Don’t Buy the Hype: It’s Still Hillary’s to Lose

By Alex Knepper

My colleague Cinzia Croce argues that pundits downplaying Trump’s surprisingly strong recent polling numbers are falling into the same trap they did when they underestimated him in the primary season. This is a common argument, and in fact many pundits have been making it. Most of them are those who did not analyze Trump correctly before and now have falsely convinced themselves that Trump is an unpredictable and uniquely skilled nominee. But the bad predictions say more about the pundits than about Trump. Speaking as someone who did not underestimate Trump, I am still convinced he has no more than a 20% chance in the general election. Hillary remains the odds-on favorite not just to win, but to win comfortably. The general election dynamics are very different than the dynamics of the Republican primary, as Trump is about to learn the hard way.

Let’s look at the evidence:

1. Partisan ID Means More Than You Want It To – Even Among Independents

Although Cinzia is right to point out that both Hillary and Trump have started to max out their support among their respective partisans, Trump’s lead among independents is both not particularly meaningful — and precarious.

The RealClearPolitics average in 2008 shows John McCain leading a few national polls around this time by almost exactly the same margins as Trump. Not coincidentally, McCain had recently wrapped up his party’s nomination, while President Obama was still locked in a contentious primary battle with Hillary Clinton, whose resolve to fight on until the bitter end kept Obama from fully coalescing Democrats around his candidacy until the summer. Remember the ‘PUMA’ voters, who vowed to support the experienced and moderate John McCain against the naive and unprepared Barack Obama? Remember how half of Hillary’s voters said they’d never back Obama? Neither do I.

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The truth should not be so surprising:  few ‘independents’ are actually independents; the vast majority of them have a pronounced party tilt, and right now a disproportionate number of them are Republicans. Democrats outnumber Republicans partially because a disproportionate number of independents nowadays are Republicans embarrassed to call themselves Republicans. Mitt Romney won the independent vote in 2012, yet still lost by a decisive margin in both the popular vote and the electoral college.

More importantly, the RCP polling average shows 13% of voters are undecided. The real electorate will add up to 100%. Given that a disproportionate share of these undecided voters are independents, we can reasonably infer that they are Bernie holdouts, most of whom will recognize the stakes once the general election begins in earnest, Bernie endorses Hillary, President Obama campaigns for her, and the prospect of a Trump presidency becomes nauseatingly real to his voters. There will be a few crossover Trump/Sanders voters, yes — mostly white men under 40 — but those voters will not be decisive.

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Is Marco Rubio Still Overrated?

By Alex Knepper

For many months, the pundit class tried to force a narrative into existence to make Marco Rubio the front-running ‘establishment lane’ candidate, and perhaps even simply the front-runner, full-stop. There’s no doubt that Sen. Rubio did what he needed to do in Iowa, coming closer to Donald Trump than Trump came to Ted Cruz, but there are a number of obstacles to Rubio consolidating ‘establishment’ support in a timely manner that the over-excitable chattering classes seem to think.

New Hampshire jealously guards its ‘first-in-the-nation’ role, and rarely cares what Iowa has to say. It is usually the case that New Hampshire takes a maybe-mischievous enjoyment in rebuking Iowa. Despite the strange confluence of events that have marked Sen. Rubio as an ‘establishment’ candidate, he is really not a typical ‘establishment’ candidate: besides making his mark by defeating ex-Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2010 Senate primaries, he has toyed with support for granting Constitutional rights to fetuses, endorsed Mike Huckabee for president in 2008 despite there being minimal incentive to do so, has called for a new Constitutional convention, stridently opposes same-sex marriage, and has refused to say how old the Earth is, on the grounds that he’s “not a scientist, man.” Keeping in line with the GOP’s typical delusions about youth and minority outreach, we are supposed to believe that since he’s slightly darker than Mitt Romney, under the age of 50, and listens to hip-hop, millennials and black voters are suddenly going to be interested in the same old Reaganite platform. Putting an old, losing message in a young, brown person’s mouth isn’t sufficient.

