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, for complete coverage and analysis of the Iowa Caucus Monday Feb 1, and the New Hampshire Primary Tuesday February 9.