Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Trump's Electoral Stenosis

Stenosis is an abnormal narrowing of a pathway in your body, often in your spinal column or neck. It can be a debilitating condition that leads to weakness and paralysis. Right now, we're witnessing a rare, self-induced case of campaign stenosis that is narrowing Donald Trump's path to the presidency so much that it's almost entirely closed off. And it's only early August.

Elections aren't typically won or lost in August, not before the presidential debates, unforeseen world events, an October Surprise, and who knows what else. But this is a most atypical election year (that's just in from the Keen Sense of the Obvious Bureau), one in which several major newspapers have already endorsed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, one in which Trump got virtually no bounce from the Republican National Convention while Clinton got one from the DNC that is lasting well beyond what is normal, hardening from a bounce into a rock solid lead.

Consider this: in the last ten days, major national polls have shown Clinton beating Trump by ten, twelve, even fifteen points. Her average lead right now is around eight points. It's true that summer surveys are far from conclusive, and Trump could still (and probably will) narrow the gap considerably. But the last two presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, never had leads remotely that large. In the last forty years, only Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 ever enjoyed polling leads this substantial at this point in a presidential campaign.  Reagan went on to win by 18 points, and Clinton won both his races by comfortable margins.

Hillary Clinton, despite unfavorability ratings that would be the worst in history if not for the even worse ones of her even more despised opponent, is poised to win the presidency in a landslide. Yes, a landslide. Not because of those lopsided national polling numbers, but because she is pulling away in states that should be closely contested, and could even capture states the Democrats should have no reasonable hope of winning.

Here's how this election will turn out if Clinton wins the same states Obama did four years ago (interactive maps courtesy of 270towin.com, where you can make your own):

So that means Clinton starts with a presumed Electoral College advantage of 332 to 206, if she just holds on to all 27 of Obama's blue states, and Trump wins all 24 red ones Mitt Romney carried (50 states, plus the District of Columbia).

Trump's hopes rest on taking away Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, which would give him a 273-265 victory in the Electoral College. Or, if he carries Ohio and Florida but not Pennsylvania, perhaps making up for it by winning in Iowa, Virginia and Nevada, which would give him a 278-260 win and look like this:

Here's where Trump's electoral stenosis comes in. Recent polls in those battleground states show Clinton winning Pennsylvania by between 9 and 11 points. If not for its history, that would make it a Clinton shoo-in, not a swing state. She's beating Trump in Colorado by from 8 to 13 points, and in Virginia by 7 to 12. In fact, the Clinton campaign is shifting resources from those two states, so confident is it now of victory there. And the shift to Clinton goes on: WBUR has her beating Trump by 17 in New Hampshire. The last two polls in Michigan put Clinton up by 9 and 10. These are no longer battlegrounds; they are killing fields.

Ohio, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Iowa remain close, and could still go either way. But Clinton could lose all of those and still win 273-265 as long as she carries Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado and New Hampshire, where, we've just noted, she has commanding leads.

A more likely scenario, in fact, is that Clinton not only sweeps most, if not all, of the swing states, but pulls off upset victories in historically Republican states, conservative strongholds like Utah and Georgia, and purplish places like Arizona. Clinton should not be competitive in Utah and Georgia, and Arizona should be relatively safe for Trump. But this is Donald Trump we're talking about. He is loathed by many conservative Republicans in Utah and Colorado, in particular, and his anti-Muslim rhetoric repulses Mormons throughout the Intermountain West, while his anti-illegal immigration vitriol is galvanizing the Latino vote in Arizona. So Arizona, which no Democrat has won since Bill Clinton in 1996, is a dead heat. So is Georgia, where the two most recent polls actually show Clinton ahead - even though no Democrat has carried the Peach State since her husband in 1992. And Utah? Tougher to predict, thanks to a dearth of polling data, but Libertarian Gary Johnson is running strong there, and with Mormon conservative ex-CIA agent Evan McMullin entering the race as an independent wild card, a Clinton victory there over Trump in a splintered field is certainly not out of the question.

So, one last map: If Clinton were to run the table in the battlegrounds, and tip just a few typically red states into her column, the country would look like this:

That's 31 states for Clinton, only 20 for Trump, and a 380-158 Electoral College landslide, the biggest since George H.W. Bush swamped Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Of course, this election could also end in a 269-269 tie, if things broke just right, which could leave us with President Donald Trump and Vice President Tim Kaine - but that's a scenario to be explained in another column - and only if if Trump can somehow stop dealing body blows to his own candidacy.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Why The Revolution Was Not Televised

The rumors crackled across the convention floor like a smoldering wildfire: "They're going to turn their backs on Hillary Clinton. They're going to walk out. They're going to throw toilet paper at her. They're going to rush the stage."

"We can't let her speak. She should not be allowed to speak," one #BernieOrBust delegate told me the morning of Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech, refusing to accept the legitimacy of Clinton's nomination for president by the Democratic Party. He was part of a hardcore minority within the Bernie Sanders delegation to the Democratic National Convention that felt betrayed by its leader. "He promised us we'd fight at the convention. We came here expecting an open convention. Instead, he sold us out. He no longer has the moral authority to tell us what to do."

These delegates, perhaps two hundred out of Sanders' almost two thousand in Philadelphia, might have been surprised, even outraged, to learn that Bernie Sanders was actually working closely with Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia to keep them from derailing the convention.

Conversations with more than a dozen delegates, floor whips and officials from the Clinton campaign, the Sanders campaign and the Democratic National Committee reveal just how they did it.

Most importantly, the Clinton campaign, not convention organizers, controlled the floor of the DNC. The yellow-vested floor whips told Clinton delegates where to sit, what signs to hold, what chants and cheers to yell and when to yell them. They seated delegations strategically, at first trying to dilute the strength of the Sanders delegates by splitting them up, then by surrounding them and keeping them as far back from the stage as possible. As in Cleveland at the RNC, the California delegation was the largest, and the loudest. In Cleveland, the Californians were all Trump delegates, so the Golden State crew was seated near the stage, where they could present a united front on television and shout down any dissidents supporting Ted Cruz, or any other challenge to Donald Trump. That worked to a T, as the Californians relished their role and overwhelmed all opposition.

