Saturday, February 27, 2016

"The Party" Can't Stop Trump, But Maybe Marco Rubio Can

The award for juiciest reporting of the day goes to this New York Times article by Alexander Burns, Maggie Haberman, and Jonathan Martin, describing the slow-motion horror that has descended on Washington Republicans at the prospect of a Donald Trump nomination. Despite the apparently widespread sentiment that Trump would be a disastrous nominee—the public spin that Trump might unlock new sources of popular support for the Republican Party does not seem to be echoed in private—no concerted, resource-rich effort to block Trump's ascension has yet emerged; as the authors describe, "a desperate mission" by a few anti-Trump political consultants has "sputtered and stalled at every turn."

These and similar journalistic accounts provide valuable evidence to scholars of American party politics, who are currently attempting to ascertain whether party elites maintain the capacity to steer presidential nominees toward or away from favored or disfavored candidates. According to the article, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, though aghast at Trump's front-runner status, has responded by simply assuring members of his own caucus that they can separate themselves from the top of the ticket if necessary when seeking re-election this fall. Former Utah governor Mike Leavitt is quoted as saying that "there is no mechanism" by which party officials can stop Trump's candidacy. "There is no smoke-filled room. If there is, I’ve never seen it, nor do I know anyone who has. This is going to play out in the way that it will."

If "The Party" truly held the power to unilaterally prevent a Trump nomination, presumably people like McConnell and Leavitt would not only know about it, but be active participants themselves. It is more likely that Republican leaders feel as if they are largely constrained by a nomination system in which party voters exercise ultimate control, influenced by candidate strategies, media coverage, and the idiosyncratic characteristics—electoral sequence, delegate allocation rules, party caucuses—of the process itself. 

To the extent that party leaders do claim to believe that some in their ranks could indeed shape the outcome of the race, they seem to be merely passing the buck with a healthy dose of motivated reasoning: it's always someone else's responsibility or someone else's fault. Hence the grousing in the article about Chris Christie's endorsement of Trump, Jeb Bush's continued neutrality, and John Kasich's persistence in the race—as if any of these individuals, who spectacularly failed at convincing Republicans to support their own candidacies, could nonetheless sway the party electorate away from Trump's much more appealing campaign.

That said, it seems as if the conventional wisdom this weekend has overstated the strength of Trump's position in the race a bit—perhaps because the press, too, is exaggerating the "game-changing" influence of Christie's endorsement. Yes, Trump can still be stopped, but it will take another candidate to step up and defeat him. At the moment, Marco Rubio seems like the only plausible competitor with the capacity to do so. 

It has finally dawned on Rubio over the past few days that he will need to cut into Trump's support in order to win, and he has abruptly shifted into attack mode. Not all of Rubio's punches may land, but at last Trump is being targeted by a sustained negative broadside. It may be too little, too late, or Rubio himself may not prove a sufficiently capable candidate to prevail over Trump, but if Trump is to be stopped, Rubio is the man who needs to stop him.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Debate Recap: A New Phase

The biggest development in last night's debate was that Donald Trump was treated like the front-runner he has become. Rather than fight among themselves to claim status as the #1 alternative to Trump while letting Trump himself off easy, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were much more aggressive in aiming fire at the race's leading candidate. Rubio in particular opened up new lines of attack on Trump, citing his previous employment of illegal immigrants, the foreign manufacture of his signature menswear, and the lawsuit in progress over "Trump University." Cruz mounted more familiar attacks on Trump from the ideological right, repeatedly portraying him as a phony conservative.

The change in approach reflected a new urgency in the Republican race, as the other candidates have suddenly realized that they can no longer wait for Trump to go away on his own. There is always risk in making attacks in a multi-candidate contest (John Kasich, who conspicuously declined to join in, obviously hopes to gain support from conflict-weary voters by remaining above the fray), but Cruz and Rubio have both concluded that Trump has become a serious threat to their candidacies. Though they may still view each other as one another's chief rival for votes, a Trump sweep over the next three delegate-rich weeks would put them both out of the running. At this stage, simply playing for time is a sensible strategy.

