Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The State of the Race For President

With one caucus and one primary under their collective belts, the Democrats and Republicans head west and south to Nevada and South Carolina before a spate of contests on March 1st dubbed the “SEC Primary.” So, where are we in the race to succeed President Obama?


The Democrats: What was already a small field is now down to two competitors – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Clinton eked out a win in Iowa while Sanders romped in New Hampshire. While the delegate count from those two contests is close, Clinton also has more than 300 committed “super delegates” in her corner, while Sanders has fewer than ten. The conventional wisdom is that Clinton is failing to connect with the voters in the way Sanders is, and in particular, with young voters, who went for Sanders by massive margins in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Moreover, Sanders has mobilized a huge small donor fundraising effort that will allow him to match (if not exceed) Clinton’s advertising and other campaign outreach.


Analysis: Sanders’s popularity in two states with very liberal, almost exclusively white populations will be tested starting with Nevada and South Carolina and then, far more substantially throughout the Sun and Rust Belts. He has the benefit of making arguments for policies that promise things people like but have absolutely no chance of ever being enacted, while she is left with the pragmatic/practical argument of incremental change. In other words, he wants you to have your dessert before dinner, and she is telling you to eat your vegetables. In the debates, he is clearly out of his depth on foreign policy but the media has done little vetting of his policy positions, voting record, or anything else that ordinarily attends the coverage of a major party candidate for President – let’s hope that changes. In the meantime, Hillary would be best served by avoiding attacking him, the media clearly does not like it and it is not her best look. Better to focus on her lengthy record of achievement and advocacy and let that speak for itself. She is battling Sanders, Republicans, and the media, so she is best served by focusing on a positive message about herself because she is held, as none other than Mark Halperin has admitted, to a different standard than other candidates.


The Likely Outcome: Clinton rallies slowly in Nevada and South Carolina before winning decisive victories on March 1st and 15th that may not secure the nomination, but will make the math inevitable.


The Wild Card: Pent up frustration over Obama’s inability to pass progressive legislation (e.g., single payer health care), the media’s not-so-veiled loathing of Clinton, and a massive surge of young voters create a tsunami wave that crushes her and delivers the Democratic nomination to a 74 year old socialist who was not even a registered member of the party a year ago.


The Republicans: Allow me to pause and chuckle at the idea that when this cycle started the media claimed the Republicans boasted the “deepest field” in their history. The current front runner is a reality TV star and the guy running right behind him is the most hated man in Congress. Meanwhile, Jeb Bush has spent $100 million to finish sixth in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire and former “it” candidates Scott Walker and Chris Christie barely registered before bowing out.


Anyway, with that off my chest, we are down to five contenders – Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush. History tells us that in the modern era, the Republicans have picked the winner of either Iowa or New Hampshire, which would reduce the options to Trump or Cruz, but perhaps this year is the exception that proves the rule.


Analysis: The outsider/batshit crazy wing of the Republican Party commanded a majority of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire (if you dump in the Fiorina and Carson crumbs), so the only hope for someone other than Trump or Cruz would be to get in a three way race (worst threesome ever?) where those two would split the “anti-establishment” vote and the rest of the party coalesced around this third person. The only problem? Well, two actually: first, there is no guarantee that such a coalescing would occur. Trump’s protectionist message may sell very well in Ohio or Michigan, so even if Kasich was left standing as the alternative to him and Cruz, there is no guarantee he would win that vote; second, if the Kasich/Bush/Rubio clustering continues, they may all stay in the race, leaving Trump or Cruz to rack up wins by collecting somewhere between 25-35 percent of the vote in each state.


The Likely Outcome: Again, history shows that even with all this uncertainty, the likelihood is that a winner will emerge and right now, that guy looks to be Donald J. Trump. That a political novice showed a better fingertip feel for the electorate than competitors with decades more experience and millions in consultants as well as the entire political journalist class is pretty remarkable. Cruz could try to monopolize the evangelical vote and win a narrow majority of delegates, but if the race is down to him and Trump, I suspect the powers that be will hold their nose and go with the businessman who does deals, not the kamikaze pilot who everyone hates.


The Wild Card: Trump melts down, Bush, Rubio or Kasich emerge as a consensus “establishment” pick and the party happily steps over Cruz’s political carcass as the GOP eyes a return to the White House in a race against a 74 year old socialist from Vermont.

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