But in Philadelphia, the California delegation consisted of 330 Clinton delegates and 221 Sanders supporters. So instead of a choice spot on the floor, the Californians were exiled to Section 105, one level up, far stage right, in a corner. Clinton's delegates arrived early each day and reserved all the seats closest to the floor, sometimes filling them with non-delegates to force the Sanders team to the rear of the section, where they would not be seen on television and would be less likely to be heard.

Sanders merged his campaign operation with Clinton's. There were no Sanders whips on the floor. The floor captains wore headsets, receiving radio instructions from the "boiler room," where senior operatives from the combined campaigns told them how to thwart any insurrections by the Sanders diehards. They were given a list of the chants the Sanders delegates might use, in advance, and had a corresponding list of counter-chants. So when TV viewers heard loud chants of "Hillary" at seemingly random moments, it was to drown out chants of "No TPP" started by some of the California Sanders delegates. When they heard "USA" break out at inexplicable times—a chant heard more often in the past at Republican conventions than Democratic ones—it was to cover chants of "No More War" coming from Section 105. When Sanders delegates stood up with homemade signs denouncing Clinton, or tried to wave the "LIAR" signs they'd made from the "HILLARY" ones handed out in the hall, Clinton delegates stood up with giant banners, designed to look homemade, but really, stashed ahead of time by the campaign, like this one:

California Sanders delegates doctoring signs in protest

The Sanders delegates also claim the Clinton campaign or the DNC installed white noise machines above certain sections to drown out any anti-Clinton chanting.

In the end, Clinton won. Yes, some delegates walked out, some turned their backs, many chanted, but for the tens of millions watching at home and around the world, that revolution was not televised. The #NeverHillary Sanders folks who were sitting front and center, in the New York and Florida delegations, stood up and waved signs and chanted, but never rushed the stage, as the Secret Service had heard they might. They wouldn't have gotten anywhere near Hillary Clinton, but the sight of the party's nominee being hustled off the stage while security forces subdued on onslaught of delegates would have doomed any hope the Democrats had of presenting an image of unity to the nation.

The upstart Sanders renegades had whips of their own, instructing their members when to chant, how to assert themselves and demand seats that were supposed to be held only for delegates, distributing fluorescent yellow-green "Enough Is Enough" shirts to wear on the convention's final night. But there weren't enough of them committed to disrupting Clinton to overcome the cards stacked against them. I was on the convention floor interviewing Donna Brazile, named interim chair of the DNC after Debbie Wasserman Schultz's email-induced fall from grace, when Jeff Weaver, campaign manager for Bernie Sanders, happened by. "Excuse me," Brazile said, interrupting our interview. "There's my brother Jeff Weaver. I need to tell him how much I love him." Brazile proceeded to hug and laugh with Weaver, whisper in his ear and tell him how much she looked forward to working with him. It was more than just a public display of unity. While Sanders' most determined delegates felt betrayed and deceived by the Democratic National Committee, the man running their hero's campaign was already in cahoots with it. The Sanders brain trust turned over its intelligence on those resisting his endorsement of Clinton, so that Clinton's convention managers would know what to expect, and how to prepare. The combined operation even had spies within the rebel group.

DNC interim chair Donna Brazile with Sanders campaign boss Jeff Weaver on the convention floor

"This is like something out of 'House of Cards,'" one irate Sanders delegate from California told me. "These people are cheating. The whole system is rigged."
"They're roughing us up," another Sanders delegate, Henry Huerta of Los Angeles said. "They're shutting us out, trying to silence us."
"It's called politics," a California Clinton delegate responded. She asked me not to use her name. "This is how the game is played at this level. We're not doing anything they wouldn't do, if they knew how. They're just new to the sport. We're better at it than they are."

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Night And Day

Thoughts on what lies ahead
Somewhere over Kansas

I’m winging my way to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, after covering the Republicans’ confab in Cleveland last week (apologies for not blogging from the RNC, but the California delegation’s distant accommodations in Sandusky, Ohio added two hours of driving to my already overstuffed days and too-short nights there, and the need for sleep trumped posting to the blog. I’ll make up for it with far too many words here).

The RNC was the most off-kilter political convention I’ve ever covered, marred by Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech, the open political warfare on the floor between the Ted Cruz delegates and the Donald Trump campaign, a bizarre and oddly programmed hodgepodge of motley speakers, and finally, the longest acceptance speech in American history, Trump’s 76-minute recitation of the doom and gloom that, in his eyes, has rendered America no longer great.

Debbie Wasserman Shultz, the Miami Congresswoman who chairs the Democratic National Committee, buzzed about the periphery of the RNC like a mosquito waiting to suck blood and raise welts. She talked to any and all comers about what a mess the convention was, and how her party was unified in its fight against Trump’s divided GOP, even ribbing her Republican counterpart, Reince Priebus, reminding him via Twitter that she was in town and available to show him how to run a smoother operation.

Well, as I write this, the Democrats are embroiled in pre-convention controversy of their own, and it turns out it isn’t always sunny in Philadelphia, after all. Friday, Wikileaks released thousands of hacked DNC emails—perhaps stolen by Russians trying to help Trump win the presidency, in return for policies more favorable to the Kremlin—that include embarrassing evidence that Shultz and other party higher-ups were indeed trying to sabotage the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders and ensure the nomination of Hillary Clinton (and Shultz trying to score tickets to “Hamilton” - DNC communications chief Luis Miranda is the father of Broadway wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda. It’s reassuring to know that clout has its limits). As the leaked emails broke, the furious pro-Sanders forces, armed with new proof that yes, the system is rigged, were fighting in the Rules Committee to abolish superdelegates in future campaigns, to make it easier for an outsider like Sanders to wrest the nomination from an anointed insider, like Clinton. Sanders demanded that Shultz step down. So things were unraveling for the Democrats on two fronts.

Just before my flight took off came this bit of breaking news (what would I do without Twitter and my crackphone, I mean iPhone?): Shultz announced that she will resign from the DNC—as soon as this week’s convention is over. She will still wield the gavel, opening and closing the convention, though her presence may be diminished. Score another one for Sanders, who sees her as his bĂȘte noire, who may have cost him the nomination and, perhaps, the presidency. This development will surely overshadow everything else on the convention’s opening day. Never mind your message, Senator, Governor, Congressman, up-and-coming obscure state lawmaker—what do you think about your party chair resigning under fire? How can you argue the Democrats are unified? Will the 1900 or so Sanders delegates break this convention wide open by feuding with the 2800 Clinton loyalists?

