11 takeaways in the 2016 primary season

Posted at 6:57 AM, Jun 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-08 06:57:52-04

(CNN) — Hillary Clinton survived a grinding campaign against an unlikely opponent to clinch a historic victory.

Donald Trump broke every rule in politics and blew out his competition.

The wild 2016 primary season smashed expectations. Populism soared, the establishment took a beating and outsiders captivated the public.

Here are 11 takeaways:

1. Clinton makes history

For the first time, a major U.S. political party has chosen a woman as its presumptive nominee.

Clinton reached this milestone during her second presidential bid, eight years to the day after she conceded defeat to Barack Obama and thanked her supporters for helping her make “18 million cracks” in the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.”

She celebrated the historic significance of her primary victory during a speech Tuesday night — a night when she’d win four primaries including California — at Brooklyn’s Navy Yard. “Tonight’s victory is not about one person. It belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible,” she said.

And she immediately took on Trump. She hit the presumptive Republican nominee hard for his recent attacks on a judge with Mexican ancestry along with mocking a disabled reporter and calling “women pigs.”

“He wants to win by stoking fear and rubbing salt in wounds and reminding us daily just how great he is,” Clinton said.

Clinton’s self-created image as a “fighter” struck a chord. She assembled a coalition that valued her resiliency — dominated by older women, African-Americans and LGBT voters, all of whom have overcome their own challenges. They’ll form her base for the general election.

But Clinton has plenty of vulnerabilities as well. Throughout her grueling primary season, Clinton was dogged by controversy — with the House’s Benghazi investigation and the FBI’s look into her private email server sure to follow her into the fall campaign.

2. The year of Trump

The populist takeover of the Republican Party is complete.

In recent election cycles, the dominant theme on the right has been purity. Deviations from conservative orthodoxy on taxes, spending, bailouts, the debt ceiling, Obamacare or anything else met with severe punishment.

Trump threw all that out the window. He’s broken with the party on trade, taxes, entitlement reform, increasing the minimum wage, and more. And he’s only benefited from it — showing that Republican voters’ faith in the force of his personality and his competency as a negotiator tops other candidates’ fealty on policy.

Republicans ignored Trump, then laughed at him, then fought him — and he won.

Now, Trump is attempting to make the pivot to the general election — but he hit a rocky patch immediately when he accused a judge of bias because of his Mexican ancestry, sparking outrage, condemnation and accusations of racism from his own party.

Trump tried to calm the nerves of Republicans on Tuesday night, as the backlash against his attack on a judge’s Mexican heritage hit a fever pitch. “I understand the responsibility of carrying this mantle,” he said as he read from a teleprompter,” and I will never let you down,” he said.

3. Negativity rules

The Republican primary was defined by insults — the sharpest and most devastating lobbed by Trump. He read South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s phone number on live national television. Then he eviscerated “low-energy” Jeb Bush, “Little Marco” Rubio and “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, and every one of those nicknames stuck.

Already, we’re seeing the same thing in the general election match-up. Trump is bashing “Crooked Hillary” and invoking Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs.

But Clinton is determined to fight back more effectively than Trump’s primary opponents.

Clinton is calling Trump a “fraud” and declared he’s not fit to lead the country. “He wants to win by stoking fear and rubbing salt in wounds and reminding us daily just how great he is,” she said Tuesday night.

Political scientists call it “negative partisanship” — the idea that voters aren’t for their own party so much as they’re against the other party. Buckle in, folks, because that’s what 2016 is all about

4. Woe is the establishment

Scott Walker had the resume. Jeb Bush had the money and the policy pedigree. Marco Rubio had the talent. And none of them got anywhere close — demonstrating just how angry GOP voters have become with their party’s establishment.

The efforts of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus to shepherd Republicans through an orderly primary season, without the positions that cost them support from Latinos and young voters in 2012, were ignored or flouted. Donors’ influence waned as the GOP front-runner Trump, who dominated media coverage, funded his own primary campaign.

Conservative radio talkers, activists and upstart news outlets of the populist right are ascendant. The influence of party officials, think tanks, conservative magazines and Capitol Hill figures is declining.

On the Democratic side, Sanders ignited a movement and upended expectations — mobilizing millions of voters who are liberal but don’t align with the party, in many cases registering as independents. Even without the nomination, he’s given progressives a stronger bargaining position headed into the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, and forced Clinton and other Democrats to grapple with the demands of young people and independents.

5. The Sanders revolution

When Sanders entered the 2016 race, he was an afterthought — a self-described democratic socialist, little-known outside Vermont and away from Capitol Hill. His apparent goal was to elevate liberal causes, just in case Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren decided not to run.