The collective joy expressed by the news media when Rubio went on the attack reveals the pent-up frustration within the political world with the lack of obstructions that have been placed between Trump and the nomination. But it will take more than one debate to derail Trump's candidacy. In fact, if both Rubio and Cruz turn out to benefit from the debate, the prospect that one of them will soon fold his campaign grows slightly dimmer, to Trump's strategic advantage. The race is by no means over, but the anti-Trump case will have to be made more forcefully—perhaps via some negative ads?—than it has so far.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

No, Political Scientists Didn't Make Trump the Front-Runner

In a blog post this morning, political scientist Dan Drezner floated what he called "a very peculiar and speculative theory" in order to account for Donald Trump's continued electoral strength despite little support from Republican elites. "Basically," writes Drezner, "I think the fault lies with political scientists."

His argument is as follows: One popular theory of presidential nominations, which we can call the "Party Decides" theory after the book that introduced it, holds that nomination outcomes are the product of elite coordination. According to this theory, party elected officials and interest group leaders identify a candidate during the "invisible primary" period before Iowa and New Hampshire whom they view as both loyal to their policy priorities and electable in a general election. These elites steer endorsements, money, and other resources to the candidate, who therefore enjoys a prohibitive advantage in the nomination race. Party voters ostensibly hold the power to decide nominations via the primary process, but are in fact ratifying the choice already made for them by the party leadership.

Drezner says this theory "seemed to explain nomination fights of the recent past quite well." I disagree with that assessment, but nobody denies that Trump's current ascendancy represents a serious challenge to the theory's validity in 2016. Drezner argues that the theory's very success might have paved the way for Trump by lulling party leaders into complacency about his inevitable defeat, which has left them ill-equipped to stop him now that we're a week away from Super Tuesday. In other words, the very act of publishing an analysis of party nominations has implicated political scientists in its apparent real-time refutation—a conclusion judged "surprisingly plausible" by Matthew Yglesias of Vox.

I don't find it plausible. Among the reasons why:

1. You don't need to believe that "The Party Decides" in order to have deemed Trump an unlikely nominee up until a few weeks ago. (I know because I don't, and I did.) Trump's candidacy is more or less without precedent in modern politics, and given the well-documented instability and lack of predictive power of pre-nomination polling, there was little reason for anyone to believe based on previous experience that a candidate with his profile would sustain his lead from last summer and fall into the early stages of the nomination season itself. Those who predicted Trump's demise did not necessarily assume that it would occur due to the united opposition of Republican elites; many pundits—and, no doubt, politicians—concluded that he would lose attractiveness to the electorate as he was subjected to more scrutiny and citizens became more serious about making up their minds. Alternatively, commentators expected that Republican voters, again with some justification, would reject Trump once they learned about his previous non-conservative issue positions and support for Democratic candidates.

2. Drezner says that "Even as the media covered Trump, even as late as the South Carolina debate, pundits were also talking about how his latest transgressive comment would doom his chances." True, but that's because Trump's remarks (such as blaming George W. Bush for failing to stop 9/11) were thought to be likely to offend Republican voters, not Republican leaders.

3. More broadly, Drezner implies that the Party Decides theory has become so well-established as to constitute the conventional wisdom among media commentators. I don't see that. Specialized explainer sites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight have certainly proven sympathetic to the PD argument, but my own sense of the more general type of punditry one would find on CNN, for example, subscribes to a view of nominations that emphasizes candidate strategy, voter preferences, and electoral "momentum"; endorsements and other forms of elite behavior are deemed to matter but are hardly predictive by themselves.

4. Drezner suggests that Republican elites' view of the nomination process has been formed primarily by reading "smart take after smart take" in the press. I doubt very much that this is generally true. More likely, Republican leaders do not perceive themselves as holding determinative power over nomination politics. Instead, they are scared to death of a popular base that they do not fully understand and struggle mightily to satisfy. In a world in which the Majority Leader of the House can be defeated in a Republican primary election after outspending a virtual nobody by 25-to-1, I doubt that Republican officials view the contemporary nomination process as a system that reliably bends to their will even if they do attempt to exercise control over it.