This will be my seventh national party convention, and I’ve never seen the kind of head-spinning, not-according-to-plan kerfuffles we got at the RNC—and now the DNC promises more of the same.

But there’s one critical difference, and it comes from the top: the presidential nominees themselves, and their closest rivals, and it’s instructive as to what kind of president each might make.

Donald Trump ran roughshod over the Cruz minority in Cleveland. To use his words, he “crushed them.” His team kept its boots on their throats in the Rules Committee, refused to allow a floor vote on the question of whether delegates should be released from their commitment to support Trump on the first ballot, and turned back every challenge from the Dump Trump brigade, without exception or compromise. Meanwhile, John Kasich—the Republican governor of the swing state hosting the convention—boycotted the whole affair, Marco Rubio gave a perfunctory 85-second address via video from Florida, and Ted Cruz, in a prime time speech, thumbed his nose at Trump and his rabid delegates by refusing to endorse him and urging America to vote its conscience. Bedlam broke out on the floor. I saw people crying and trembling, so shaken they couldn’t speak. Seriously. The party was ripped asunder for all to see. The schism was muted, momentarily, by the rousing reception the conventioneers gave Trump’s marathon acceptance address, only to have the wound gashed open again the very next morning by Trump himself, with a rambling diatribe against Cruz. There will be no endorsements, no party unity, no coalition to defeat Clinton.

It appears the Philadelphia Story could have a quite different ending. Rather than risk the unruly disturbance of a floor vote on the superdelegates issue, Clinton’s team is forming a “Unity Commission” with the Sanders supporters to study how to reduce the role of superdelegates, and cut their number by two-thirds. That defuses that tension. Instead of fighting to keep her job, the lightning rod Shultz is stepping down, presumably at Clinton’s behest, or at the very least with her acquiescence. Though many of his delegates remain livid, and may stage protests of their own—there’s talk of turning their backs, or even walking out, during Tim Kaine’s acceptance to register their disappointment that Hillary didn’t choose a more progressive running mate, and you can count on some fiery FeelTheBern-ing during the roll call vote of the states—Sanders himself remains steadfastly in Clinton’s corner. He is not rescinding his endorsement of Clinton for president and on Monday night will deliver it, with full-throated enthusiasm, in his prime time convention address. His campaign says he will make, in great and passionate detail, the case for defeating Donald Trump and electing Hillary Clinton, and will tout the “most progressive platform in party history”—which Clinton agreed to, in yet another mollifying move. In fact, Hillary is doing everything she can to minimize the controversies, forge unity, and turn each potential conflagration into a sing-along bonfire.

Can you imagine Trump agreeing to a Unity Commission with his “crushed” rivals? Or any of the top runners-up (especially Ted Cruz) urging the country to vote for him? I didn’t think so.

On Thursday night, Hillary Clinton will strike a far different tone from Trump’s. Trump didn’t give us Ronald Reagan “morning in America’ oratory. It was more like a dark and stormy midnight. I expect Clinton will present a brighter, hopeful vision of an America that has come a long way and, with her at the helm, will rise even higher. She will try to inspire and elevate. She will talk about breaking boundaries, shattering glass ceilings, and building bridges instead of walls. She will tell us that Love Trumps Hate. She will try her hardest to seem human and humane, to connect emotionally, to appeal to optimism and hope and not just fear. In the last few days, Clinton has shown that she practices politics as the art of compromise, not the art of the one-sided deal Trump seems to be trying to sell America. The Democratic convention could still devolve into a rip-roaring free-for-all (especially if many Bernie backers refuse to follow their candidate’s lead), but something tells me the DNC and RNC will end up being as different as night and day.

Follow Doug’s convention tweets at @SovernNation. He reports live from the DNC in Philly twice each morning at either 6:20, 7:30 or 8:30, and again at 4:20pm, 5:11pm, 6:11pm, 7:11pm and 8:11pm (all Pacific time) on KCBS Radio in San Francisco. Listen live at 106.9FM, 740AM, or CBSSF.com, where you can also hear recorded reports and see photos. Even more on the KCBS Facebook page!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Four-Lane Pileup

Political parties used to have wings. 2016 is the year they developed lanes.

That's what happens when you have seventeen candidates seeking your presidential nomination, as the Republican Party did at the start of this campaign. It's pretty tough to crowd seventeen people onto two wings. Eventually, some might fall off, or even choose to jump. And a creature with seventeen wings, even a political party, is too terrifying even to consider.

Hence, the advent of lanes, popularized by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and his shrewd strategic team. Even if he doesn't win the presidency, or even the Republican nomination—and I still don't think he will—Cruz will go down in history as the guy who changed the way pundits talk about campaigns. The lane metaphor has become ubiquitous. It's the fallback catch phrase for the talking heads of the politigentsia (did I just coin that word?). When's the last time you caught anyone referring to the "right wing" of the GOP?

The way Cruz saw it, there are four lanes in the grand new version of the Grand Old Party: the evangelical Christian lane, the Tea Party lane, the libertarian lane (read: the Ron Paul lane), and the moderate-establishment-old boy lane (read: the Bush-Romney-Bush lane). As a nakedly ambitious man unable to even pretend to conceal his Machiavellian ways behind a facade of niceties, Cruz was only too happy to articulate his four-lane construct to any and all observers as he launched his long-shot bid for the presidency. None of us took him too seriously, giving him barely any chance of breaking out of the pack ("way too conservative, unlikable, irritating, a niche candidate," we said). Four lanes, huh? Nice idea, Ted. Lovely. Good luck with that. Now go filibuster something and leave us alone.