Then the crowds came. When 10,000 people turned up in Wisconsin to see him in July 2015, national media — and Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters — were forced to pay attention. Sanders’ fans never minded that he often talked for more than an hour, or that he walked off stage without shaking hands.

His indifference about how a candidate was supposed to act only made his supporters like him more.

Sanders’ legacy will be the massive support he attracted from young voters — with those ages 18 to 29 preferring him over Clinton by margins of four-to-one or better in many states — and his huge support from independents. And he pushed Clinton to the left on trade, the Keystone XL Pipeline and minimum wage.

Clinton began the work of consolidating Democratic voters on Tuesday, offering an olive branch to Sanders and his supporters.

“He has spent his long career in public service fighting for progressive causes and principles and he’s excited millions of voters, especially young people,” Clinton said. “And let there be no mistake: Sen. Sanders, his campaign, and the vigorous debate that we’ve had … have been very good for the Democratic Party and for America.”

6. “Damn emails”

The biggest moment of the Democratic race might have come in the first debate, when Sanders sacrificed — for good — his ability to attack perhaps Clinton’s weakest spot: her use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.

When Sanders turned to Clinton and told her that the American people are “sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” he got big cheers from the audience and a short-term boost from the Democratic electorate, which was, indeed, sick and tired of hearing about Clinton’s emails.

The decision in many ways defined the primary. Sanders was willing to assail Clinton on Wall Street, trade, energy and more, but never had the appetite to exploit her long history of personal controversies.

Republicans’ eagerness to exploit what Sanders wouldn’t shows why the general election will be so dramatically different. Trump said Tuesday night that Clinton “turned the State Department into her own private hedge fund.”

7. “The system is rigged”

Trump said it. Sanders said it. The voters both candidates drew into the primary process for the first time believed it.

Were they right? Not really — the rules were set well before the voting began, and never changed.

But it suddenly seems a lot harder to defend the arcane delegate selection rules that allowed, for example, Ted Cruz to win more delegates in Louisiana than Trump, even though Trump had won the state, or Democrats’ reliance on party insider superdelegate votes, or primaries and caucuses that were closed to independents, allowing only registered party members to have a say.

Interest in procedural debates tends to wane once those debates fade from the spotlight. But 2016’s primaries could force both parties to grapple with those issues in the years ahead.

8. Big money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness

Everybody but Trump and Sanders had a super PAC. Jeb Bush’s “Right to Rise” was one that dwarfed all others. And they meant nothing.

Broadcast television stations are legally obligated to charge candidates their lowest available rates, but they jacked up prices for super PACs, keeping those dollars from stretching very far.

And Trump’s ability to dominate news cycles showed that — against an unconventional politician whose force of personality commanded free media attention — super PACs are much weaker forces than previously thought.

Or at least that was the case in a primary season that didn’t follow the rules.

9. The left’s young tea party

All those young people Sanders brought out also underscored a new development: The Democratic Party has its own emerging hard-line base, and it’s moving the party rapidly to the left.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. It was born in Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run and gained steam when Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman was defeated in his Senate primary in 2006.

But it accelerated drastically in 2016. Older women, African-Americans and LGBT voters stayed with Clinton, inspired by a grit they recognized. But younger voters and activists saw in Sanders someone who couldn’t play the role of establishment politician if he wanted to, and they embraced him.

What will be key to watch in the years ahead: whether those hipster sensibilities shine through up and down the ballot, in governor’s and Senate races — and whether those voters extract a toll from politicians who reject their new liberal politics.

10. The GOP’s minority conundrum

Four years ago, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus touted an autopsy of Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss that urged Republicans to make a stronger effort to reach out to Latinos.

The 2016 primary lineup ignored that advice entirely, with other candidates racing to match Trump’s claim he’d build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

It underscored a demographics problem that has only gotten worse: Republicans can’t win nationally without improving their stock among minority voters, and the positions they’ve embraced this year won’t help them achieve that goal.

The cost could extend down the ballot, to competitive Senate races in Arizona, Nevada and Florida.

Trump’s attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel only worsened those concerns, sparking a condemnation from House Speaker Paul Ryan — who was on that 2012 ticket, and called Trump’s remarks the “textbook definition of a racist comment.”

11. Angling for 2020

Ever since they were vanquished, Trump’s former Republican rivals are already positioning themselves for 2020 — based on the expectation that he’ll lose.

It’s taken different forms. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has wholeheartedly embraced Trump. Ted Cruz has ducked and dodged any question about him. Rubio is literally saying he told everyone so. And Ohio Gov. John Kasich is setting himself up as the temperamental opposite of Trump.

This young, ambitious crop of Republicans — which also includes figures like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — is aware that each will have more chances to run for president.

These candidates, though, are largely operating in the dark. With five months left in the most chaotic, unpredictable primary season in recent memory, anything could happen.