Trump has broken so many iron laws of politics in this campaign that we need to think about the implications of his candidacy for many different facets of the political world, and try to sort out how much of the Trump phenomenon represents a deeper change in the way American politics works. But we should be careful about assuming that a Trump nomination, if it occurs, necessarily represents a failure of The Party to Decide soon enough or decisively enough. Perhaps Trump is simply illustrating the fact that there is no The Party with the power to Decide in the first place.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Nevada (D) and South Carolina (R): Some Things We Learned Last Night

One increasingly popular view of the Republican race after South Carolina is that two potential nominees remain: Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. With Jeb Bush out of the race, Ben Carson a non-factor, John Kasich looking like a regional candidate at best, and Ted Cruz coming in a disappointing third place in a state that he should have expected to win, Trump and Rubio are the only contenders left standing three states into the nomination calendar who retain the apparent capacity to amass the needed number of delegates to prevail on the first ballot at the national convention.

In some respects, this state of affairs favors Rubio. Public polling suggests that a significant share, and perhaps even a majority, of the Republican electorate is resistant to a Trump nomination, while Rubio appears to be broadly acceptable across party factions. As the other non-Trump candidates fold their campaigns or reveal themselves to be non-viable, Rubio can expect to receive a substantial boost in support. Party leaders and other conservative elites may begin to rally around Rubio in the coming weeks, attempting to persuade the Republican faithful to do likewise. Conventional wisdom has long suggested that Trump would falter once his opposition within the party united behind a single alternative candidate, and we seem to have reached the point in the race when that alternative has clearly emerged.

The main difficulty with this otherwise very plausible perspective is that it fits only imperfectly within the actual mechanics of the nomination process. First, Cruz, Kasich, and Carson all remain in the race (at least for now), and can therefore allow Trump to continue to win states without receiving an overall majority of votes even if they face diminishing odds of victory themselves. Second, Trump's back-to-back decisive victories in the otherwise sharply dissimilar states of New Hampshire and South Carolina, winning consistent levels of support across ideological and demographic categories, suggests that he cannot easily be contained geographically to a limited number of states. Third, Rubio has not yet managed to win—or even nearly win—a state himself, and it is not yet clear whether he can be considered a presumptive favorite in any of the 24 states that vote before his home state of Florida on March 15.

Unless the dynamics of the race change significantly over the next two weeks, Trump will start to build a clear lead in the national delegate count. Fortunately for Rubio, Republican Party rules allow states voting on March 15 or thereafter to apportion their delegates in a winner-take-all fashion. If he can hang in until then, Rubio can make up ground later in the race if the other candidates drop out and he starts beating Trump one-on-one in populous, winner-take-all states. But that may be what it takes to defeat the man who is now clearly the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.

A few other observations from the voting on Saturday:

1. Rubio received the endorsements of South Carolina's popular governor, Nikki Haley, and senator, Tim Scott, while the state's other senator Lindsey Graham backed Jeb Bush after dropping out of the presidential race himself. Endorsements probably help candidates to a degree (and Rubio might well have placed third without the support he received from Haley and Scott, given his modest margin over Cruz), but their influence, at least in this campaign, appears to be limited. (Trump, of course, is backed by no sitting Republican governor or member of Congress.)

2. The Nevada caucus is fairly trivial in terms of delegates allotted, and Hillary Clinton remained the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination regardless of the outcome there on Saturday. Even so, her victory satisfied or even exceeded media expectations and therefore guaranteed her a week of positive press coverage—or, at least, a week without negative coverage—heading into the Democratic primary in South Carolina next Saturday. With little sign so far that Bernie Sanders has succeeded in making significant inroads among non-white Democrats, she is poised to win South Carolina easily and rack up a sizable delegate lead in the southern-dominated Super Tuesday vote on March 1. Sanders, for the first time, was the victim of the expectations game given his landslide victory in New Hampshire and tightening pre-caucus polls in Nevada. He remains likely to win a substantial share of delegates—who are always awarded proportionately in Democratic contests—but faces a very difficult path to the nomination.

