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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The State of the Race: Hillary the Inevitable, Rubio the Illusory, and a Nevada Prediction

By Alex Knepper

1. Hillary Has Always Been Inevitable

Overexcited journalists have for months been desperately trying to turn the Clinton-Sanders contest into a real race, but when all is said and done, the Democratic primary map is likely to resemble the 2000 Republican one: a blowout victory by a challenger in New Hamsphire fueled by independent voters is quickly snuffed out in South Carolina, after which point the candidate with near-unanimous ‘establishment’ backing cruises to the nomination, losing a few demographically-unfriendly states here and there.

A year ago, I said that Hillary’s unprecedented strengths in the ‘invisible primary,’ unlike in 2008, rendered her the inevitable nominee, and that she would be able to hold off a challenge from Elizabeth Warren (or, as it turned out, someone like her) by holding onto the black vote, not letting her challenger catch her asleep at the wheel in caucus states, and appealing to Democrats’ sense of pragmatism as they try to retain the White House for a third term. This is exactly what she’s done.

The primaries to this point have revealed a not-insignificant challenge facing Clinton in the general election, though: the ‘generation gap’ in the Democratic Party is a veritable chasm, and her surrogates have often acted dismissively and condescendingly toward Sanders supporters. If there’s anything the Clintons can always count on, though, it’s Republican overreach, and Hillary is always at her rhetorical best when taking on Republicans. If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, which looks likely right now, Clinton will be able to reach out not only to Sanders supporters but to ‘establishment’-oriented Republicans who just cannot bring themselves to vote for him. And lest we forget about the fundamentals: the electoral college math still favors Democrats.

2. Here We Go With Another Fake Rubio Surge

If Jeb Bush came in a relatively close 2nd in Iowa, 1st in New Hampshire by 20 points, and 1st in South Carolina by 10 points, nobody would question whether the race was basically over. Marco Rubio probably has Nikki Haley to thank for pulling him back from the abyss, but winning a fifth of the vote for a distant second place tie at this stage in the race — and no delegates! — is not impressive. There isn’t one state among the next dozen or so that’s a likely win for Rubio, even in a three-man race with Trump and Ted Cruz — and eventually, if Rubio wants to be a contender for the nomination, he needs to start actually winning states.

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3. Ted Cruz Will Continue to Behave Like Other Iowa ‘Winners’

Ted Cruz’s disappointing third-place finish — and moderately-surprising loss to Trump among Evangelical voters — revealed that he has no path to the nomination. What he does have is a path to possibly win enough delegates in a three-man race to force a brokered convention, at which point he could instruct his delegates to vote for Trump on the condition that Trump selects Cruz as his VP candidate. This is a longshot scenario, but Cruz has plenty of money and organization, plenty of ambition, and plenty of loyal supporters who can’t stomach Trump but find Rubio too unseasoned and ideologically suspect.

In 2008 and 2012 respectively, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, high off of their unlikely come-from-behind wins in Iowa, stayed in the race long beyond the point of viability. Cruz will do the same, and he will lose, too. But in the meantime, his presence makes life easier for Trump. The center-right ‘establishment’ loathes both Trump and Cruz, but for the Republican rank-and-file, Cruz and Rubio are more similar, insofar as they are both Reagan Republicans with relatively conventional political resumes and loyalties that don’t extend very far beyond the traditional GOP nexus. You won’t see Cruz picking any fights with the Pope, George W. Bush, or Fox News.

4. My Nevada Prediction

Predicting caucuses is always a tricky business, and there’s been minimal polling out of Nevada, but here’s my best guess:

Trump 39
Rubio 30
Cruz 26
Kasich 4
Carson 2