Donald Trump trips up in a New York minute; other candidates stumble
There is something deeply unsexy in the city of New York. The US primaries are in town, and they're getting ugly.
OPINION: In among the Christian Louboutin stilettos of Manhattan and the steel-capped boots of the upstate rust belt, candidates in this week's New York primaries can't set a foot right.
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton stand in front of their podiums. The first bars of The Star-Spangled Banner ring out and, in the vast debate hall, the audience falls silent, hands on hearts. In the big corrugated iron-walled expanse of a press room next door, it's business as usual as journalists snap and tap and file and tweet.
I'm here at this CNN debate in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, a mass of huge, repurposed manufacturing buildings just south of my apartment in the borough of Queens, New York. Small swarms of journalists gathered around campaign representatives buzz by my workstation, which is situated in an ocean of flat screen TVs with Wolf Blitzer echoing off the metal walls.
I watch as the music stops and the candidates take their podiums. The niceties over, they proceed to go for each other's throats.
Sanders and Clinton are going after each other in a way they haven't before – Clinton perhaps frustrated that Sanders is more than still hanging in there, Sanders perhaps emboldened by that very same fact.
It's been a compelling few weeks in New York City. The heart of the media frenzy surrounding the US primaries season is, for a few more days, at least, the heart of an important, and delegate-rich competition for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations. This arcane, needlessly complex "election before the election" varies from party to party, and from state to state.
Here, as spring thaws New Yorkers' bones, and as I hang up my good-for-an-Antarctic-winter down coat until November, New Yorkers are finally looking inwards and examining the race for the presidency as the candidates appear on our streets, on our subways even (including a now-infamous turnstile fumble by Hillary Clinton, who may never have before graced a New York subway station in her life), and on stage in City parks and warehouses.
In the interests of keeping things simple, what ultimately matters at this point is that the leader on the Republican Side, Donald Trump, has 743 delegates and needs to get to 1237 to secure the Republican nomination. The leader on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton, has 1,758 delegates, and needs to get to 2,383 to secure the Democratic nomination.
In New York, there are 95 delegates up for grabs for Republicans, and 247 delegates up for grabs for Democrats.
From the outside looking in, New York City, or perhaps even more specifically, Manhattan, is "New York." But New York is much more than this juggernaut of income inequality, culture and finance.
New York is 20 million people in upstate college towns and declining rust belt cities along the Canadian border. It's the heaving streets of Midtown, but it's also the mountainous Adirondacks and the soggy tourism of Niagara Falls. And it's also Long Island, a whale-shaped, 190km long island with its south eastern reaches adorned by the Hamptons and with its western fingertips touching Manhattan via the Queensboro, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Manhattan bridges. It's an island that also encompasses the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, but lacks their diversity (and, frankly, their high proportion of hipsters, $3000/month studio apartments, and farm-to-table-restaurant-come-book-exchanges).
Which brings me to Republican front runner and New York home town anti-hero Donald J Trump, the impossibly combed-over, purse-lipped, thrice-married son of a millionaire, who (without an ounce of irony) finds strongest support amongst white voters without high school diplomas, working blue collar jobs (or looking for blue collar jobs), and who identify very strongly as "American."
The archetypal Trump supporter can be found most predominantly in the string of suburbs along Long Island's southern shore, and in those rust belt towns to the north. But Trump finds support across much of the state.
Former mayor Rudy Giuliani has said he's voting for Trump, and that means something in Manhattan, where 9/11 is, and will always be, part of the collective consciousness.
Trump's likely success across the state will be due at least in part to the simple fact that New Yorkers can't stand Ted Cruz, who trails Trump for second place, on account of his being a born-again-cowboy-boot-wearing-anti-abortion Texan who criticised Trump for his "New York Values" in a January 14th televised debate. Cruz will probably finish a distant third, behind John Kasich's distant second.
THE GREATEST SPOILER
Kasich has only won his home state of Ohio, and is still in the race in the hopes that the Republican party chooses him as the nominee after a floor fight at the Republican Convention when anti-Trump forces (that grow by the day) turf Trump out for good. Personally, I think Kasich is unlikely to emerge from a contested convention a victor (although I prefer him to Cruz's acrid condescension).