3. The turnout rates in all three Democratic contests so far have been substantially lower than they were in 2008. While Sanders has staked the rationale for his candidacy on the emergence of a political "revolution" built on the participation of previously disaffected citizens, little evidence exists of his capacity to mobilize large numbers of these voters to support him.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Mitch McConnell Knows What He's Doing

Within hours of the news that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a statement in which he asserted that "this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President" because "the American people should have a voice in the selection of their new Supreme Court Justice." The political world has been consumed ever since with a debate over this claim, with dueling citations of applicable norms, constitutional provisions, and historical precedents flying back and forth over the Internet.

Some observers—not just liberals—have expressed surprise over McConnell's statement itself. Why, they ask, would McConnell publicly commit to such a strong position immediately after the Court vacancy appeared? Doesn't it open him up to the charge of engaging in partisan obstruction in violation of constitutional expectations? Even if he did wish to block Obama's selection, wouldn't it be smarter to wait until Obama made a nomination and base the case for opposition on a perceived flaw in the nominee?

My own conclusion is that McConnell's actions are quite rational, and probably the smart move. Here's why:

1. Democrats have been warning for 20 years or so that voters would punish congressional Republicans for their obstructionist ways. Yet the Republican Party stands today with a decided majority in both houses of Congress, having gained a net 13 Senate seats and 69 House seats since the start of the Obama presidency. House Republicans have not held this many seats since the 1920s. If you were advising McConnell, what evidence would you cite in order to argue that he was taking a big risk here?

2. It's rhetorically easier to fight over a principle than a person. McConnell doesn't want to get bogged down in a debate over the qualifications of individual candidates if he can hold to a more general position in opposition to the entire idea of a nominee in the first place.

3. If the Senate rejects a nominee based on a personal deficiency, Obama can counter by naming a replacement nominee who lacks that deficiency. The underlying obstructive impulse is actually exposed more by shooting down a diverse series of individual candidates than by holding to a single blanket objection to the process itself.

4. The Supreme Court is a sore spot for many conservatives, who complain about the insufficient conservatism even of previous Republican nominees like Souter, Kennedy, and Roberts. No justice nominated by Obama will be acceptable to the Republican base by definition. Why wait for months to assure conservatives that you will block a nomination when you can do it right away?

5. A "we'll reserve judgment until the hearings" approach would also predictably arise as an issue in the presidential nomination race, to the detriment of the Senate Republicans. Imagine Ted Cruz productively blasting away at McConnell on the campaign trail for failing to vow that any Obama nomination is unacceptable. It is likely that McConnell is not terribly interested in helping Cruz win the Republican nomination.

6. Most Republican senators are more worried about losing a primary election than a general election, and their behavior is understandable given these electoral incentives. Six-term incumbent Richard Lugar of Indiana lost a Republican primary by 20 points in 2012 after supporting both of Obama's previous Court nominees—even though they had occurred years before and did not change the ideological balance of the Court.

7. Democrats warn that a blockade of Obama's nominee will boost enthusiasm and turnout among Democrats in the next election. I'm skeptical that marginally participatory voters care that much about the Court, but even if they do, the issue works on both sides. Republicans will be equally—and perhaps more—motivated to protect the Court's conservative majority as Democrats will be to overturn it.

8. Might McConnell's move hurt vulnerable Republican Senate incumbents running for re-election this fall in purple or light-blue states? Perhaps—though I'm skeptical, and several such senators (Ayotte, Johnson, Toomey) have already endorsed his position—but even if they are, they can announce their support for a vote after winning their primaries.

We're likely to have an eight-member Court for a while. At the least, the Senate blockade is almost certain to hold through November, and a partisan split between the presidency and Senate majority in the 2016 general election will prolong the standoff even further. Republicans may be taking on some political risk with their hardball tactics, but that must be weighed against the risk faced by a Republican senator who provides a decisive vote in favor of a liberal majority on the Supreme Court. In the current GOP, such an act is tantamount to throwing one's career away.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Debate Recap: Clearing the Decks

The past few Republican debates had featured what a certain rival candidate's father might have called a "kinder and gentler" Donald Trump (that is, when Trump appeared at all). Perhaps, it was suggested, Trump had reined in his trademark pugnaciousness in order to broaden his popular appeal or position himself for a general election campaign. It certainly didn't seem to hurt him to remain above the fray as the other candidates scrapped with each other over immigration, foreign policy, or their qualifications for the presidency.

