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.