A real estate billionaire, a former first lady, a self described socialist and two first term senators who are sons of Cuban immigrants: one of them will be the next president of the United States.
What is likely to have been the most crucial day in the race for the party nominations took place on March 1 when 13 states and territories held primaries on "Super Tuesday," after which three Republican and two Democratic candidates remain with a reasonable shot of being nominated for the presidency by their respective parties.
Donald Trump, despite considerable controversy, public outrage and opposition from key party leaders leads the race to win the Republican nomination. Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio trail Trump but vow to continue to fight until the end to win the White House for the party. However, their chances are getting slimmer every time Trump trump wins a primary, something that has already happened 10 times.
Hillary Clinton, who was viewed as the presumptive nominee when she announced her nomination in April 2015, is leading the race in Democratic Party. However, she is facing an unexpectedly strong challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who managed to galvanize support of especially young first time voters with his progressive agenda.
For more than two decades the candidates which won big in Super Tuesday won the presidential nomination in both parties. If this had been any other year, the parties would have started preparations for a Clinton vs Trump face off on November 8, however, this year’s race had been full of surprises and is continuing in full steam.
Long time journalist and commentator Raul Reyes said the "2016 race has been so unpredictable. Just as we have never seen someone like Donald Trump on the Republican side, we have never seen someone like Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side."
Although their policy positions are very different, Trump and Sanders have one thing in common: They have both been successful in energising crowds and drawing support from voters who have been disengaged from or not interested in the political process. And it has been these crowds that keep their campaigns alive and successful.
For Trump, these supporters brought him victories in the primaries with the highest turnout in the Republican party’s history.
For Sanders, millions of voters have been fueling his campaign financially and he has received more than 4 million individual contributions with an average amount of $27, which has kept his campaign running without the big money donors that he has been campaigning against.
The presence of Sanders and Trump as presidential contenders from outside of the political mainstream has made outsiders vs establishment candidates one of the main themes on both sides of the political divide.
Trump vs everybody else
When Donald Trump announced that he is running for president in June last year, nobody expected him to last this long and be the frontrunner at this point.
After making an entrance by descending an escalator in his Manhattan Trump Towers, the real estate billionaire called Mexicans "rapists" in his speech announcing his run and promised to build a wall on the border to stop them from entering the US illegally. Trump also promised he would make Mexico pay for the wall.
His words brought immigration into the center of the political debate and led to overwhelming criticism, but also paid off for his campaign.
Shortly after his announcement speech Trump came to lead polls in the Republican party and has kept his place ever since. Turning his popularity into more durable success, Trump won 10 of the 15 primaries that have been held so far, while his main rivals Cruz and Rubio won only four and one respectively.
Trump’s victories came despite - perhaps because of - all the controveries he became embroiled in. Among many other controversies, he feuded with main conservative television network FOX and called for banning all muslims from entering the United States, which led to a debate in the British parliament on banning Trump from the UK.
More recently, Pope Francis called trump "not Christian" just ahead of the South Carolina primary, which is known for its conservative electorate. However, Trump still won the race by 10 points and secured all 50 delegates from the state.
"I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters," Trump said in January explaining how he keeps his popularity despite all the criticism.
However, the Republican party establishment is adamant that it is going to stop Trump from getting the nomination.
On Thursday, 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney took aim at Trump.
"Here's what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University," Romney said, referring to a dispute in which the frontrunner is facing fraud allegations.
"I would vote for Marco Rubio in Florida, for John Kasich in Ohio, and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state," Romney said, urging Republicans to vote strategically.
Romney’s proposal signals a possible brokered convention in July, where if no candidate gets a majority of the delegates there could be a realignment and someone other than Trump would get the nomination even if he secured the plurality of the delegates in the primaries.
However, this would be very risky because it might lead to division within the party itself, and if Trump chooses to run as an independent he would divide the Republican base, which would make a Democratic victory in November much more likely.
Cruz, who is currently in second place in the Republican delegate count, dismissed the idea of a brokered convention.