But the Trump who showed up last night in South Carolina was ready for a fight. He raised his voice frequently and verbally plowed right over other candidates and moderators, interrupting them repeatedly until he got his point in. The entire debate was held within a rhetorical gravitational field warped in unfamiliar ways by the massive orange-tinged star at its center.

The most remarkable moment, as many other accounts have noted, was Trump's explicit, impassioned attack on the George W. Bush administration. Trump not only criticized Bush's invasion of Iraq, but also claimed that Bush knowingly lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction there. He even held Bush responsible for failing to prevent the 9/11 attacks—a charge that some liberals, but relatively few prominent elected Democrats, have made in public.

The airing of these views by a major candidate in a Republican primary is unprecedented, and it's very difficult to predict the political consequences. Do Republican voters—who generally express approval of Bush, even if they are more ambivalent about his policies—punish Trump for his partisan disloyalty? Or are they more concerned with other, more immediate subjects? Trump's entire campaign is such a departure from the normal political playbook that analysts are having a difficult time making sense of the connection between his behavior and its likely effects.

It is clear, though, that Trump subscribes to a worldview that recognizes no recent achievements in governing by either major party. He is equally caustic about Democratic and Republican leaders, about Barack Obama and George W. Bush, about the Affordable Care Act and the Iraq War. And when the parties engage in now-rare cases of cooperation across the aisle—on international trade, foreign policy intervention, attempted immigration reform—Trump blasts them for selling out the national interest.

Trump's specific views may not align with a majority of Republican voters, and he took more than the usual amount of return fire last night from Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz. But he's offering the Republican electorate an unmatched vehicle to register its dissatisfaction—not just with Obama (you can do that by voting Rubio), not just with liberals and the Republican squishes who supposedly enable them (you can do that by voting Cruz), but with the entire political class across both parties. Any voters who are sick of picking and choosing targets and just want to clear the decks entirely now have the opportunity to support a candidate who loudly and aggressively speaks for them.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Debate Recap: Clinton Bets on the Democratic Coalition

Is the Democratic Party properly a coalition of multiple social groups, each with its own separable set of concerns and interests, or should it be an ideological vehicle that is dedicated to a single primary objective: breaking apart amassed wealth and its associated economic (and political) power?

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton argued over a number of things in Thursday night's debate, from the legacy of Henry Kissinger to their support for the policies of Barack Obama. On several other issues, they largely agreed with each other. But seldom has the fundamental difference between their conceptions of politics in general, and Democratic politics in particular, been as effectively revealed as it was on the stage in Milwaukee.

For Sanders, the solution to nearly every domestic policy challenge resides in reforming the campaign finance system and restricting the influence of wealthy and corporate interests. Even ostensibly non-economic issues like drug abuse and criminal justice are, for Sanders, closely connected to capitalist exploitation. Clinton implicitly criticized him as a "single-issue candidate" in her closing statement, but it's more accurate to characterize Sanders—at least on domestic policy—as a candidate who cares about many issues but views them as manifestations of a common root cause.

While she has responded to Sanders's rise by insisting that she, too, is dedicated to regulating campaign money and taking on Wall Street, Clinton rejects the claim that these measures will effectively address other social problems, as she stated explicitly in the final moments of the debate:

Yes, does Wall Street and big financial interests, along with drug companies, insurance companies, big oil, all of it, have too much influence? You’re right. But if we were to stop that tomorrow, we would still have the indifference, the negligence that we saw in Flint. We would still have racism holding people back. We would still have sexism preventing women from getting equal pay. We would still have LGBT people who get married on Saturday and get fired on Monday. And we would still have governors like Scott Walker and others trying to rip out the heart of the middle class by making it impossible to organize and stand up for better wages and working conditions. So I’m going to keep talking about tearing down all the barriers that stand in the way of Americans fulfilling their potential, because I don’t think our country can live up to its potential unless we give a chance to every single American to live up to theirs.