If Kasich doesn't win the Republican nomination, he may go down as the greatest spoiler in Republican party history; a clear reason for Trump's unexpected, cringe worthy, political longevity.
Trump held a rousing rally for 15,000 disenchanted voters in Bethpage, Long Island, about 50km from my office in Manhattan, on April 6th. His first major campaign event in the state was reportedly its usual "boisterous with a dash of menacing." I was unable to get a press credential to attend the rally, perhaps because the campaign decided I've been too critical of Trump (The campaign has started blacklisting people who have reported or opined negatively on Trump or his campaign. So much for freedom of the press.) But more likely because the Trump campaign is widely understood to lack the necessary infrastructure of a traditional US primary campaign. Ergo, no-one's issuing press credentials.
Primary politics is rallies and televised debates here, but it's also complex databases of voter preferences, vast armies of volunteers, and abrupt and calculated strategy shifts from state to state (hand shaking and soap-box oration at the Iowa State Fair, morning coffee in rustic diners in New Hampshire's mountain towns). Trump just hasn't really gone there. And no surprises, I suppose.
Trump burned the handbook of politics here, which otherwise instructs showing up for debates you've committed to, treating the press with a healthy respect (cynicism's OK), not encouraging violence at rallies, actually having policies you can articulate and defend, and laying off the insults towards women, minorities, immigrants, and other candidates' faces, wives, or husbands.
And not saying your opponent "hates" an entire state (Most recently, that was Ted Cruz, and New York).
It also means having advisors. Trump has few. He has said he consults himself on foreign policy, because "I have a very good brain and I've said a lot of things." I'd like to have been a fly on the wall when he came up with the brilliant idea of arming South Korea with nuclear weapons.
Most importantly, perhaps, Trump has pulled many resources out of states where the primary competition is over, and has no campaign infrastructure in many of the upcoming primary states, importantly Maryland and Pennsylvania.
CRUZING IN THE BRONX
But back to the primary race in New York. We haven't seen much from Ted Cruz around here recently. Perhaps it has something to do with an ill-fated trip to the Bronx on April 6, a heavily democratic borough of New York City, where a campaign event at a high school was cancelled after students threatened a walkout in protest at Cruz's immigration policies, which include building a wall along the southern border, a-la Trump, and deporting all of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States. This is by most sensible accounts not only impossible, but immoral.
More likely, Cruz has been scarce because he's focused on later primary races he can actually win, like California, or at least get close to Trump, like Pennsylvania.
On the Democratic side, New York will almost certainly go to Hillary Clinton. She was a New York Senator for eight years, during which time she built enduring ties across the state. She leads in every New York poll, despite the constant background hum of her email investigation and the not insignificant number of voters who find her unlikeable. Clinton is likely to win, notwithstanding the fact that "nouveau" Democrat Bernie Sanders (he spent 25 years in Congress as an Independent, but is running as a Democrat in the presidential race) is hard at work here.
Sanders has been talking up his Brooklyn roots across the state.
He held rallies in that borough on April 8, one of which was within sight of my apartment, set high in one of a dozen mostly glass, mostly rental towers that line the East River in Queens' most southern tip, on land that once welcomed cargo from barges and now is filled with young parents with dogs and children (a considerable portion of whom are foreign-born, and take the ferry each day to work at the United Nations, just five minutes across the water).
That same day, Sanders appeared on the Today Show. In fact that morning, as I walked to my office after an early spot on the Fox Business Network discussing the NY primary, I passed hundreds of Sanders supporters lined up along West 49th street, waiting to get into the Today Show's outdoor set on the plaza at Rockefeller Center.
The supporters, an orderly line formed, had a quiet buzz about them. It was chilly, and no sun had yet reached the northern side of the street. I wondered if it was the temperature, or the candidate, that subdued them. I was also cold, glad for the half-light that somewhat obscured my cakey high definition TV makeup, particularly as I passed construction workers heading to the numerous projects near my office building. One gave me a big, slightly curious smile and a "good morning" as I passed him on Madison Avenue. I returned the favour.
