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18 Days to Iowa: Presidential Demolition Derby Revs Up

What is there to add about Donald Trump that has not already been said? The political world has moved from disbelieving that he would even follow through and become a candidate, to expecting him to wither on the vine as more conventional choices gained steam, to accepting his nomination as a distinct possibility, to speculating that he will go all the way and defeat Hillary Clinton in November.

It’s Trump, Trump, Trump with all of us who focus on elections. Sam Wang of Princeton University studied recent primary polling and argued that Trump seems like a clear frontrunner by the standards set in recent nomination battles. Alex Castellanos, an unaffiliated veteran Republican pollster, wrote over the weekend that he could see Trump winning the primary and the general. Longtime political analyst Norm Ornstein took a deep dive and tracked the roots of Trumpism, while National Journal’s Ron Brownstein noted a “Trump gap,” whereupon Trump’s image among Republicans is improving even while he remains deeply unpopular with non-Republicans. Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report suggests that maybe political observers, particularly those on television, are exaggerating Trump’s chances.

The Crystal Ball completely concedes that when the history of 2016 is written, the Trump phenomenon will dominate the story, almost regardless of the name of the eventual winner. And like our journalistic and analytical brethren, we underestimated Trump’s ability to fit the moment and shrewdly play politics with the best of them. However, we haven’t yet embraced the “Trump inevitability” theories for either the GOP nomination or the White House. Here is why we are such persistent stick-in-the-muds and party poopers:

— We still do not know the actual size of the Trump army. National polls suggest that 35% or more of Republicans back Trump. If that’s true, he’s well-positioned to win at least some states. Yet his levels of support in Iowa, especially, and New Hampshire are noticeably weaker, averaging between 25% and 30%. If he can’t improve on that in the contests following the initial states, as many candidates drop out, the Trump bubble could burst.

— Trump also needs to prove that he can turn out his supporters. This is especially an issue in caucus states like Iowa, where a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll found that Trump led by two percentage points in the potential GOP electorate but trailed Ted Cruz by four points among likely caucus-goers. Whether Trump can get his supporters to actually show up to a complex electioneering event on a cold winter’s night is a question we cannot answer until the voting begins. It perhaps should be noted that chilly climes haven’t stopped thousands from waiting for hours in long lines to see Trump. But can he actualize that support? The New York Times took a look at Trump’s ground operation in Iowa and found it lacking.

— Iowa is not a strong leadoff state for Trump because it has a heavily evangelical, socially conservative electorate. Cruz, who stresses the issues that appeal most to evangelicals, has a profile similar to many past winners. The Texan’s continued strength in Iowa explains why Trump has been questioning Cruz’s constitutional eligibility for the presidency (Cruz was born in Canada to an American mother). The new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Iowa Poll shows Cruz still leading Trump, but down six points from the survey’s December 2015 findings. One has to wonder whether Trump’s attack on Cruz’s eligibility to be president — an unfounded charge rejected by most constitutional experts — is hurting Cruz’s numbers. With that said, 83% of respondents in the Iowa Poll said they weren’t bothered by the fact Cruz was born outside of the United States. Cruz’s opposition to Iowa’s precious ethanol subsidy may be more damaging to him.

— Despite surveys that show Trump’s supporters will stick with him to a greater degree than some other contenders’ backers, we suspect that a large portion of the primary electorate across the country is still quite fluid. After all, Iowa and New Hampshire polls show, to varying degrees, that many voters could still change their minds about whom they support, and they’re much closer to Election Day than most states. Moreover, while it is unlikely at this point, we also can’t rule out the possibility that someone other than Cruz or Trump will win Iowa. Marco Rubio and his allies, for instance, are unleashing a massive ad barrage in the Hawkeye State that could help him post an impressive showing.