There is strategy at work here: Clinton is assuming that African-Americans, Latinos, feminists, union members, gays and lesbians, and other groups under the Democratic big tent do not simply view their own concerns and perceived injustices as limited to, or merely the consequences of, economic unfairness. But there's little reason to believe that her stated views on this particular matter aren't as genuine as are Sanders's, especially since they are consistent with the Democratic Party's traditional coalitional character; Sanders, of course, did not join the Democratic Party until he launched his presidential candidacy last year. (Observers looking for true moments of insincerity during the debate should consider the strong likelihood that both candidates significantly exaggerated the degree of their actual admiration for Barack Obama and his presidential administration.)

Sanders, as he repeatedly suggests, is staking his candidacy on the success of a political revolution. This is commonly understood as a transformational change in the broader electoral environment that would make previously unattainable goals (such as single-payer health insurance) possible. But Sanders is also seeking to redefine the Democratic Party, giving it an ideological foundation that it has never previously had in its 200-year history. Clinton, on the other hand, is betting her own ambitions on the same multiplicity of group interests enduring for yet another election.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Don't Expect the Superdelegates to Stop Bernie Sanders

Under Democratic Party rules, all sitting Democratic governors, members of Congress, and members of the Democratic National Committee, and all sitting or former Democratic presidents, vice presidents, congressional leaders, and DNC chairs, enjoy automatic delegate status at the national convention. The creation of these "superdelegate" positions in the 1980s was designed to give the party's leaders some potential influence in the selection of the presidential nominee and approval of the party platform, as well as a formal participatory role in the convention every four years.

In 2008, the margin between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the pledged delegate count (those delegates allocated based on the results of primaries and caucuses) was sufficiently narrow that the superdelegates could have decided the nomination, mathematically speaking. In practice, however, any suggestion that the outcome among pledged delegates (which favored Obama) be reversed by the superdelegates was met with concerns—and even threats—that denying the nomination to the pledged-delegate winner would fatally split the party. Then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi went on record in March 2008 as questioning the legitimacy of such a turn of events, and enough superdelegates endorsed Obama on the last day of the primary calendar that his path to the nomination was cleared—prompting Clinton to quickly concede the race.

This time around, Clinton's massive lead in superdelegates over Bernie Sanders initially suggests a built-in advantage for her campaign, forcing Sanders to win a supermajority of pledged delegates in order to make up the gap. In the wake of the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, some news outlets even reported that Sanders's landslide victory only netted him a tie in the state delegate count after factoring in the New Hampshire superdelegates (such as Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Governor Maggie Hassan) who have publicly endorsed Clinton.

But it's once again difficult to imagine the superdelegates actually working to deny Sanders the nomination if he places first in the pledged delegate count—even if most of them prefer Clinton or view her as a superior general election candidate. The norms of internal "democracy" within the party organization are sufficiently strong that the legitimacy of a Clinton nomination under such conditions would be widely contested. A firestorm would ensue that would extend all the way to the convention itself, if not beyond, tearing the party apart and significantly weakening the eventual nominee.

It's worth remembering that the current nomination system is itself the product of a crisis of legitimacy. After Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the 1968 presidential race, the Democratic primaries were dominated by anti-Vietnam War candidates Gene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, but Hubert Humphrey captured the nomination on the first ballot amid protests and violence both inside the convention hall and on the streets of Chicago (Kennedy had been assassinated by the time of the convention, but still would not have been nominated had he lived). The requirement that most delegates be selected by party voters rather than organizational leaders was adopted in response to the criticism that Humphrey's nomination did not reflect the anti-war sentiment of the Democratic rank-and-file that year.

