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Trump’s Super Tuesday victory: another defeat for our revered political norms

Political smarties have been wrong repeatedly about Donald Trump.

Donald Trump speaking to supporters about the results of Super Tuesday primary and caucus voting in Palm Beach, Fla., as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie looks on.
REUTERS/Scott Audette

There are laws; there are rules; and then there are norms. Break a law, you might get thrown in jail. Break a rule, you might get thrown out of the game. But break a norm, which is really just sort of a social convention, and it’s not clear what happens to you.

When Donald Trump failed to immediately reject the praise of David Duke and to disavow the support of elements of the Ku Klux Klan, he didn’t break any laws or any rules. But under the old norms, the pre-Trump norms, the smart set would have said you can’t get away with that politically.

Turns out, those smarties would have been wrong, just as they’ve been wrong repeatedly about Trump.

Trump had a very good Super Tuesday. Not perfect. He lost by a sizable margin in Texas to Texan Ted Cruz, and Cruz also took Oklahoma, which borders Texas and where his margin was smaller.

Marco Rubio finally notched his first win, in our own Minnesota, and our wonderful state also presented Trump with his first third-place finish. (Right after Trump had boasted that in the contests so far — even in the three that he lost to Cruz — he had never finished lower than second in the field, Minnesota took that small brag away from him. And Cruz, who has now won three states, will have to stop claiming that he is the only one who has beaten Trump. I heard his victory statement, and he managed to get that brag in one last time, because the results from Minnesota hadn’t come in yet.)

But come on. Trump won seven states. He added to his overall delegate lead. (If you click on this, you will get all the updated results.)

So, after all the other he-can’t-say-that things that Trump has said, it turns out his small dalliance with the KKK also didn’t sink him. It was just a norm, not a law or a rule, and all we get to do about it is cluck our tongues.

Trump’s ‘ceiling’

Has Trump hit any kind of ceiling? Well, in my native state of Massachusetts, which is generally known for producing moderate Republicans, Trump reached his best vote percentage yet, 49 percent, and bested his nearest rivals (Rubio and John Kasich, who tied at 18) by 31 percentage points! That’s a whipping, and it adds fuel to Trump’s argument that he doesn’t suffer from a low ceiling, as was often suggested a couple of months ago.

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After his victory statement, which was about as humble and gracious as Trump ever gets, he even took a few questions from the assembled media and kept his cool despite the insufficiently reverent tone of a couple of the questions that clearly irked him.

(The exception to his almost-graciousness were his remarks about Hillary Clinton. He called her a lawbreaker and questioned whether she would really be “allowed to run” against him.)

All of the above suggested to me that he is starting to transition into general-election mode. But the whole week also convinced me that norms are made to be broken, at least where The Donald is concerned.

There are ways to disparage the sweepingness of Trump’s good evening. I caught an interview with Rubio in which he tried to mention them all. In several states, he said, Trump’s margin of victory wasn’t as big as it had been in some of the late polling. He made much of the fact that he had closed within 3 percentage points of Trump in Virginia. How’s that for loser talk? He suggested that this was caused by his decision over the last few days to hammer on the message that Trump is a “serial con artist.”

But even though Cruz won the biggest prize of Texas, and by a healthy margin, Trump nonetheless added to his delegate lead over both Cruz and Rubio. If Trump had had a bigger night, the race might be effectively over. As it is, Trump is still on track to be the nominee.

Clinton, Sanders and Minnesota

Same with Clinton. She had a very solid night, added to her delegate lead over Bernie Sanders and won seven of the 11 contests, including the four biggest, and mostly by large margins. Sanders won by solid margins in the other four states — including the best state, Minnesota, by 62-38.

So, there’s no argument that Sanders has to drop out, but no argument that Clinton is on a path that, if it continues, will make her the Dem nominee. Clinton’s victories, by the way, were almost all in the South. The now-familiar pattern of her winning by big margins among African-American voters continues.

In her victory speech, Clinton said (as she has been saying in recent days) that “I believe what we need in America today is more love and kindness,” which just might be a way to contrast her campaign with Trump’s. And this one, which is unmistakably meant as a Trump slam:

“We know we’ve got work to do. That work, that work is not to make America great again. America never stopped being great. We have to make America whole. We have to fill in what’s been hollowed out.”