— New Hampshire is better for Trump, and he is the substantial favorite there at the moment. While he’s only polling at around 30% in most polls, there is a glut of establishment-preferred candidates there who are Stuck in Granite, so to speak. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich are all at about 10% in most polls as they try to replicate John McCain and Mitt Romney’s path to the nomination. Rubio, increasingly lumped in with that group despite a less insider-flavored history, gets another 10%+ of support. So does Cruz: His evangelical fervor does not play as well in a state that’s much more secular than Iowa, but a victory in the Hawkeye State could give him a decent lift in New Hampshire. Should Trump fail to win Iowa, it’s difficult to say how that might impact the race. Such a result could weaken him in New Hampshire, boosting others in his stead. As Crystal Ball friend Al Tuchfarber recently reminded us, Trump tends to be weaker on the “second choice” question than some of his competitors. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist and Monmouth surveys in the Granite State showed Trump is the backup option for 8% of likely voters. A Trump loss in Iowa might move some Trump backers elsewhere, perhaps to Cruz, who was the leading No. 2 choice in the Monmouth poll. Given where Cruz is in the polls, though, Trump could lose voters to him and still capture New Hampshire’s primary. But an Iowa loss could lower the threshold it takes for a more establishment-flavored candidate to have a shot at edging the real estate mogul in the first-in-the-nation primary.

— As such, even if Trump wins New Hampshire, the person who eventually wins the nomination may be either Cruz or the establishment candidate that finishes closest to Trump and ahead of the several others in that category. After Iowa and New Hampshire, this 12-person field could and should be reduced to three or four contenders, allowing an anti-Trump (and anti-Cruz) to emerge. As of this writing, Rubio seems the likeliest person to take on both of those mantles, but it could be someone else, which is what Bush, Christie, and Kasich are banking on. In a sign of things to come over the next few weeks, a new ad from Right to Rise, a Super PAC allied with Bush, slams the Florida senator for being akin to a political weather vane.

— Trump and Cruz will invariably have to deal with electability questions: Most (including us) believe that they have a smaller chance of winning the White House in the fall than some of their rivals. We also subscribe to the conventional wisdom that if Trump sweeps both Iowa and New Hampshire, he will be the clear favorite to win the nomination. But let’s remember history: In modern (post-1970) presidential nomination politics, no non-incumbent Republican has ever won both Iowa and New Hampshire. The Granite State has acted as a brake on Iowa, choosing one of the candidates that lost the Hawkeye caucuses. Partly, it’s because New Hampshire wants to put its own stamp on the selection, but it’s also a legitimate attempt to slow down the nominating process, to force the candidates to slog through a couple dozen more states before the whistle is blown. For more on the Iowa-New Hampshire dynamic, see the companion piece in this week’s Crystal Ball.

One of the key moments will come when the so-called “establishment wing” (party leaders and mainstream conservatives) finally decides to back only one of the following: Rubio, Christie, Bush, or Kasich. Will they consolidate their money and resources, can they nudge or force the other candidates to withdraw, and could they do all this quickly enough to stop Trump and Cruz?

Speaking of party leaders, they are in many ways sitting on their hands. Less than two-fifths of GOP House members and less than a quarter of senators have endorsed a candidate so far, as Republican consultant Bruce Mehlman recently pointed out to us. And their support is badly splintered. The party insiders have not coalesced around anyone yet, and by the time they do, it might be too late for their choice to succeed. Behind the scenes, national GOP officeholders are overwhelmingly opposed to both Trump and Cruz, but many have been intimidated by the strength these candidates have shown with the party base. Leaders are supposed to lead, but that isn’t happening in the GOP this year. We get it: When the peasants are in full revolt, there usually isn’t a rush among the elites to line up for the guillotine.

The Republican establishment’s indecision brings to mind an excellent presentation the Crystal Ball attended over the weekend at the Southern Political Science Association’s conference. Wayne Steger of DePaul University argued that party leaders only coalesce around a candidate when they believe that candidate is a likely nomination winner. This explains why many elected Democrats have endorsed Hillary Clinton but so few Republicans have picked a candidate: No Republican has emerged to vacuum up establishment support. That could have been Bush, but he failed in this aspect of the so-called “invisible primary,” which takes place behind closed doors before the caucuses and primaries begin. The invisible primary is ending, to be replaced by the real primary.

The future of the Republican Party might well hang in the balance. A Trump GOP would be very different than the party we’ve known since Ronald Reagan. It would be more populist, blue-collar oriented, less responsive to Wall Street, and more driven by toughness toward immigrants and foreign adversaries. As for a Cruz presidency, it would arguably be the most conservative, by far, in the modern era, but it could also redefine Republicanism in other ways. Cruz, for instance, does not seem to share the same enthusiasm for nation-building as did George W. Bush.

Of course, in the case of Trump, one does wonder where he would go ideologically in the general election. He’s unlikely to backtrack on top promises such as immigration or his pledge to bomb ISIS back to the Stone Age. Yet Trump has been very flexible — that is, he’s changed positions — on loads of issues over the years. We could see him move to the center or shift considerably on troublesome topics. Trump’s sole objective would be to win.