Cruz winning Iowa was undoubtedly a blow to Donald Trump, although Trump is still the prohibitive favorite to win New Hampshire by double-digits. But thanks to his Iowa victory, Cruz has earned a ticket to at least the SEC primaries, where he will have to contend with Trump for a significant share of the same voters. Yet, we should not be so sure that Rubio will have the ‘establishment’ lane to himself by then: New Hampshire independents are showing a strong preference for John Kasich, and there is no sign of that changing. Rubio has been in a traffic jam with Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie for months. If Kasich defeats Rubio in New Hampshire, he too will have earned a ticket through February. It is also possible that even Jeb Bush will stay in through South Carolina, a state in which he continues to over-perform his national polls and in which he has invested a large amount of money. Purely out of pride he may decide to fight on his home turf in Florida, too, rather than cede that to his former protege. Rubio may have the ‘establishment lane’ to himself by March, but his momentum could be severely undercut by likely losses to Trump in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, where Trump also has a commanding lead — and for failing to have fully consolidated the Kasich-Bush vote by then (Christie should be gone by South Carolina). If Trump manages to win Florida, too, which is more than possible, given recent polling (and the likely burst of momentum he could earn from wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina), Cruz might be too weakened to pose a serious threat to him after that, anyway. Only at that point would we have a Rubio-Trump race on our hands, and it’s not clear Rubio would be the favorite in that match-up.

Some of the betting markets now peg Rubio as the likely nominee. I think the edge is still with Trump, whose ability to win a quarter of the vote among a two-thirds Evangelical electorate — despite having no significant ground game and being a thrice-married, irreligious, vulgar New York City billionaire who has kissed a drag-laden Rudy Giuliani, was once ‘roasted’ on Comedy Central by Snoop Dogg, and once tackled Vince MacMahon and shaved his head — is actually extremely impressive. He overcame that which did in Rudy Giuliani in 2008. Marco Rubio is racking up Congressional endorsements and earning the support of new big-money donors, but if we’ve learned anything so far in this cycle, it’s that having Wall Street backers, Congressional cheerleaders, and a traditional pedigree might actually be liabilities.

Rubio has done everything he needs to do so far, but the rest of February poses more challenges than the mainstream media, which has underestimated Trump all along, is willing to concede. We should not let our desire for ‘normalcy’ — that is: for this election cycle to closely resemble the cycles of the past several decades — deceive us into thinking that this cycle has suddenly become ‘normal’ simply because Marco Rubio managed to come in a strong third in Iowa.

Same Old Song and Dance

By Cinzia Croce

As soon as Ted Cruz was declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses, the factions that have traditionally dominated GOP primaries wasted no time reverting to form. They are elated to have dodged the bullet of a Trump win, which could have made him unstoppable and forever change Republican politics. That may still be in the cards, but the entrenched factions are working overtime to use the week between Iowa and New Hampshire to turn the primaries into a repeat of the quadrennial war of establishment candidate versus the base.

Both factions claim to have the perfect formula for winning the general election. The establishment usually selects candidates who are center-right, in the hopes of appealing to moderate voters. The GOP base holds the opposite view: that the surest path to the White House is to nominate a rock-ribbed conservative who will draw to the polls millions of disenchanted conservative voters. Only “bold colors” can guarantee victory, they say — no “pale pastels.”

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Next Time, Let’s Just Skip Iowa

By Cinzia Croce

The Iowa results are in, and the speculation over whether Donald Trump’s decision to skip the last debate cost him a victory has already begun. I do not believe attending the debate would have made any difference: it carried many downsides, and it is more than possible that Ted Cruz might have won by an even larger margin had Trump chosen to attend. Nevertheless, it is quite an achievement for a thrice-married, secular, brash New Yorker to finish just four points behind the Evangelical candidate of choice, who had parked himself in Iowa since July 2013 and visited all 99 counties.

Trump took a gamble and decided to try to run the table, knowing fully that Iowa would be a difficult state to win. In itself, this was not such a bad strategy. But to hedge his bets, he should have done a better job at managing expectations. Instead of boasting about his unrivaled ability to win, Trump should have limited his remarks to wanting to perform well. A second-place finish for someone who has never run for office before would have been seen as a perfectly respectable result on its own. Just look at Rubio: he came in third and delivered what was essentially a victory speech.

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Going all-in on Iowa was always a major gamble for Trump, which became readily apparent when he started to fall behind Ben Carson in the autumn. The risks of pandering to these voters are high. Iowa caucus voters seem more concerned about the Second Coming of Christ than about the Second Coming of the Caliphate in Iraq. They often seem as if they might be more at home in the Philippines, where abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriage are illegal, than in Trump’s native New York. A candidate that is tailor-made for the Iowa caucuses is a complete electoral disaster in November. There is simply no reason for the Republican Party to give such a prominent spot to Iowa. If caucus participants were to prevail, the Democrats would be permanently installed in the Oval Office. If their prayers were ever answered, we would become the Philippines.

Trump’s concession speech was brief and gracious. That’s a good start. Going forward, I would only recommend that he dial down the I’m-a-winner persona and instead focus on the two policy pillars of his campaign: trade and immigration. If he wants to win, he must draw a clear distinction with the other candidates who will continue to drive down wages by enlarging the pool of labor through high levels of immigration and loose trade agreements. That — in addition to being a bit more judicious with the re-tweets.

