Sunday, May 3, 2015

Election 2016 Update: Let's Narrow the GOP Field Down to the Only Three Who Have a Chance

Iowa is nine months away.  So of course it is an excellent time to narrow the field.  There are (give or take) 14 legitimate contenders for the GOP nomination.  But, in my view, there is a 99% chance that the nominee will end up being one of only three contenders:  Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or Scott Walker.  The other 1% is split between Rand Paul and Chris Christie.  No one else has a chance.

To some extent this is addition by subtraction.  Let’s see who we can rule out.

The easiest bunch to rule out are the “virtual unknowns.”  They are running simply to raise their profiles for a future race, or for a brief ego boost, or perhaps even under the misguided notion that they might catch lightning in a bottle.  In this grouping I would put Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, Bobby Jindal, Lindsay Graham and even Ben Carson, who is the only one of this group who has a non-negligible spot in the polls right now.  And he is fading, down to 7%.

Then comes “yesterday’s news,” high profile politicians who had their moment in the sun and simply blew it, with little chance to regain their mojo in such a crowded field.  Goodbye to Rick Perry and Chris Christie.  May they be remembered as proof of a process that actually works…that any sustained time in the bright lights tends to expose one’s core as an individual, in Perry’s case a dim-witted empty suit, and in Christie’s a rather underhanded and obnoxious blowhard.  Good job, GOP, in rejecting them. 

And the final batch are those who are simply too “out there” (that is, too far to the right)  to ever get elected.  One of these players could possibly win Iowa, but, like Rick Santorum in 2012, he will be unable to translate that into viable contention (no matter that Santorum did surprisingly well after his 2011 Iowa win).  In this category I would place Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Santorum, who even conservatives realize are too conservative to win, and Rand Paul, whose  libertarian mix of policies appeal a bit to the far right (limited federal government when it comes to taxation and social issues) and the very far left (limited government when it comes to NSA-style snooping and a strong anti-war mindset), and no one in between.  Huckabee has no money and no machine, and that won’t cut it in 2015/16 (though it might have in 2012…had he run, he would have been the most credible challenger to Romney on the right, far more than Santorum).

And with that, I have dispensed with the rest of the field.  

What do Bush, Rubio and Walker have in common?  Essentially, all are extremely conservative by 20th century standards, and may just check enough, if not all, of the boxes required to be considered potentially acceptable by the far right base here in the 21st century.  Yet at the same time, they have just enough moderation in their positions -- and package their views in mild, non-threatening enough personalities -- that they are acceptable to the establishment wing of the GOP.  Whatever the rise of the Tea Party in the last decade, the establishment has continued to get its candidates (McCain and Romney) nominated, albeit so damaged by the primary process that neither one really had a chance in November.

A good example of this “moderation” is Rubio’s stand on immigration.  Against the advice of his advisers, he signed up to be one of the so-called “Gang of Eight” who drove meaningful immigration reform legislation through the Senate.  It then failed in the House.  Rubio drew the full weight of displeasure from the far right, and has since backed away from the legislation, claiming that he had recanted and now believed a ‘step-by-step” approach to immigration reform was necessary.  Now he is able to claim credentials on both sides of the debate.  He risks being labeled a flip-flopper, of course, but this type of artful straddling is required at this level.  He may be better at it than Jeb Bush.

Jeb Bush, of course, may be anathema to the far right, because he fails the litmus test on not just one but two issues, education as well as immigration.  There are many problems with a Bush candidacy apart from his failure to ignite the base – just for starters he has zero charisma and that darned last name.  But he is a fundraising machine, has a track record as governor that he can speak to, is a policy wonk and is beloved by the Establishment.  He certainly has every opportunity to take the nomination if he can translate all that into actual votes.

Marco Rubio’s formal announcement that he is seeking the presidency set off the predictable boomlet in the polls, but also a rearguard Establishment movement led by The New York Times, of all media, with both David Brooks and Ross Douhit touting Rubio as the real deal.  And he just may be.  He is certainly charismatic, a terrific public speaker, with strong foreign policy chops – and his basic pitch is pretty strong:  that he is the next generation, whereas Bush and Clinton are 20th century types.  He has a rather brilliant way of using attacks on Hillary Clinton to jab at Jeb Bush as well, who, given their close relationship, is difficult for Rubio to critique directly.  I admire that kind of savvy.

Scott Walker did a very smart thing.  He went to Iowa early and kicked butt right out of the gate.  Back in January he appeared at the Iowa Freedom Summit and made what has been universally described as a terrific, high-energy speech that hyped “common sense conservative reform” and exhorted the GOP to “go big and bold” in their quest to add the White House to Congress.  He leaped straight to the top of the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire and remains there.  His views are actually just about as outrageous as those of Cruz and Huckabee, but he seems to have taken up the mantle of Paul Ryan (who decided to sit this election out) – the earnest, well-scrubbed conservative comer.  Cruz looks wild-eyed in comparison, and Huckabee way too down home.  Walker is the standard bearer of Tea Party hopes, and thus far is doing quite a fine job with it.  But his inexperience has already shown up (comparing dealing with ISIS with his tough stand against labor unions) and he will need to avoid the Big Gaffe to stay afloat.