Table 1: Crystal Ball rankings of 2016 Republican presidential candidates

First Tier: The Divisive Polling Leader
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Donald Trump
Businessman and TV personality
•Commands the stage, has freedom to say anything — and does
•Draws crowds & media; high name ID; riveting figure
•Billionaire, can self-fund if he wants
•Has committed supporters, but may have low support ceiling in GOP primary
•Strongly opposed by a near-unanimous GOP leadership
Second Tier: The Iowa Favorite?
Ted Cruz
Senator, TX
•Dynamic debater & canny, often underestimated politician
•Anti-establishment nature plays well with base
•Understands that race is marathon, not sprint
•Disliked on both sides of Senate aisle and has few friends in party
•Can he unite the party, or is he just a factional candidate?
Third Tier: The Long-Distance Runner
Marco Rubio
Senator, FL
•Dynamic speaker and politician
•Generational contrast with Jeb…& Hillary
•Starting to win support from party leaders, who may see him as their only plausible, winning nominee
•Went left on immigration, hurt him with base
•Is he raising enough money and building a strong enough organization?
•Do Republicans see him as a plausible president?
Fourth Tier: Stuck in Granite
Chris Christie
Governor, NJ
•Commanding speaker and stage presence
•Improving his favorability amongst Republicans
•Large parts of party still don’t like him
•Doesn’t fit ideological mood of party
Jeb Bush
Ex-Governor, FL
•National BushWorld money and organization
•Personifies establishment, which typically produces GOP nominees
•Bush fatigue is real and deep
•Early ad blitz has not moved needle, numbers have only worsened
John Kasich
Governor, OH
•Long moderate-conservative record plus two terms as swing-state Ohio governor •Unscripted, combative style leads to unforced errors
•Jon Huntsman 2.0?
Fifth Tier: Back of the Pack
Ben Carson
Neurosurgeon and activist
•High favorability in party, well-liked by white evangelicals
•Political outsider, no baggage from office
•Running messy, error-prone campaign
•National security & foreign policy campaign focus weakens him
Carly Fiorina
Former business executive
•The only woman in the field, severe critic of Clinton
•Strong on debate stage & on camera
•Lost only race (2010 Senate) badly
•Over-reliant on debate performances, poor fundraising
Mike Huckabee
Ex-Governor, AR
•Has the kind of profile that appeals to blue-collar social conservatives •Increasingly overshadowed by other socially conservative candidates
Rand Paul
Senator, KY
•National ID and fundraising network; benefits from father’s previous efforts •Dovish views on national security are out of GOP mainstream
Rick Santorum
Ex-Senator, PA
•Credibility with social conservatives •Yesterday’s news
Jim Gilmore
Ex-Governor, VA
•Military record, intelligence officer during Cold War •Totally left out of debates, anonymous in party

The Democrats

Take a deep breath and a step back: Hillary Clinton, supposedly the nominee-presumptive with an arm’s length political and governmental resume stretching back decades, is essentially tied in Iowa and trails in New Hampshire versus a 74-year old socialist who joined the Democratic Party a few months ago. (You may exhale now.) Of course, this is due in part to Democrats’ support for Bernie Sanders’ issues, from income inequality to dislike of Wall Street and the big banks. Yet Clinton herself is the other half of her problem. There is unease among activists about “shoes yet to drop” concerning the Clintons and a certain weariness with this famous family’s travails. It’s worth pondering whether Trump’s widely-covered attacks on Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs have contributed to Hillary Clinton’s bad week of polling in Iowa and New Hampshire. Just as most Republicans have decided to turn the page on the Bushes, some Democrats may be itching to finish off the Clinton chapter. As we all know, winning candidates need to project a better future, not offer a rerun of the past.