But Cruz, who has proven time and again to be an absolutely brilliant politician (you may not want him to be president, but he would make one hell of a campaign manager) who thinks many moves ahead of his adversaries (if running for president were chess, Cruz would be the Bobby Fischer of our time), had a plan. He would run from the Tea Party lane, as he did when he stunned establishment darling David Dewhurst to capture a U.S. Senate seat in Texas. But he would also court the hell out of the evangelical Christians (pardon my blasphemy), and also go after the Libertarians, whom Rand Paul was taking for granted. Cruz figured if he could consolidate those three lanes, he would be the last conservative standing, and the only viable alternative to whomever captured the moderate-establishment lane, presumably one of the Four Govs, Bush, Kasich, Christie or Walker.

Cruz succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams except his own. Walker wilted early. Paul petered out. Christie and Bush are gone. The other red meat conservatives, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, were yesterday's news. Bobby Jindal couldn't get out of the starting gate. Rick Perry became a late night punchline. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina each had their moment in the sun, only to fade into asterisk land (Carson seems to have invented his own lane: the extremely slow lane, in which all the drivers fall asleep at the wheel until they veer into the Bushes). He won the Iowa caucus by doing exactly what he'd planned: uniting the evangelical, libertarian and Tea Party lanes behind his candidacy and presenting himself as the only one worthy of taking on the unexpected Big Dog, Donald Trump.

But he ran into a roadblock in New Hampshire, and now he's hit a speed bump in South Carolina, where he finished third, tailgating-close to Marco Rubio, but third nonetheless, in a state full of evangelicals Cruz had assumed he would win.

As I wrote before Iowa voters went to their caucuses, this is a three-man race (it didn't just become one, as some are saying after South Carolina; it's been one for months). John Kasich still has illusions of emerging from the establishment lane, but he's reading road signs that simply aren't there. With Jeb! out of the running, the party establishment and moderate money men are much more likely to coaslesce around Rubio as their only hope to stop Trump. Carson is running on fumes (and seems like he's inhaling them, too) and will be the next to fade away. But the party leaders are clinging to the unrealistic notion that Donald Trump has a ceiling, and that as the other never-were contenders drop out, that not-Trump vote will distribute itself among the remaining challengers, namely Cruz and Rubio. Bush's people will split between Kasich and Rubio, until Kasich is gone, and then Rubio will overtake Trump, unless Cruz rallies the remaining conservatives to his cause by then, in which case he will.

Here's the problem with that thinking, and the unexpected development even Cruz could not foresee: that is not what's happening. When Christie and Fiorina quit the race, Trump picked up as many of their supporters as anyone else did. With Bush gone, and when Carson follows, he's likely to do the same with theirs. The exit polls show Trump actually beat Cruz among evangelical voters in South Carolina, 33-27%. Yes, a plurality of the born-again Constitution-thumpers of the Palmetto State voted for the Antichrist Himself, Donald "New York Values" Trump. So if Trump has a ceiling, it may well be vaulted, and made of gilded marble. It is Trump, not Cruz, not Rubio, who is consolidating the various lanes of the Republican Party. He may not be in control of the party's moderate establishment, but the voters in that lane are all aboard the Trump Express. Trump won 34% of self-described moderate voters in South Carolina, with Rubio next at 23% and Kasich third with 21%. Cruz was a distant fifth among that group, at just seven percent. Trump won among voters who identify as conservative, too, beating Cruz by six points. He's pulling Tea Partiers, and he's attracting libertarians. South Carolina Republicans who are "angry" at the federal government voted overwhelmingly for Trump. So did those who are looking for a candidate who "tells it like it is" and "can bring needed change." The conventional wisdom that Trump is only pulling a third of the vote, so the other two-thirds will naturally coalesce around his last remaining opponent, is flawed. Many of those "other" supporters turn out to prefer Trump once their first choice falls by the wayside.

So while some suddenly-unemployed Bush strategists and mainstream pundits and deep-pocketed donors wait for Trump to crater, and for the anyone-but-Donald vote to consolidate around Rubio, or Cruz, or even Kasich (wow, really?), Trump speeds ahead and leaves the others to eat his exhaust. It's hard to look at the primary calendar and see where Rubio picks up a much-needed primary win, even with the "Marcomentum" of his second-place finish in South Carolina (a state he vowed to take just a week ago). Cruz is likely to score some victories in some of the larger Southern Super Tuesday states (most notably, the largest of them all, his home state of Texas), but his long-range plan of using his Tea Party/evangelical base as a springboard to a March 1st primary romp no longer seems realistic. Trump has more of the evangelicals in his corner than even the man who built his entire candidacy around them. If Cruz can't win his own lanes in a state as conservative as South Carolina, and Rubio can't win a state he prioritized from the outset, even with the endorsements of its three most popular conservative officeholders, it's hard to see where they force Trump into a pit stop. It's far more likely they end up in the growing pileup behind him, nursing whiplash as they try to figure out how in the world he ran them all off the road.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Trump (Yes, Trump) Vs. Clinton

It's time for my quadrennial limb crawl, in which I predict the eventual Democratic and Republican presidential nominees before the first caucus or primary. This blog has been in mothballs for a while, but I've been doing this in one forum or another for 40 years now (!) so I feel obliged to shake off the rhetorical cobwebs and risk my reputation, such as it is, in public once again.

There's no magic formula here, just a crunching of numbers and a survey of my gut, but somehow that recipe has served me well over the years. I'm 10-for-10 picking the GOP nominee, and 8-for-10 on the Democrats. You can read about my past performances here, but as always, they're no guarantee of future results.

That said, I have never felt less certain about my picks than I do this year. American presidential elections have become progressively more surreal, volatile and unpredictable in the last dozen years—really, the last 24, going back to the 1992 Clinton/Bush/Perot race. What could possibly top the 2000 Bush-Gore circus? Well, how about a Trump-Sanders-Bloomberg showdown in November? Or a Trump-Clinton race in which Hillary gets indicted halfway through, and Joe Biden jumps in late as a substitute nominee? I'm not predicting either of those scenarios, but I'm not ruling them out either. Nothing—at all—would surprise me anymore.

A year ago, I pegged Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush as my top three in the GOP race, and I saw no way anyone else could crack that tier. Of course, that was before Donald Trump decided to run for president. Walker proved to be a feeble, feckless candidate who came off as provincial and not ready for the national stage (surprising, given his strong performance at the 2012 Republican National Convention). Bush has shown late flashes of feck in recent debates, but he too, has been an underwhelming milquetoast, making no convincing case for the nomination beyond name recognition, establishment backing and a big war chest. Rubio is the only one of these three who remains viable.