So I would argue against paying too much attention to the superdelegates, whether you're a Sanders supporter angered by their lack of support for your candidate, a Clinton backer who views them as a reassuring backstop to your candidate's currently shaky campaign, or a neutral observer just trying to make sense of the process. The winner of the pledged delegate count will almost certainly be the 2016 Democratic nominee—or else the Democratic Party will really feel the burn.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

New Hampshire: Some Things We Learned Last Night

1. The importance of televised debates in presidential nominations, a distinctive characteristic of the 2012 Republican race, has reasserted itself this time around. It is likely that any non-disastrous debate performance last Saturday by Marco Rubio would have guaranteed him at least a third-place finish in New Hampshire and might have put him in the position to battle John Kasich for second place behind Trump. In either case, a sympathetic press corps would have given him positive coverage heading into the next stage of the race while buzzards would have circled around the Jeb Bush campaign. Instead, Rubio wound up placing fifth—albeit only one percentage point behind both Bush and Ted Cruz—and will face serious pressure to bounce back in South Carolina, while Bush lives on to fight another day.

2. The ideologically and stylistically moderate Yankee Republican vote has not completely disappeared in New Hampshire, to Kasich's temporary advantage. However, it will be difficult for Kasich to replicate his performance in the very different electorates of South Carolina and Nevada.

3. Trump continues to be a polarizing figure within the party, with significant proportions of Republicans voicing a dislike for him or reluctance to support him if he were to be the nominee. Yet Cruz and Bush also face resistance from a substantial fraction of Republican voters, and less than half of New Hampshire Republicans told exit pollsters that they would feel satisfied with a Rubio nomination. At the moment, none of the leading Republican candidates engenders broadly positive feelings within the party electorate.

4. Bernie Sanders's bigger-than-expected victory on the Democratic side does not dislodge Hillary Clinton from her position as the heavy favorite for the nomination. Yet it does signal that Sanders will be a serious competitor, perhaps extending the nomination race far into the spring. It is likely that the Clinton campaign will retool its message—Clinton's concession speech in New Hampshire appeared to foreshadow exactly such a development—to echo Sanders's anti-Wall Street themes while simultaneously appealing much more directly to the major social groups within the Democratic coalition, especially racial minorities.

5. Relatedly, Clinton is also likely to hug Obama even tighter (rhetorically speaking, that is) in the coming weeks. The Sanders campaign would be wise to prepare for repeated accusations that it represents a rebuke to the policies—and even the character—of the current incumbent. A race that turns into a referendum on Obama would not be in its strategic interest.

6. The Democratic Party is probably only a few years away from becoming a majority-minority party (about 45 percent of Obama's votes in 2012 were supplied by non-white citizens). After this election, there is likely to be a serious internal challenge within the Democratic National Committee to the privileged status enjoyed by Iowa and New Hampshire in the presidential nomination process, on the grounds that the heavily white electorates of those two states do not adequately represent the party as a whole. This effort may not succeed (Iowa and New Hampshire have beaten back threats to their dominance before), but it's hard to believe that the issue won't be raised. Even some Republican leaders may be sympathetic to a reform of the calendar, given the victories of outsider candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump in the first two events of the nomination season this year, though changes to Republican party rules are much more procedurally difficult to implement.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Debate Recap: The Press Piles on Rubio

I'm not going to say that Marco Rubio turned in a great debate performance on Saturday, but the tone and volume of the media coverage might lead one to believe that he showed up drunk, kicked over his podium, and screamed that the Old Man of the Mountain got what was coming to him. Sure, Rubio's repetitive recitation of his memorized anti-Obama spiel was a strange and strategically unwise response to Chris Christie's accusation that Rubio was overly dependent on the repetitive recitation of memorized spiel, but the collective press judgment that this mistake could be—and, what is more, rightfully should be—severely damaging to Rubio's entire presidential campaign merely reinforces my view that debates are, on the whole, lousy ways to judge candidates.

But media coverage can have a self-fulfilling dimension, especially in primary elections. The fact that Rubio's public persona, as transmitted by reporters to voters, has turned on a dime from "charismatic savior of the Republican Party" to "out-of-his-depth automaton" (both dramatically exaggerated statements, though in opposite directions) three days before the New Hampshire primary is likely to damage Rubio's popularity among the Republican electorate. At the very least, it will be more difficult for him to sustain the "momentum" that he received from the Iowa caucuses—momentum that itself is principally the product of the highly favorable media interpretation of his third-place finish there.

