“Not To Be Used As A Navigational Device”
— legal disclaimer on cans of Chesapeake Beer, whose logo is a crude map of Chesapeake Bay

With both Democrats and Republicans heading towards the decisive New York primary on April 19, Tuesday week, anything resembling an orderly process is coming apart on both sides. Back in his hometown Donald Trump is spitting fire at the allegedly “rigged” party delegate process and threatening lawsuits. Meanwhile, back in one of her hometowns, Hillary Clinton went on a harsh attack, asking whether Bernie Sanders was qualified to call himself a Democrat; Bernie Sanders, back in his hometown, replied by asking whether Clinton had the judgement that qualified her to be president. And on it went.

The Republican side first. Fresh off his humbling loss in Wisconsin, where Ted Cruz beat him out by a handy dozen points, Trump held a big rally on Long Island, as close to a spiritual home as the Donald is likely to have. Long Island, the, er, long island to the south and east of Manhattan has Brooklyn and Queens at its western tip, and what stretches beyond is, er, Long Island. Once a series of seaside villages and homes of the well-heeled — Gatsby is set here — it subsequently became the sprawl of all sprawls. The original Levittown is here, the post-war suburb you could buy into for a coupla hundred down on a timber ‘burban home, as long as you were white. Into Long Island over decades emptied the succeeding generations of the millions who had crowded into New York before World War I: Italian-Americans, Greek-Americans, Polish-Americans become American-Americans, people with elongated Brooklyn accents and funny names. It is a stretch of vast vulgarity, strip malls and steakhouses, clanging jewellery, bad dye jobs and raucous cheap fabrics, and the women are even worse. It is Trump central. The Donald being back there is like a scene from The Boys From Brazil, millions of Trumpkins braying and hooting for the seed from which they’ve hatched.

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Trump had an easy target in Long Island: “Lyin’ Ted Cruz”, who had said, in early debates, that Donald Trump represented “New York values” — i.e., as Woody Allen once said, “Communist Jewish homosexual pornographers” — inimical to wholesome places like, uh, Iowa and South Carolina. Cruz had hoped that Trump would be out of the race by the time New York came around. He ain’t, and now Cruz has some explaining to do as Trump waxed long on the spirit of New York after 9/11. “When we rebuilt downtown after the firemen and police officers were killed, and we all worked together — those are New York values.” It’s the only time I’ve seen Trump be genuinely moving.

“Values in New York City are socially liberal, are pro-abortion, are pro-gay marriage, focus around money and the media,” Cruz replied, speaking at one of the few places in NYC that would have him, which was of course a Dominican Chinese restaurant. It was a lame comeback, and Cruz knows it. But he just has to get through this state, and onto a few others. He’s currently running third in New York, at about 15%, with John Kasich on 21%, and Trump on 52%-54%.

Following the Long Island rally, Trump disappeared for four days and for good reason. Outside of the Big Apple he was getting hammered. He’d already been humiliated in Louisiana, where Cruz’s team had got more delegates elected than he, even though Trump had won the state. Further disaster was looming in Colorado. Here some explanation is probably necessary.

Both parties have in effect a dual system running through the primaries. The primary election/caucus is a vote of preference for candidates by a whole state. The vote, in most states, tells the state’s delegates to the national convention how they must vote on the first (and sometimes second or third) ballot. But that process doesn’t elect the delegates. It elects local delegates to the state convention, which is where the national convention delegates are elected. To get your delegates elected to the national convention — those who’ll vote for you on a second ballot, or on a first ballot if the winner of the primary discontinued their candidacy — demands a vast and extensive operation, running for years at a time. Ideally you need to know and control local delegate elections to get your people up. That’s more or less impossible. So what’s crucial is to get a good slate of delegate candidates up at the state convention — and then work that convention like a bastard, rounding up every vote you can with persuasion, promises, pork and blackmail (worst girl group ever). This is a secret art for people who want long-term control of a whole party, not just a nomination, and so Cruz’s campaign has been on it for years. When they gained a majority of pro-Cruz delegates in Louisiana, Trump started squawking about a rigged system and trying to make some anti-elitist mileage out of it. But Colorado was coming up on the weekend, and that was different.

Colorado is one of the few states that has gone back to a convention-only model (with a non-binding caucus); there is no Republican primary. Candidates win by getting their delegates up, who are bound only by their affiliation, not by a statewide vote. It’s how parties did it all the time before the primary system arose as a result of the populist movement in the 1890s. And in Colorado on the weekend, Trump was not only trounced but humiliated. Not only did Cruz take all 34 of the state’s delegates, but Trump’s team issued an incorrect ballot card that steered convention goers to vote for Cruz candidates in some cases, and misspelt the names of his own candidates in others. It was hilariously incompetent, and Trump stayed off the Sunday news shows, coming out swinging and saying he wuz rubbed, etc, etc.

The problem for Trump is that too much of this sounds like whining, not anti-elitism. Trump’s campaign has been all about winning; when he stops winning, it stops working. He puffs his supporters up with a cheap sense of glory, obtained by not asking yourself any questions. When he doesn’t win, his key line — “we don’t win anymore!” — takes on a rather different meaning.

