he was at no meaningful financial disadvantage.


Sanders’s campaign undoubtedly inspired millions of idealistic Democrats. Among them, however — and particularly prominent on social media — was a faction of self-righteous, verbally aggressive and overwhelmingly male supporters. Allegations that the “Bernie Bros” engaged in sexist abuse of Clinton supporters and other critics drew a clear response from the candidate himself. “I have heard about it. It’s disgusting,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” in February.

The Iowa caucuses

Just how long Iowa will retain its elevated first-in-the-nation status is up for debate. The Democratic caucuses in the state were chaotic in many instances, and their credibility was further undermined by the use of coin-tosses to determine delegate allocations in some precincts. Iowa Republicans, meanwhile, gave their stamp of approval to a social conservative who failed to win the nomination for the third presidential cycle in a row: They sent Cruz down the same path that former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee trod in 2012 and 2008, respectively.

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Gary Johnson Hillary Clinton Marco Rubio Paul Ryan Rand Paul Ted Cruz
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