Though the GOP field started with 17 candidates, and most of them are still running (for at least one more week, until after New Hampshire seals their campaign coffins), there are really only five legitimate contenders left: Trump, Ted Cruz, Rubio, Chris Christie and John Kasich. Those last two have pinned all their hope on New Hampshire (as has Bush) and if they don't finish in the top three there, are probably done. It's possible to construct a reasonably plausible scenario in which one of the more moderate governors does well enough in the Granite State to gain some momentum and the support of the others, and then surges on Super Tuesday to overtake Trump, Cruz and Rubio, but does anyone outside their campaigns really expect that to happen? No.

Which means one of those last three is going to be the Republican nominee. Here's the path for each:

MARCO RUBIO: Rubio is running an unconventional campaign. He has been patient and disciplined, eloquent and convincing in the debates, and well-versed on policy. Which is to say, an anomaly. He is not banking on winning either Iowa or New Hampshire—which is almost unheard of—instead pursuing what his strategists call their "3-2-1" plan. That calls for him to finish a strong third in Iowa, a strong second in New Hampshire, and a stunning first in South Carolina. From there, he consolidates conservatives and the stop-Trump GOP establishment and rolls to frontrunner status in the March 1 Super Tuesday states.

The Iowa part is likely to happen. Rubio's riding some late momentum there and should finish third. New Hampshire is more problematic. He's running a distant fifth there, and a third place showing in Iowa may not be enough to help him overtake Bush, Kasich and Cruz, especially if Cruz wins Iowa. If Cruz doesn't, and starts to fade, it's possible that Rubio somehow climbs into second place. But Trump has a commanding lead in South Carolina, and it's tough to see everything breaking just right for Rubio to give him the win he will need at that point. If he doesn't win any of the early primaries, it's hard to see how he gets the nomination. His best hope is for Trump to knock out Cruz in Iowa, and then rally the party leaders around him as the anti-Donald candidate.

TED CRUZ: I never gave Cruz much of a chance. I thought he was another in a long line of delusional also-rans (see: Rick Perry, among many others). But Cruz, unlike Walker and Bush, for example, turns out to be a brilliant politician. This is one smart guy, with a shrewd tactical mind, an articulate and persuasive debating style, and prodigious fundraising abilities. Never mind that he also appears to be a pathological liar (latest whopper: pledging to "always tell you the truth" if he's elected president, something he hasn't come close to doing either on the Senate floor or the presidential campaign trail). He has worked his tail off wooing evangelical Christian voters in Iowa and South Carolina. He smartly recognized Trump's appeal early and refrained, until the closing days of what's become a two-man race in the Hawkeye State, from clashing with him, courting Trump supporters instead of alienating them. He's positioned himself as a more palatable and electable version of The Donald, heir to his anti-establishment outsider mantle if and when Trump flames out. He comes off as passionate and committed, and the people who find that appealing don't see the smarmy demagoguery that has left him without a single friend, on either side of the aisle, in the U.S. Senate (even his former mentor, George W. Bush, admitted recently "I just don't like the guy"). So yes, Cruz could still wrest the nomination from Trump's well-manicured hands. To do that, he needs to win in Iowa, and parlay that into a very strong second place finish in New Hampshire. That would make him, not Rubio, the most viable not-Trump candidate, and he could use that momentum to upset Trump in South Carolina. Beyond that, Cruz is well-positioned to run the table in the most important Super Tuesday states (under this scenario) and emerge as the likely nominee.

Here are the problems for Cruz: He may have peaked too soon. He had a terrible final debate performance. Trump has taken his best punches, responded effectively and bounced back ahead in Iowa. He hasn't come close to denting Trump's huge leads in New Hampshire, South Carolina, or nationally. He spews fire on national security but much of what he says doesn't withstand closer scrutiny, and voters in Iowa and New Hampshire pay very, very close attention to detail. He is the conservative wing's best hope in years of nominating one of their own, but the pragmatic wing deems him too far right to win in November. So if he doesn't win Iowa, it may be the beginning of the end for him.

Which is why, by process of elimination, I actually think DONALD TRUMP will be the one accepting the 2016 Republican nomination for president in Cleveland this July.

Did I really just type those words? Apparently so. Do I really believe them? I'm trying really hard to convince myself.

We won't know until Monday night whether Trump really has the ground game to match his bravado, money and strong poll numbers. Winning the Iowa caucus takes much more than jetting in, giving a loud speech, and throwing an ad blitz onto local TV. It takes detailed organization, staffers and volunteers across the state and a data-driven get-out-the-vote operation. It takes a nothing-for-granted and leave-no-stone-unturned attitude. Does Trump really have those things? It's hard to tell. He says he does—the best, the biggest, the greatest of anyone—but there's a H-U-G-E difference between getting someone in Iowa to tell a pollster they like you and getting them to stand up for you in their neighbor's living room on Caucus Night.

But the final polls show Trump narrowly ahead of Cruz in Iowa. He is confident enough to already be on the stump in New Hampshire instead, where he's crushing Cruz by two or three to one. He seems likely to either win Iowa or come in a very close second, and then win New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. If that happens, how does anyone stop him? The party leaders will reluctantly embrace him as their guy, most of the rest will drop out, and either Cruz or Rubio will soldier on to be the Rick Santorum (2012) or Mike Huckabee (2008) of 2016: the right wing standard-bearer who finishes a valiant second.

Trump is a buffoon. He can't possibly be president, right? We all consider him reality TV entertainment, not a serious candidate. Hmm, people said the same things about Arnold Schwarzenegger (and Ronald Reagan, long before him) and look what happened to them. Never underestimate the American people's ability to fall in love with a charismatic, populist celebrity who taps into their anger and disenchantment and tricks them into thinking that somehow, he's one of them and has their best interests at heart. I can't believe P.T. Barnum never ran for president.

If Trump does win both Iowa and New Hampshire, history says the nomination is his. No Republican has ever won both of these contests and not gone on to be the nominee. No Republican candidate has ever lost both of these states and still found a way to win the nomination.