Worse was to come. He had finally released his plan to make Mexico pay for “the wall” — by threatening to stop remittances from migrant workers back to Mexico — and it was immediately ridiculed as absurd. “The notion that we’re going to track every Western Union bit of money that’s being sent to Mexico, good luck with that,” President Barack Obama said. Not much more was heard of the plan. By Monday, it was clear that Ivanka and Eric Trump, the Donald’s gormless adult children, heavily involved in the campaign, had forgotten to register to vote in the New York primary. At the same time it was revealed that his “millions” of dollars in charity amounted to … zero in actual dollars. Instead it was free golf rounds at his resorts,

The absence of an apparatus in the states whose state conventions were coming up was becoming obvious, promising weeks of disappointing results. To tackle these problems, the campaign had hired Paul Manafort, a five-decades veteran of convention and delegate strategy, to run the rest of the campaign. He appeared on the Sunday shows, with a ludicrous dye-job as Long Island as a pizza joint named Rocco’s, to put a positive spin on things. “[Cruz is using] the tactics, Gestapo tactics, the scorched-earth tactics,” he opined, from a campaign whose candidate had promised to pay the legal fees of supporters who beat up protesters. An associate of Trump’s campaign, a veteran mover-and-shaker named Roger Stone, said in an interview: “We will disclose the hotels and the room numbers of those delegates who are directly involved in the steal” if they didn’t vote according to Trump’s definition of democracy — that anyone with an initial plurality should be guaranteed a majority. It’s pretty chilling stuff.

And it will work for Trump’s hardcore, but at some point it is going to do damage; not the thuggishness, but the thuggishness in combination with the incompetence. That presents back to Trump supporters an image that is too much like themselves to be of much comfort: seething with frustration but lacking the power to do anything about it. The Trump decline has been forecast wrongly many times before, but only because a powerful and audacious character was judged on the courageousness of the things he said — which only made him seem more powerful. Once he starts to look like the blowhard at the end of the tavern bar, wearing the camel hair coat he bought in 1988 at the time of his last big score, he ain’t so appealing anymore.

Trump will win New York, of course. He will also most likely win on April 26 in Pennsylvania (though that’s a complex “loophole” primary, which no one understands; Trump could well lose on the delegate count there too), and Rhode Island, which is Long Island with a state flag. Elsewhere, it could be tough. States like Indiana, West Virginia and then California and the west will be fought out as more bad news about delegates come in from other places. It’s now likely he will fall 50-100 delegates short for a 1237 majority. At that point, his failure to establish a delegate apparatus will blow the whole thing sky high.

If the Trump side of things looked like a bunch of goombahs trying to get rid of the bodies of husband-and-wife snitches in badly set cement, the brouhaha on the Democratic side was like a spat in the elections for a new viewer advisory panel of Vermont PBS. Sanders sat down to an interview with the pro-Clinton New York Daily News and didn’t acquit himself as well as he could. Asked how he would break up the big banks, the veteran lawmaker simply referred to the outline of the process — that he’d do it through Congress, or if Congress wouldn’t, through regulation provisions in the Dodd-Frank Act, which Obama hasn’t applied. What was needed was a more step-by-step explanation, but maybe, back in Brooklyn, Bernie had got his grouch on

This was at the same time as he and Hillary were exchanging barbs on who was “unqualified”; Clinton had opened that line up, and Sanders, to make it clear he wasn’t going to take no shit, had come back on it, asking how it was that someone who OKed the Iraq War could be thought of as (air quotes) “qualified”. It was a riposte about what the world “qualified” meant, and a sign that Sanders would go nuclear if he needed to. Hillary walked it back, saying of course Sanders would be a preferable president to Trump et al, and Bernie walked back his (not before he was assailed for “gaslighting” Hillary FFS). That was one thing, but the other exchange that got him into trouble was this:

Daily News: How do you take the subway these days?
Sanders: (grouchy, perplexed) Whaddaya mean?
Daily News: How do you travel on the subway?
Sanders: Same as always. You get a token and you go in.
Daily News: Wrong!

Subway tokens — little washers you bought that went into a turnstile — haven’t been used since 2003; they have been replaced with a MetroCard system, with a strip you slide through the card reading machine. The question was the venerable New York trip-up, reminiscent of the moment in 1996 when Bob Dole referred to the “Brooklyn Dodgers” (the baseball team had moved to Los Angeles in 1958), and lost whatever chance he might have had of a good showing in the election. Team Hillary jumped on this, with a ballyhooed subway trip which was, as with all things Hillary, a self-parodic clusterfuck from the go. Travelling two stops with six news crews following her, Hillary bought her MetroCard from the machine, went to the turnstile, swiped the card and … nothing happened. Which happens often. MetroCards only work if you push them through at an even fast pace, not slow, and not too jittery. The thing seems to be designed to catch out tourists, so they can be scorned by New Yorkers, as the queues pile up, which makes the tourists more jittery. This can go on for quite a while — in Hillary’s case she had to swipe five times before she got through, to crowd out an already crowded carriage to say “it’s such a convenient way to travel”. Compared to boring old door-to-door limos, sure. The routine earned a Saturday Night Live cold open sketch that was, in another New York tradition, lamer than reality.

Hillary will most likely win New York, because it’s a closed primary, pre-registered Democrats only, and too many of them would be loath to go with an independent. Though Bernie sounds like an episode of Seinfeld, he left a half-century ago and hasn’t been back much since. But Hillary has to beat him good for it to be a win — anything less than about 7% is no victory, though she’s currently running at about 55%-41%, and it’s still proportional. And she really needs a clean victory. On the way to it, Sanders won Wyoming, 56-44, for his seventh victory in a row, and eight out of the last nine. She’s got more possible losses coming up — Connecticut, Indiana and Delaware on Chesapeake Bay, and beyond — and she needs this fillip.

Were she to lose New York … well, anything is possible. She remains likely, but but but. None of this is to be used as a navigational device.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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