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5 Takeaways From Iowa

By Alex Knepper

1.  Despite Pundits’ Nail-Biting, Hillary’s Sitting Pretty

In the wee hours of the morning, Hillary Clinton eked out a win in the Iowa caucuses. As far as redemption stories go, Hillary will take what she can get: Iowa delivered her a humiliating third-place finish in 2008, behind not only Barack Obama but also John Edwards. Caucuses are public spectacles, often subject to arcane and eyebrow-raising rules, and tend to amplify the roles of activism and electioneering, encouraging the extremes of each party. Hillary won vanishingly few caucuses against Barack Obama in 2008. Iowa and New Hampshire are demographically very well-tailored to Bernie Sanders — if he was going to demonstrate that he could pose a serious threat to Clinton, he would have needed a full head of steam from both Iowa and New Hampshire, heading into South Carolina. Tonight’s results indicate that Hillary’s upcoming Southern firewall remains secure. If Bernie can’t overcome Hillary in a lily-white caucus state, what chance does he stand in a much more demographically diverse primary state?

2. The GOP Establishment Exhales

John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie surely will opt to remain in the race through the New Hampshire primaries just for the sake of closure. But Marco Rubio’s not-totally-unexpected over-performance last night made it abundantly clear who is the one capable of snuffing out the Trump/Cruz cyclone. The worst-case scenario for the GOP ‘establishment’ would have been a Trump victory, which would have knocked Cruz out of contention, prompting anti-establishment voters to consolidate behind Trump. But with an Iowa victory under his belt, we can expect Cruz to remain in the race through at least Super Tuesday, allowing an ascendant Rubio to consolidate the non-Trump/Cruz vote. We have a three-man race on our hands.

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3. All the Celebrity In the World Can’t Beat a Good Ground Game

Trump’s frenzied rallies and celebrity-driven media dominance was not enough to overcome the entrenched network of Reaganite activists and Evangelical die-hards represented by the likes of kingmakers such as Rep. Steve King and Bob Vander Plaats. That a thrice-married New York City billionaire and reality TV star who has been subject to a Comedy Central roast and once flirted with Rudy Giuliani in drag on national television was able to capture a fourth of the vote of the Republican ‘heartland’ is a rather remarkable feat — but we see that even total media dominance cannot serve as a substitute for talking to voter after voter after voter, in diners, farms, and town halls.

4. What’s the Meaning of a Big Turnout?

Last night’s record turnout would have been expected to benefit Trump and Sanders, according to the conventional wisdom — but it turned out that new voters followed a lot of the same patterns as the old voters. Despite a massive turnout, the conventional choices — Clinton and Cruz — ultimately prevailed. A flood of new voters does not necessarily translate into unexpected or less-conventional outcomes.

5. Money and Endorsements Are Overrated

How much bluster did we hear from surrogates for Jeb Bush and Chris Christie about how they might over-perform, thanks to their plugged-in connections to Iowa’s movers and shakers? All of that amounted to a whole lot of nothing. The rise of technology and 24/7 social media have rendered a lot of the old networks increasingly obsolete. Jeb Bush decided to run a campaign in 2016 straight out of 2006 — and it showed.

Cruz Meets His Match

By Cinzia Croce

Just a few weeks ago, Ted Cruz was sitting comfortably at the top of the Iowa polls and was declared by the pundit class as the prohibitive favorite to win the GOP caucuses. He won praise for running a flawless, disciplined campaign centered on consolidating evangelical voters and building a superior ground game. His backers applauded his strategy of bear-hugging Donald Trump in public while privately plotting the moment he would expose Trump as a flaming New York liberal and win the the GOP nomination. It seemed like a brilliant plan but if failed to take one small detail into account: Donald Trump is a worthy opponent.

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Ghosts of Hillary’s Campaigns Past

By Cinzia Croce

As the 2016 presidential campaign got underway, the conventional wisdom was that Hillary Clinton would quickly secure the Democratic nomination while it would be months before the GOP would crown its nominee.  Some even raised the specter of a brokered convention. But as the Iowa caucuses approach, it appears the opposite may come to pass: Hillary having to slug it out for months while Donald Trump runs the table.

The clearest sign that Hillary’s campaign is in trouble is Sen. Claire McCaskill — one of the most effective attack dogs in the business — calling Bernie Sanders a socialist. A few days ago, the New York Times reported Ms. McCaskill declaring,“The Republicans won’t touch him [Sanders] because they can’t wait to run an ad with a hammer and sickle”. “Hammer and sickle”? Not even a perfunctory “Bernie is a socialist” stop before launching the “Bernie is a communist” attack?! Hillary must be in deep trouble.

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