The same is not true on the Democratic side. In 1972, Edmund Muskie got more votes than any other Democrat in the Iowa caucus (he actually finished tied with "Uncommitted" with 36%) and won the New Hampshire primary. But he lost the nomination to George McGovern, who ran better than expected in both states and was declared the "winner" by the media, and rode that momentum to the nomination, knocking Muskie out in April.

Twenty years later, Bill Clinton was barely a blip in Iowa, where native son Tom Harkin won the caucus in a landslide, and Clinton ran second in New Hampshire to another almost-native son (Paul Tsongas of neighboring Massachusetts), but that began Clinton's comeback, and he became the first candidate to win the nomination without winning either of the first two contests.

Now, Bill's wife HILLARY CLINTON is trying, again, to follow her husband to the Oval Office (were you wondering how many words it would take me to get to the Democratic race?). And it says here, she will be the Democratic nominee.

BERNIE SANDERS: Bernie is, in many ways, the Trump of the left. He's tapped into the same voter disenchantment that we've seen in so many recent elections (seriously, this "outsider" stuff goes all the way back to the post-Watergate race of 1976. Carter and Reagan both won as outsiders who were going to fix Washington. So, to some extent, did Clinton in '92 and even W in 2000, and certainly Obama did in '08. Newsflash: None of them fixed Washington). The difference with Sanders is that, as a Socialist, he may actually mean what he says. That doesn't mean he can convince Congress to do any of it, but it's more likely that he has the courage of his convictions. He's built an impressive coalition of younger voters, progressives, some labor unions, the oh-please-not-Hillary Democrats, and those who were disappointed by Obama and pining for someone like Elizabeth Warren. Sanders is, much like Obama in 2008, a vehicle for the hopes and dreams of Democrats and independents yearning for something new and different. He's built a surprisingly strong organization, copying much of Obama's playbook, and mounting a much more serious than expected challenge to Hillary's presumed supremacy. She's in a fight, and she knows it.

Could this rumpled Jewish Socialist from Brooklyn really win the Democratic nomination? Sure, it's possible. He might edge Clinton in Iowa, and he's likely to win big in New Hampshire, next door to his adopted home of Vermont. If Clinton is indicted for her email transgressions, she could falter even more, and by then Sanders could have positioned himself as the only rightful successor.

But Clinton has a powerful and deep organization that goes way beyond college kids in Iowa and New Hampshire. She has a more sophisticated operation than Sanders does in South Carolina, Nevada and the Super Tuesday states. She will be able to draw upon greater union strength and minority support in the succeeding states. Though Sanders has been reaching out to African American and Latino voters and insists he can appeal to them, it remains to be seen if that's true, and Clinton is the more likely heir to that significant segment of the Obama coalition. This nomination fight may hinge on the question of electability, and that's a tough one for many Democrats to answer. The assumption is that Clinton is more likely to win in November, but some polls actually show Sanders running stronger versus Trump than Hillary does. Don't discount how many Americans truly detest Hillary Clinton, and how close the race could be in November if she's the nominee. On the other hand, the GOP ad machine is salivating at the prospect of having an actual Socialist to run against instead of someone they just paint as one, and don't underestimate how savagely the Republicans could go after Sanders if he's their opponent.

If Hillary hangs on and wins in Iowa, even if she loses New Hampshire, she is likely to crush Sanders in South Carolina and Nevada. Sanders will run best in states that allow independents to cross over and vote in the Democratic primary (which they can do in New Hampshire). But some pretty big states—Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey—don't allow that. California, which does allow unaffiliated voters to cast Democratic ballots, may be instructive. The most recent Field Poll shows Clinton leading Sanders among California Democrats by about twenty points, but Sanders beating Hillary among the independents by roughly the same margin. That suggests that when the decision is left up to party regulars, Democrats are likely to prefer Clinton. In a protracted battle for the nomination, that could be a significant, perhaps decisive, advantage for Hillary, who has also already locked up the support of most party leaders and superdelegates. None of this makes her edge insurmountable, or guarantees her the nomination, especially if unforeseen events (or foreseen ones, like a possible federal indictment) intervene. But add it all up and it makes Clinton the most likely Democratic nominee, which is why I am officially predicting a TRUMP VS. CLINTON general election.

Which is why you should rush to your favorite bookie and immediately bet the house on RUBIO VS SANDERS.

I think that's the longest blog post in American history. More like a wonky monograph, really. If you read this far, you deserve a prize, and you probably deserve a better president than any of the ones we're likely to get.

Tune in to KCBS (106.9FM, 740AM, cbssf.com) for complete coverage and analysis of the Iowa Caucus Monday Feb 1, and the New Hampshire Primary Tuesday February 9.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Riding With Robin

Biking with Robin Williams was like taking a spin class at the old Holy City Zoo. Every time I rode alongside him, he matched our tempo with manic, mile-a-minute shtick, a running comedic commentary on everything from the spandexed rear of the rider in front of him to the French obsession with Lance Armstrong’s doping. I interviewed Williams maybe ten times over the years, and rode with him at least five, in the Bay Area and Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; and even at the Tour de France, where we both cycled as ardent fans before Armstrong and the other pros took the course. After Williams’ suicide last week, I dug through my archives and, while I still can’t find the photos I know we took during some of those rides, I did find old recordings of some of his in-the-saddle routines, some captured while we were riding, others taped during rest stops or by the side of the road, watching the peloton rush past us.

In the company of a radio reporter, even one clad in lycra, Williams was always on, almost incapable of biking in silence. He knew people expected him to make them laugh, and he was determined to deliver. And that he did, in frenetic, hilarious, often self-deprecating fashion, his mind racing even faster than his thickly muscled legs to churn out a stream of comic consciousness.

“Look at the lovely Miss Dee, what a derriere,” he said during one Texas ride as we caught the wheel of the woman riding in front of us. “To draft behind Dee is a gift. I would say this is like swimming behind Jennifer Lopez.” He joked about the smoothly-shaved legs of the professional riders in the peloton. “In my case, it would take a weedwhacker. I’m a Chia pet. The moment I shaved, it would start to grow again. It would be a frightening thing. Forget US Postal, I’m going to be sponsored by Poulan Weed-Eater.” Asked how much he enjoyed biking with the obviously much faster Armstrong, Williams quipped “it’s the best two seconds of my day.”

