The Republican establishment was reeling on Wednesday as a triumphant presidential primary night for Donald Trump failed to unite the party against an increasingly confident-looking Hillary Clinton.
As results from the dozen states voting on Super Tuesday were digested, both the party front-runners appeared significantly closer to squaring off against each other in a bitter general election clash in November.
But whereas many Democrats viewed Clinton’s seven big wins over rival Bernie Sanders as a sign that she was finally vanquishing her tougher-than-expected challenge from the left and beginning to unite progressives behind her, the acrimonious civil war inside the Republican party showed less promise of reconciliation.
Trump was the undisputed winner of the night, picking up seven of the 12 Republican states up for grabs on this biggest night of the primary election calendar, including important victories in Virginia and Massachusetts.
Yet his path to the nomination was less certain than supporters had hoped for after maverick Texan conservative Ted Cruz also scored wins in three elections – Alaska, Oklahoma and his delegate-rich home state – while the marginally more moderate Marco Rubio picked up a surprise consolation prize in Minnesota.
Trump attempted to strike an unusually diplomatic tone during a victory party at his palatial resort complex in Palm Beach, Florida.
“I am a unifier,” he claimed in front of a gold-framed podium displaying his trademark “Make America Great Again” slogan. “Once we get all of this finished, I’m going to go after one person, and that’s Hillary Clinton.”
But allegations that the bombastic celebrity TV star was stoking racial tensions with his fierce anti-immigrant message continued through the night.
There was also more violence at one of his increasingly fractious campaign rallies, when a young black woman protestor was aggressively jostled by supporters as she was led out.
Trump’s growing dominance has prompted some leading Republicans to rally round him regardless of the claims of racism, including former candidate and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who stood awkwardly behind Trump at the Florida party.
But establishment hopes that a clear alternative would emerge from the mainstream wing of the party on Super Tuesday were dashed by the strong performance of Cruz and an unconvincing night for Rubio.
Lindsey Graham, another former candidate and senator for South Carolina, has voiced fears of many party leaders recently by warning that Trump needs to be stopped at all costs – not least because his devisive appeal to the party’s xenophobic tendency risks alienating independent voters and handing the White House to Democrats again.
But on Tuesday night, it appeared that the cost may include supporting a colleague from Texas who is almost universally loathed in the Senate for his own disruptive and ideologically-extreme record.
“We may be in a position where we have to rally around Ted Cruz,” said Graham in comments that few ever expected to hear.
But even this route to challenge Trump’s demagoguery was complicated by the continued insistence of Marco Rubio that he can yet be the party’s chosen saviour.
“If you look at the map from here on out, it gets better for us,” said Rubio, who hopes he can win his home state of Florida on 15 March, when the Republican primary moves into a winner-takes-all stage designed to cut the process short.
So far, the proportional delegates on offer to winners on Super Tuesday have not given Trump enough of a lead to remove the threat that the party’s chasing candidates could combine their delegates against him in a contested convention this summer.
Despite the seven state wins and picking up 46% of the delegates on offer so far, he is only 27% of the way to the winning mark of 1,237 delegates
Hillary Clinton meanwhile appeared on a much stronger path to sewing up her party’s nomination after sweeping the South with huge support from African American voters.
In Georgia, the second largest state voting by delegates, Sanders lost to her by 43 points. In Virginia, a crucial swing state, the margin of defeat was 30 points. Tennessee and Arkansas beat that, and Alabama set a new record landslide for Clinton with 58.6 percentage points. Even in Texas, which Sanders had hoped to keep close after last minute rallies in Austin and Dallas, he lost by 22 points.
These overall totals were boosted by college towns and pockets of white support for Sanders in the south. Exit polls suggest that African American men favoured Clinton by 81% (compared to Sanders’ 18%) across all 11 states voting in the Democratic nomination on Tuesday. Black women voters opted for her by a 74 point margin – or seven to one.
Sanders nevertheless vowed to fight on after doing better than many supporters had feared, and breaking out of his New England redoubt for the first time with wins in four states and a close second in Massachusetts.
“The political revolution has begun,” said the Vermont senator in a statement. “I think it’s fair to say we had a fantastic night. We shot for 5, we got 4.9,” said Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver in a morning briefing for reporters.
But whereas his wins were by a margin 18.5% in Colorado, 23.4% in Minnesota, 10.4% in Oklahoma and a “yuge” 72.6% back home in Vermont: an average of 31 points in four mostly small states, Clinton averaged the same lead across seven mostly larger ones.
On the all important delegate count, it meant that Clinton gained 534 delegates on the night, while Sanders picked up 349. Including the early victories elsewhere and controversial “super delegates”, the former secretary of state is now well on the road to reaching the 2,383 total needed to win the nomination, leading Sanders by 1,001 to 371.
The reality is that Republican leaders are reaping what they’ve sown.
Buoyed by strong campaign contributions by small donors, Sanders has vowed to keep going and give voters in all states a chance to express their dissatisfaction with Clinton and urge for more radical change.
Nine states host contests between now and 15 March, including Florida, Ohio and North Carolina, and Sanders is also hopeful of winning Michigan in between.
But Clinton campaign manager Robbie Mook published a memo outlining how the delegate maths make it impossible for Clinton to be caught, barring some sudden change in voting behaviour.
Instead, Democrats increasingly turned their attention on Wednesday to their own battle to stop Trump.
Senate minority leader Harry Reid voiced the schadenfreude that many in the party feel by claiming Republicans spent “eight years laying the ground work for the rise of Donald Trump ” and argued Republican leaders were “reaping what they’ve sown”.
“The Republican establishment acts like it is surprised by Donald Trump and his victories around the country. They feign outrage that a demagogue spewing vile … is somehow winning in a party that has spent years telling immigrants they’re not welcome in America,” said Reid. “They act surprised that Republican voters are flocking to a birther candidate even as Republican congressional leaders continue to support a man who refuses to distance himself from the Ku Klux Klan.”