All along, it’s been fairly clear that Sanders was going to be a threat to Hillary Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa Democrats are quite liberal, and they rejected Clinton in 2008 — pushing her into third place in the caucuses and wounding her enough to deprive her (barely) of the Democratic nomination. In that same year, the Granite State temporarily rescued her and forced Barack Obama to fight all the way to June for the presidential party crown. Yet this time, Sanders has the enormous advantage of being from neighboring Vermont; he is very well known and liked in the border counties between the two states. Historically, regionalism can be a powerful force. New Hampshire has often been inclined to back both Democratic and Republican primary candidates from the Northeast, including six presidential contenders from neighboring Massachusetts: John F. Kennedy (D-1960), Henry Cabot Lodge (R-1964), Michael Dukakis (D-1988), Paul Tsongas (D-1992), John Kerry (D-2004), and Mitt Romney (R-2012). One might even include Clinton in 2008, when she was a U.S. senator from New York. But Sanders is the regional “favorite son” this time around, and while he is a substantial underdog to Clinton in terms of national party support, he has raised an impressive amount of money, to the extent that Sanders has actually been running more ads than Clinton for at least the past two months, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity’s Michael Beckel.

Iowa and New Hampshire are still competitive at this point, and Clinton can pull one or both out of the hat by Election Day. If she wins the two, her nomination is assured, and it will happen fairly painlessly. Even if she loses both, she’s still the likely nominee thanks to her establishment support and the backing of nonwhites, who remain cool to Sanders and play a much bigger role in the contests held after Iowa and New Hampshire. But in that event, Clinton is in for a potentially prolonged battle that will push her further to the left and deprive her of advantages she hoped to have: extra months and money to plan for a difficult general election campaign. Expect also a period of turmoil when, inevitably, calls will be heard for Vice President Joe Biden to reconsider a candidacy. Meanwhile, GOP candidates will continue to pounce on Clinton and her husband, occasionally drawing blood. One must always add the caveat, too, that Clinton could eventually face serious legal trouble over her private emails, with uncharted consequences.

Table 2: Crystal Ball rankings of 2016 Democratic presidential candidates

First Tier: The Undisputed Frontrunner
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Hillary Clinton
Ex-Secretary of State
•Stronger than she was eight years ago
•Overwhelming support from party leaders
•Dual support from women, minorities hard to overcome, particularly after Iowa and New Hampshire
•Private emails, Clinton Foundation scandals still playing out
•Possible losses in early states could snowball
•Keeping Bill in check — and on the porch
Second Tier: The Leading Challenger
Bernie Sanders
Senator (Ind.),
•Could win one or both of Iowa and New Hampshire
•Strongly competing with Clinton in the $$ game
•Drawing big crowds and generating enthusiasm on party’s left flank
•Outsider in what is very much an insider process
•Continues to generate little excitement among nonwhite voters
•Big crowds don’t predict wins
Third Tier: The Oxygen Seeker
Martin O’Malley
Ex-Governor, MD
•Liberal record and policy achievements •Didn’t even make ballot in some places
•Candidacy largely invisible so far, even with debate appearances

The general election

It’s too early to start handicapping November with any great degree of confidence, but we’ll say this much: As polarized as our country was prior to this campaign, it has become even more polarized during it, and promises to be fully polarized by the fall. Practically, that means any GOP or Democratic nominee probably has a solid base of 45% or so. Barry Goldwater and George McGovern’s 38% mark is exceedingly unlikely for any major-party candidate today — barring the introduction of significant independents or third-party nominees.

While Clinton’s candidacy may look different by the fall, to this point she’s underscored how she lost the 2008 contest to Barack Obama. Though she is good overall in debates, Clinton doesn’t connect well in many other settings, and her persona is often cold and unapproachable. Perhaps more important, while trying for the Democrats’ third consecutive White House term that can be difficult to achieve, she has decades of baggage to carry — her own, her husband’s, and Obama’s. There are legitimate reasons for Democrats to worry that Clinton, even with Obama’s help, will prove unable to motivate the party’s already-unreliable voter base to show up in November.

Despite all the turmoil and splits on the Republican side, our current expectation is for a highly competitive contest in November. That could be true even if Cruz or Trump is the GOP nominee. While we believe the Republicans have stronger general election candidates — Rubio is the clearest example, but Christie, Kasich, or Bush might also qualify — one has to allow for the possibility that national conditions will generically favor a Republican candidate in the fall. A summer recession or a terrorist attack on American soil could do considerable political harm to the current White House party, the Democrats.

Maybe the dark clouds we are conjuring up for Democrats will never appear, or will dissipate by November, and a majority of an increasingly diverse electorate will look at an angry Republican party and its avenging nominee and say, “No thanks, you’re overwrought, so we’ll stick with the devil we know.” However, if the nation is unhappy enough, and ready enough for change, a broadly acceptable Republican nominee will be favored to carry the day. We’ll let you, dear reader, define “broadly acceptable.”