For years, when he lived in San Francisco’s Seacliff neighborhood, the comic icon and Oscar-winning actor rode five days a week, a thirty-mile loop over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin and back. Williams would joke that he wasn’t built for distance; after 30 miles, he’d poop out. But he was strong for those first thirty, able to keep the jokes coming even as he pumped out the miles. He had a stable of about fifty bikes, and employed a bike wrangler to maintain them. I never saw him ride the same one twice, and he was always fantasizing about the Pinarello or Colnago frame he would buy next.

It was tough to keep up with Williams, and I don’t just mean on the bike. His mind would boomerang from one joke to the next, flashing like lightning from one pop culture reference to another. If some of the gags went over your head, were lost on your not-as-nimble mind, that was okay, as long as that stitch in your side was from laughing so hard that you couldn’t keep the cadence up.

Williams was close with Armstrong, helping the cycling champion raise money for his cancer foundation. They bonded over biking, and Williams would visit Armstrong in France during the Tour every year and also appear at his annual Ride for the Roses bash in Austin, where the comedian’s bike-themed performances became a highlight. Once, he did a bawdy, ten-minute riff on Armstrong’s testicular cancer, joking that after the cancer survivor’s success, every rider in Europe was having one cut off to improve aerodynamism. He spoofed Armstrong’s main rivals, trotting out his arsenal of foreign accents. He joked about the Texan’s friendship with fellow Lone Star icon George W. Bush. “I had a telegram for you Lance, from President Bush, but they’re still correcting the spelling.” Like many of us, he refused to believe Armstrong was doping. He defended Armstrong’s insistence that he had only used EPO and other doping products as part of his cancer therapy.

From the first time I met him, Williams struck me as deeply insecure, someone with a pathological need to entertain, using humor to deflect and defend and protect his own fragile psyche. It’s an all too common trait among comedians. But Robin was also an unusually sweet and generous man, with a warm heart and a kind soul. He would talk sincerely and passionately about the “extraordinary people” he met through cycling, and included Armstrong in that group. He said of the cancer survivors he met, “it humbles me in a great way. It’s a good humbling, unlike when Lance kicks my ass on the bike. Hey, I hung with Lance a little longer today. He waited a full four seconds before he decided to actually ride. He dropped me with a fierce breakaway.”

You could sense the sadness inside Williams, the tears of the clown masked by the rush he got from making other people happy. In the end, he leaves us all so sad, because he couldn’t find a way to do the same for himself, even on his bike.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Can You Handle the Truth?

"We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."
 -Mitt Romney's pollster, Neil Newhouse, during the Republican National Convention

As things turned out last Tuesday, that was the fatal flaw in Mitt Romney's campaign for the presidency: a refusal to accept, or even acknowledge, basic truths.  It shouldn't be a huge surprise that a party whose leaders resist the science of climate change and evolution isn't big on math, either.  The Romney campaign played fast and loose with the facts all summer and fall, but there's no truth-in-advertising law for politicians.  Society can debate whose scientific theories are more valid, and candidates can squabble over whose ads are more mendacious.  But once the ballots are cast and counted, one side's guess about the makeup of the electorate is going to be proven right and the other wrong.  In 2012, the assumptions made by most of the public pollsters, and those working for the Obama campaign - the ones that drew so much scorn and ridicule from the GOP and Romney's own polling team - turned out to be dead on, and Romney's, dead wrong.

I wrote on Election Eve that this race reminded me very much of 2004, when President Bush squeaked out a narrow re-election win over John Kerry.  Bush beat Kerry in the popular vote that year, 50.7% to 48.3%.  As I write this, with some ballots still to be counted, President Obama has 50.5% of the popular vote, to Romney's 47.9%.  That's awfully close to what happened in 2004 (it's also the closest I've ever been to nailing my final prediction, which was Obama 50.2 to Romney 47.9).

Throughout the campaign, Romney operatives, and some pollsters, insisted there was no way the broad coalition of young voters, African Americans, Latinos and inspired independents that propelled Barack Obama to history in 2008 was going to turn out for him this time.  Too much disappointment and disenchantment on the left, they said; the bloom is off the rose.  Romney will benefit from an enthusiasm gap; the electorate will be more like the one Bush got in '04.  They shredded polls that projected a Democratic turnout advantage of five, six, seven points (Democrats outnumbered Republicans by seven points in the '08 election).  What they failed to grasp - despite many, many polls suggesting this - was that Republican voters were even less enthusiastic about their nominee than Democrats were about President Obama.  Consistently, Romney supporters told the pollsters they were voting against the president more than they were voting for the GOP nominee.  Obama voters, meanwhile, were overwhelmingly casting ballots for his re-election, not against Romney.  The steady parade of "Anyone But Romney" Republican frontrunners during the primaries should have been enough of a warning sign for Romney and his strategists.  But, blinders on, the Romney team ignored all of that data, or insisted it was wrong, preferring instead to shoot out constant emails about huge, excited crowds at rallies and the proliferation of Romney-Ryan yard signs.  As I noted last week, crowd count is not a reliable predictor of success on Election Day.  A majority of voters simply didn't trust Romney, and they didn't feel he connected with them on a real level.  The lack of credibility, authenticity and embrace of reality permeated his campaign and doomed it from the start.

I took much of the GOP's ostensible optimism and confidence in the campaign's closing days as so much bluster.  Surely, they had to see what the rest of us did: that all signs pointed to the president's re-election.  There was simply no denying the data, and the sense of momentum for Mr. Obama that accelerated after Hurricane Sandy.  But no, their post-election comments reveal that the Romney team really didn't see defeat coming at all.  On Election Day, the youth turnout didn't go down - it went up, one percentage point from 2008.  The African American vote didn't decline - it increased, especially in Ohio, where it went from 11% of the electorate in '08 to 15% this year.  The Republican effort to make voting more difficult backfired, motivating minority voters in particular to stand in line for hours to cast their ballots for the president.  And an enormous Latino tide, with 71% of those voters preferring Barack Obama, simply swept Mitt Romney's erroneous assumptions away, and with them, his shot at the presidency.  In fact, of the major ethnic groups, only the white vote declined.  Democrats made up 38% of the electorate this time around, and Republicans 32%, with independents and others constituting the rest: in other words, exactly the six-point advantage many of those GOP-derided polls assumed.