"If that would happen, we would have a manifest revolt on our hands all across this country," Cruz said.
Instead, Cruz called on the other candidates to withdraw from the race and support him.
"We are blessed with a deep talented honorable field. For the candidates who have not yet won a state, I ask you prayerfully consider our coming together," Cruz said after winning his home state of Texas, the largest state to hold a primary so far, on Super Tuesday.
However, Rubio, who has received the most endorsements from the party establishment, is not likely to back down.
"No matter how long it takes, no matter how many states it takes, no matter how many weeks and months and takes, I will campaign as long as it takes and wherever it takes to ensure that I am the next president of the United States," Rubio said after winning Minnesota on Super Tuesday.
With Trump, Cruz and Rubio all determined to fight to win the nomination, the competition in the Republican party does not seem like it will be over soon.
Can Sanders upset Clinton?
On paper, Hillary Clinton has the perfect resume for a presidential candidate. She has been in politics for decades, served as secretary of state under President Barack Obama and before that she was a senator representing New York. Not to mention she was one of the most influential first ladies in US history when her husband Bill Clinton served as president from 1993 to 2001.
She has both the money to fund her campaign and backing from influential party members for the nomination. Clinton has also secured almost half of the delegates that she needs to win the nomination.
However, Sanders has momentum. When he entered the race, the senator had very little national name recognition and polled in single digits. But with every passing day, he closed the gap with Clinton and according to recent polling averages, he trails the former secretary of state by only single digits and in some polls he is actually ahead.
And the the delegate race is not as imbalanced as it seems because about 40 percent of the delegates Clinton has are unpledged "superdelegates," which are not part of the primary process but have right to vote in conventions because they are distinguished party members or elected officials. So they might change their allegiance if Sanders wins
Sanders managed to energise huge crowds behind his campaign with the promise of a "political revolution" in which money’s effect on politics will be minimised. To lead by example Sanders chose not to have a super-PAC to support his campaign. However, he managed to raise enough money to compete with Clinton. In February he raised more than $40 million alone with small donations from millions of people. Sanders has also attacked Clinton’s ties with Wall Street, urging her to disclose the transcripts of speeches that she gave to banks for thousands of dollars.
When combined with the promise of free public college education and social security reform where every American would be guaranteed to have health care, Sanders’ progressive democratic socialist message resonates best with young and low income Americans.
However, Clinton also has also made persuasive arguments to Democratic voters. First and foremost, if she wins Clinton will be the first female president in the history of the United States and she has asked voters to be part of her success in this regard. She has also claimed that Sanders' promises are impractical because a Republican dominated Congress would not allow him to deliver on them. Clinton describes herself as "a progressive that likes to get things done," promising possible change instead of a revolution.
Clinton won 10 of the 15 Democratic primaries or caucuses so far, winning seven on Super Tuesday, while Sanders has won only five states so far.
However, most of the states in which Clinton won were places where she was highly favoured to win because of the demographics of their electorate. Most of them were southern states where black voters make up a significant proportion of Democratic primary voters.
Moreover, six of these states - Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Georgia - voted Republican in the last presidential election in 2012 and are seen as "Red States" favouring Republican candidates in presidential elections. On the other hand, four of the five states Sanders has won - New Hampshire, Vermont, Colorado, and Minnesota - voted for Obama in the 2012 presidential election.
The next big date on the primary calendar is March 15, when Florida, Illinois, Ohio and North Carolina will hold primaries with almost 20 percent of the parties' delegates at stake.
Rules will also change in the Republican party. While until now the delegates were allocated proportionally, on March 15 delegates in large states such as Florida, Ohio and Illinois will be awarded on a winner take all basis. Wins in these states would pave the way to the nomination for Trump as he could create a lead that would be impossible to close. Therefore his rivals are working hard to win those states.
On the Democratic side Sanders will try to secure as many wins as possible to close the difference with Clinton as the race moves to states where voter demographics would favour him.
Regardless of how contentious the races are, one thing is for sure - this has already been an election cycle to be remembered for years.
Author: Ilker Aslan