Iowa may be viewed as strictly a test of strength among evangelicals (who make up 40% of caucus-goers) and New Hampshirites may simply view their role as rejecting the Iowa winner, but the fact remains that every Presidential nominee from either party has won one or the other since 19XX.  I suspect that will hold true in 2016.  And that means the main battle lines will play out that the Tea Party candidate will emerge from Iowa and the establishment one from New Hampshire.  Florida could play a role, though, if Bush and Rubio go 1-2 in New Hampshire and the loser comes back to win in his home state.

Rand Paul could win New Hampshire given its libertarian streak, and Chris Christie could make a comeback…not likely, but remember John McCain was near dead at this time in 2007.  Those potential openings give them at least very long odds of winning the nomination.

But the GOP side of the hunt might very well resemble the three-way Democratic match in 2008.  Jeb Bush plays the role of Hillary Clinton, with the family legacy, the giant funding potential, as well as the baggage and the rather pallid presence on the stump.  Marco Rubio looks like Barack Obama, shiny and new, young and agile, a bonafide minority, brashly challenging his elders.  And Scott Walker, filling in for Paul Ryan (the VP nominee in 2012) may be John Edwards, who was the VP nominee in 2004.  A bit of a stretch, but we’ll see how it plays out.  Here is how the GOP polls look as of now:

NATIONAL
Mar '15
Apr '15
IOWA
F/M '15
Apr '15
NH
Mar '15
Apr '15
Bush
16
14
Walker
23
16
Walker
16
20
Walker
15
13
Bush
12
13
Bush
17
14
Cruz
9
10
Rubio
6
12
Paul
10
14
Paul
9
10
Huckabee
12
9
Cruz
7
12
Rubio
6
9
Paul
9
8
Rubio
5
10
Huckabee
7
8
Carson
9
7
Christie
8
7
Carson
9
7
Cruz
5
7
Carson
4
6
Christie
6
5
Christie
7
5
Huckabee
5
5
Perry
4
3
Perry
4
4
Perry
2
4
Santorum
2
2
Santorum
5
3
Fiorina
2
3
Kasich
2
2
Fiorina
3
2
Santorum
1
1
Jindal
2
1
Jindal
2
1
Kasich
1
0
Fiorina
2
1
Kasich
0
1
Jindal
1
0
Graham
2
1
Graham
1
0
Graham
1
0
Other/NA
11
15
Other/NA
4
12
Other/NA
21
6

On the Democratic side, Hillary officially announced her candidacy on social media and promptly disappeared onto the U.S. Interstate highway system and then into the bowels of Iowa.  The scandal du mois for her was a flap over unreported donations to the Clinton Foundation, but that seemed to come and go faster than email-gate.  Hillary will lay low for quite some time; listening tours seem to work for her.  Lacking true competition, there is no point in her engaging the GOP and the American public on a broad scale so early in the process.

Bernie Sanders has announced he is challenging Hillary for the Democratic nomination.  This is quite amusing, because Sanders is not a Democrat, he is an Independent (actually, a self-described socialist), serving Vermont.  He decided to run as a Democrat out of convenience – there are simply too many hurdles for an Independent.  That in a nutshell defines the breezy, non-comformist style we can expect from the drastically underfunded Sanders campaign.  The hope by some is that he will raise a high-enough profile to force Hillary to pay attention to the far left agenda, but the spectre of Elizabeth Warren was already keeping Hillary honest enough on that front.

Hillary needs to keep her eye on New Hampshire though, as Elizabeth Warren-fever seems to be rising.  Warren claims she is not running but not in definitive Sherman-esque style (“if nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve…”).  New Hampshire has been friendly ground for the Clintons, as both resurrected campaigns there, Bill in 1992 and Hillary in 2008.  But New Hampshirites are famous for not accepting conventional wisdom.  Having said that, all the polls are still rather overwhelmingly for Hillary.

NATIONAL
Mar '15
Apr '15
IOWA
J/F '15
Apr '15
NH
Mar '15
Apr '15
Clinton
59
63
Clinton
61
60
Clinton
48
45
Warren
9
12
Warren
18
15
Warren
21
24
Biden
12
10
Sanders
6
8
Sanders
10
12
Sanders
6
6
Biden
9
6
Biden
8
7
O'Malley
2
3
O'Malley
1
4
O'Malley
2
4
Webb
1
1
Webb
0
0
Webb
1
2
Other/NA
11
5
Other/NA
5
7
Other/NA
10
6