I took some heat on Twitter for suggesting that the Gallup and Rasmussen polls were using flawed methodology. "It's pretty obvious you just like the polls that show Obama is winning," one critic tweeted.  No, I like the ones whose methods make sense, and to me that seemed to be IBD/TIPP and Reuters/Ipsos.  I was slightly suspect of Public Policy Polling, a firm that works for Democratic campaigns, because their surveys seemed to overstate Obama's support and looked like slight outliers.  As we review the polls now, it was PPP, IBD/TIPP and Reuters/Ipsos who were most accurate.  Rasmussen skewed way to the Republican side, as it often does, and Gallup simply blew it, by assuming a much whiter electorate and excluding too many actual voters with its "likely voter" screen.  Gallup has been around since 1947 and is America's best-known pollster by far, but I will no longer consider them reliable until I see them get a major election right again (they were among the least accurate in 2008, too).

I also am not a fan of the Real Clear Politics average, and I hope the outcome of this election illustrates why.  RCP's final average gave President Obama a 0.7% lead.  He won by 2.6%, subject to slight revision.  That's a fairly significant miss.  You can't simply add the 53% reported by a live poll of 2000 people with landlines and cellphones to the 49% from a poll of 300 people by robocall and call it an "average" of 51%, which is what RCP does (in this example, the true average of those two polls would be 52.5%, and their differing methodologies would render even that result suspect).  I hope lazy media outlets stop reporting that "average" as some sort of useful and informative number.

I am curious to see if the Republican Party reverts to denial within a few months of absorbing this defeat.  The demographic trends can't be ignored: take a look at California if you want to see the future of the national GOP if it makes the mistake of doing so.  The Republican Party teeters on the brink of irrelevancy in the Golden State, where Democrats hold every statewide office and two-thirds of the legislature.  Mitt Romney won only 38% of the presidential vote.  Latinos and young voters here are overwhelmingly Democratic.  The national GOP leaders can't be that blind.  But will they react cynically - showcasing Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Susana Martinez while still hewing to the social conservative line - or will they moderate their views, compromise on immigration reform and taxes and give up the ghost on things like repealing Roe v. Wade and banning same sex marriage? It's hard to imagine John Boehner and company moving very far to the middle, for very long.

One thing is certain: the 2016 primaries will be fascinating.  2008 was the first wide-open race, with no incumbent president or vice president running for either party's nomination, since 1928.  Now we'll have a second one, just eight years later, assuming Joe Biden doesn't take a third shot at running for president (he will be 73, and delusional if he thinks he can win).  On the Democratic side, it should be Hillary Clinton versus the field (Andrew Cuomo, Martin O'Malley, maybe Elizabeth Warren?), with a huge and deep potential field for the Republicans, led by Rubio, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Rick Santorum and maybe Nikki Haley, Bob McDonnell, Rand Paul and a few others, too.  That's an extremely conservative bunch, with Christie the most able to position himself as a centrist.  Most of those Republican candidates are likely to run as right wing purists and point to Romney's defeat as a reason why.  That could easily mean an even more lopsided Democratic victory four years from now.

A few interesting nuggets from this election:

  • Mitt Romney lost Massachusetts by 23 points, the worst home state defeat ever for a governor (or former governor) running for president.  The old record was 20 points, set by Ohio Governor James Cox in 1920, but he lost to a fellow Ohioan, Senator Warren Harding, so neither had the home field advantage.  The worst previous home state loss to someone from a different state was only eight points, by Kansas Governor Alf Landon to FDR (of New York) in 1936, so Romney really shattered this one.
  • Obama won all four "new" states (NY, NJ, NH and NM) while Romney won all the North, South and West ones (NC, SC, ND, SD and WV).
  • Obama swept all the swing states and won all the battleground states except North Carolina.
  • Mitt Romney not only lost his home state (MA), he also lost his birth state (Michigan) and the other two states in which he owns homes, New Hampshire and California.  He did win Utah, by a larger margin than any other state (48 points) but he no longer owns a residence there.
  • The states that were thought to be among the closest really weren't.  Obama won both Iowa and Wisconsin by almost six points, Colorado and Pennsylvania by more than five, Nevada by almost seven, Michigan by almost ten. Only Ohio (Obama by 2), Virginia (Obama by 3), Florida (Obama by 1) and North Carolina (Romney by 2) were close.
  • This is only the second time in history that three consecutive presidents have been elected to two terms.  The first time was Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, from 1800-1820.  This time it's Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, from 1992-present.  Perhaps that says something about the power of incumbency in the era of television advertising and unlimited campaign spending.
  • Barack Obama is only the third president in history to be re-elected with fewer electoral votes than he won the first time around (Woodrow Wilson in 1916; FDR in both 1940 and 1944).
  • Obama is only the third Democrat to win more than 50% of the popular vote twice (Andrew Jackson and FDR are the others. The other three two-term Democratic presidents, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton, never hit 50% in any of their victories).
  • New Hampshire is the first state ever to elect women to every major office (Governor, both U.S. Senators and both of its Congressional seats).
  • Hawaii is sending Congress its first Hindu member ever (Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic woman originally from American Samoa) and will also give the Senate its first Asian-American woman and first Buddhist ever, in the person of Mazie Hirono.
  • There will be 20 women in the U.S. Senate, a record, including the first lesbian (Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin).
  • There will be seven gay members of Congress, enough to have an actual caucus.
  • See, this is how I spend my time, looking up stuff like this so you don't have to.
One final statistic: for the 9th time in 11 tries, I predicted the winner of the presidential election correctly.  I got 49 states right this time, my best showing ever.  As noted above, I nailed Romney's popular vote and I'm only 0.3% off on Obama's, although those numbers could still change.  That's actually better than Nate Silver, for all you 538 junkies (I am proudly one).  He can have the glory, I just like to be right.  Facts can be fun, and good for you too, a lesson the Romney campaign would have done well to learn at the start of this campaign.