We’re still almost two months away from the Iowa caucuses, but it already seems like the 2016 presidential campaign has been going on forever. Pundits started speculating about it even before all the 2014 races were decided. And although I resisted that temptation as long as I could, I’ve been writing about it since the spring. So I think it’s time to take a step back and assess both how the campaign is going and how I’ve been doing at covering it.
Before I do that, though, I need to set up the proper expectations. I’ve been covering the campaign as a Democrat. (The claim I make is only that The Weekly Sift is honest, not that it’s unbiased or non-partisan.) So my coverage of the Democratic race centers on my own decision as a New Hampshire voter about who I’m going to support in the primary. Conversely, my coverage of the Republican race is sizing up the opposition: Who are we likely to face in the general election? What forces are brewing in the Republican electorate, and how can we counter them?
With that distinction in mind, I’ll discuss each party individually.
Democrats. Clinton is now leading Sanders 60%-30% nationwide, according to Quinnippiac, up from 53%-35% a month ago. More and more, it looks like the Republicans sealed Clinton’s nomination at the Benghazi hearings.
The silver lining for Sanders is that he performs slightly better in head-to-head match-ups with Republicans: Clinton beats Trump (47%-41%) and Cruz (47%-42%) while Sanders’s leads are larger (49%-41% and 49%-39%).
I’m inclined to discount that Sanders advantage for a simple reason: The Republican attack machine that has been after the Clintons since 1992 hasn’t really taken aim at Sanders yet. So far, Republican anti-Sanders comments have been more-or-less generic attacks on a socialist running for president. They haven’t gone after him personally yet, and they haven’t started making up complete crap about him — which they will if he gets nominated.
If you think Bernie’s upright nature protects him from this, you’re kidding yourself. Anybody can be lied about. (Remember Kitty Dukakis burning the American flag? Or Michelle Obama’s “whitey” speech? George W. Bush — the guy who dodged Vietnam by using political pull to score a cushy stateside National Guard spot — managed to turn John Kerry’s war record against him.) Picture Sanders wanting to talk about the minimum wage or his infrastructure-building jobs plan, but instead having to fend off totally baseless questions about illegitimate children or male prostitutes. How hard would it be to get some Russian emigre to claim he was in the KGB in the 1980s, and Sanders was his agent? I doubt Bernie has the temperament to deal with that kind of stuff, while Hillary clearly does.
I can claim deep insight into exactly one New Hampshire Democrat — me. Here’s what I’ve been thinking: I agree with Sanders’ positions more than Hillary’s, but I think Hillary is the stronger general-election candidate for the reason I just gave: She comes pre-slimed, while we don’t know yet what a slimed Bernie looks like. That leads to this perverse logic: The more convinced I am that Clinton will be nominated, the likelier I am to vote for Sanders.
The scenario I worry about with Hillary is that she’ll make a strategic decision to move to the right for the general election. For example, she picks a red-state Democrat for VP — some white male who is NRA-acceptable, wants a more active war against ISIS, and repeats a lot of Republican talking points about “religious freedom” and “all lives matter” and so on. Not only would that bode ill for a Clinton administration, it’s also the only way I can see her losing — by depressing turnout among the young and non-white parts of the Obama coalition.
So while I want Clinton to be nominated, I also want her to know that the party has a left wing she can’t take for granted. I doubt Elizabeth Warren wants to be VP — I think she likes the job she has — but if not her, I want some other very solidly liberal VP like Sherrod Brown or Al Franken. I want Clinton to run to raise turnout, presenting a strong contrast with the GOP on climate change and guns and income inequality and racism. (Incidentally, raising turnout is also the best way to get the Senate back and narrow the gap in the House.) When the primary rolls around, the best way to send Clinton that message might be for me to vote for Bernie.
Republicans. According to CNN, Trump is solidly atop the Republican field with 36% and Ted Cruz is second at 16%. (Cruz’ showing represents a 12-point surge since the mid-October poll.) Pre-season favorite Jeb Bush is sixth at 3%.
It’s time to start reviewing some of the assertions I’ve made about the Republican field. The boldest one (from July) was that Trump isn’t running a serious campaign, because when the time came to put up real money — in November and December, I thought — he won’t do it.
That’s what happens when the crystal ball shows you a half-truth: Trump hasn’t been putting up serious money: The NBC News pie chart on the right shows him spending just $217,000 on TV ads, compared to Bush’s $28.9 million. (Here in New Hampshire, I still haven’t seen a Trump ad.) What I didn’t foresee was that money would be having so little impact this late in the campaign. Will Trump ever need to put up significant amounts of his own money? If that time arrives, will he do it? We still don’t know.
My comments about Chris Christie look a little better: After seeing a Christie town hall meeting in April, I predicted that his skill in that format would pay off in New Hampshire — maybe not enough to win the primary, but enough to do better than pundits were predicting at that time. That seems to be happening. A recent PPP poll has Christie rising into fourth place in NH with 10%, leading Carson (9%) and Bush (5%).
I discounted Rubio’s chances because he was everybody’s second choice, but didn’t clearly represent any of the GOP’s four factions. That was also in April, when I didn’t foresee that the leading Corporatist candidates (Bush and Walker) would run such terrible campaigns. Today, Rubio looks like the Corporatists’ only chance for an acceptable nominee.
Sticking with the four-faction (Corporatist, Theocrat, Libertarian, and NeoCon) analysis, the big news is in the Theocrat wing, where Huckabee and Santorum have failed to catch fire, and Cruz is starting to edge out Carson. The Libertarian wing of the party has proven to be a non-factor. (Early on, Rand Paul decided he had to transcend his Libertarian base if he was going to win the nomination, and no one has tried to pick it up from him. As a result, both Paul and the Libertarians are nowhere.) What nobody could have foreseen was Trump’s appeal to NeoCon voters: When there’s a terrorist attack, he surges. But Trump seems to be transcending the factions: He also gets considerable Theocrat support, despite having no religious credibility at all.
In March I wrote:
The hardest factor to predict is how well candidates will perform on the campaign trail. … I expect Cruz and Christie to perform well, and Jindal and Paul to perform badly. (Watch Paul’s interview with Rachel Maddow.) The big wild card is Bush, who has never campaigned for national office, or for anything at all since 2002.
Well, now we know about Bush: He’s an absolutely terrible campaigner and debater. All the money in the world can’t save him.
So my four-faction analysis has shrunk to three factions, and at the moment it produces Trump, Rubio, and Cruz as finalists. If you’re wondering why I focus so much on which Democrat can do better in the general election, just say “President Cruz” a few times and I think you’ll understand.