BERNIE FACES BURN-OUT
Sanders has had a gaffe-filled couple of weeks, and it will be interesting to see how this affects his numbers on the 19th. He called Hillary Clinton "unqualified" to be President, which is laughable in the sense she's the most qualified candidate from either party in a generation. Also, he recently conducted an on the record interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News, a tabloid rag that is waved in my face as I exit Grand Central Terminal every weekday morning on my way to the office, known best for headlines like "Rob Kardashian, Blac Chyna To Marry in Quickie Wedding".
On rainy days, the Daily News is stacked up and covered in clear plastic, lest a potential purchaser miss being lured in by its roaring headlines. On those days, I feel for the men and women in oversized jackets, sitting next to the waterproof stacks, their body temperatures dropping slowly. I'm always passing in a hurry, in business casual and (reasonably) sensible shoes, racing to get to my law office to start billing in six minute increments (it's as bad as it sounds), so I can race home to pick up my 15-month old daughter from daycare in the early evening.
These editorial board interviews are common during the general election cycle, and are part of the method by which newspapers figure out who they will officially endorse.
Sanders' interview was almost Trumpian – rambling, and vague. And he couldn't explain how he'd enact the central tenet of his campaign – breaking up the big Wall Street banks. He's had nearly a year to think about it.
Clinton went in on April 9, and nailed it, talking in detail about the economy, infrastructure, higher education, mass incarceration, and more, as they say, "like a boss."
On April 12, the New York Daily News officially endorsed her.
A WORLD AGHAST
There are just a couple of days until New York votes and with the media spotlight on my adopted hometown, I'm reminded of the number of times during this primary season when I've wondered if I can show my face back in New Zealand at Christmas time, given the acrimony of this race and, in particular, Trump's rise – his bombast, bigotry, divisiveness, and governance illiteracy – and what it says about politics, and people, here. I'm not alone in this.
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have both said that the vitriol and half-baked foreign policy "ideas" being tossed around by Trump (and others – I'm looking at you, Ted Cruz) is damaging to American interests overseas.
My New York friends, American and foreign, my lawyer colleagues, my extended family, my daughter's babysitters, and strangers I make a point of asking about Trump (mostly bartenders and Uber drivers, in full disclosure) almost without exception express a mix of horror and embarrassment. And frankly, that's more broadly reflected across this country, in his soaring "unfavorability" numbers, now reaching 70 per cent.
But make no mistake. Trump's message is resonating with millions of people who are struggling economically, and, whether accurately or not, blame free trade and immigration for their hardship and economic immobility.
Other Republican candidates haven't fared much better in this small and unscientific poll. A conversation I had with a Latina Uber driver in Boston in early February revealed anger and confusion at Ted Cruz's candidacy. She told me her friends and family felt let down by a Cuban-American success story who, they felt, had turned away from his roots and from solving, in a humane way, the problems that they care most about, in particular, immigration. At that point in the race, Cruz had not yet hardened his position to advocate for deporting all eleven million illegal immigrants in America. That would come just weeks after we talked.
Although Trump will take New York on Tuesday, and with it, the lion's share of delegates, I'm convinced that his belief that a cult of personality is enough to win the Republican nomination, and then the presidency, is wrong. He's relying on free television (almost more than every other candidate combined), voter anger, and provocation, which he should have augmented with actual policies, workable solutions, and a true political infrastructure.
I doubt Trump will get to the Republican Convention with 1237 delegates in hand. Perhaps he should have read that handbook before he torched it.
On Monday the 18th, just one day before New Yorkers vote, Bernie Sanders will hold a last-chance campaign rally at Hunters Point South Park, adjacent to where the ferries take UN workers to their offices, just blocks from my apartment.
There isn't any question as to why Sanders will be on my turf on that important day.
Set against the Manhattan skyline, Sanders will implore again that New Yorkers be a part of his political revolution. The sun will be setting behind the city. The Chrysler and Empire State buildings will be illuminated. Sanders will make his case amid an iconic, New York scene. My American husband and daughter and I will go, and, with thousands of other New Yorkers (including a large proportion of dogs and children), will see what Sanders has to say.
It will be his last chance to make a dent in Clinton's unassailable lead in the New York primary, and to stop her march to 2,383 delegates – which, should she reach that number, will secure her the Democratic nomination, and, as things stand now, in all likelihood, an historic presidency.
* This column incorrectly stated Ted Cruz was pro-abortion. That reference has been corrected.
- Sunday Star Times