On the other hand, expectations will be sufficiently lowered for Rubio's performance on Tuesday that if he merely runs a close third once again—and certainly if he does better than that—he will be able to claim a comeback that will likely return positive coverage to his campaign. He also benefits from the lack of a consensus alternative choice for those Republicans who are in the "ABCD" camp (as in, "Anybody But Cruz or Donald"). If Bush, Christie, and Kasich all finish within a few points of each other in New Hampshire, as polls now suggest is very possible, none of these candidates will have the standing to assert strong momentum of their own as the race moves to South Carolina.

Meanwhile, it seems ever more probable that the winner of the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary will be one Donald J. Trump. That this isn't the major story of the weekend tells you all you need to know about what a crazy campaign we're in.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Debate Recap: Who, Exactly, Is The Democratic Establishment?

Bernie Sanders subscribes to a simple theory of politics: the chief—if not sole—impediment to leftward political change is the power of moneyed interests, which have used their influence (primarily via campaign contributions and super-PACs) to compel members of Congress and other elected officials to block what would otherwise be common-sense policies. The popularity of this view among Democrats, especially liberals, accounts for much of Sanders's unexpectedly successful presidential candidacy. If you hate Wall Street, oil companies, and the insurance industry, and blame them for the growth of economic inequality, the failure of climate change legislation, and the absence of single-payer health care, says Sanders, you can best fight back against these enemies by supporting me.

Because Sanders is running in a Democratic primary, however, it is natural to ask whether his theory—which he repeatedly cites as an explanation for Republican extremism and intransigence—applies to the Democratic Party, and, if so, how. This is a more delicate matter, politically speaking. Since Sanders's worldview leaves relatively little room for honest disagreement over what he sees as obvious truths, it is only natural to conclude that he views the majority of Democrats arrayed to his ideological right as similarly co-opted by Wall Street donations and super-PAC dollars. On the other hand, he understands that many of those Democrats are popular within the party and its primary electorate, so it behooves him to talk in generalities about the flaws of the political system rather than specifically question the integrity of every Democratic politician or group that accepts Wall Street money, votes in a moderate fashion, or refuses to support his ideas and candidacy—even if his campaign is inherently implying that these other party actors are stooges or sellouts.

The Clinton campaign has been circling around this implication-but-not-accusation for a few weeks, looking for a vulnerability to attack, and it is clear from last night's debate that they have decided to try to box Sanders in. First, Clinton accused him, with no little personal pique, of questioning her own integrity via "innuendo" and "insinuation," engaging in an "artful smear" without having the guts to come out and accuse her of having been personally corrupted by wealthy interests. Sanders fought back by relying on his familiar analysis—financial deregulation and other measures were the result of a compromised political system—while refusing to take the bait to attack Clinton personally.

Second, Clinton wanted Sanders to name names. Who, exactly, are the corporate shills in the Democratic Party who, by implication, share the blame for blocking his favored policy agenda? Barack Obama? Joe Biden? Paul Wellstone? Jeanne Shaheen? Once again, Sanders knew better than to answer directly—Obama, he said, had done an "excellent job" even though "I disagree with him on a number of issues," and he returned to a more general systemic analysis rather than get drawn into an argument about exactly who was or wasn't politically compromised.

As both campaigns remember well, the biggest mistake made by Sanders in this race so far was his previous characterization of Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign as "part of the establishment" when he was asked why they had endorsed Clinton. The tension within the Sanders campaign between a general attack on a "rigged system" and a reluctance to criticize specific figures and groups within Democratic ranks reflects a recognition that Democratic voters might well share Sanders's general antipathy toward the "establishment" and corporate interests while resisting the acknowledgement that well-liked party figures—Clinton, Obama, prominent liberal interest groups—are guilty of being part of this "establishment." Last night's debate suggests that he will need to maintain this approach in the face of increasingly insistent attempts by Clinton to pin down the implications of his argument.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Most Democrats Aren't Liberals...Or "Progressives"

Yesterday, the political press took a temporary break from making fun of Jeb Bush to monitor a Twitter feud between (the social media staff of) Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders over who could claim the most authentically "progressive" record—a dispute that was also briefly raised in the CNN-sponsored town hall in New Hampshire attended last night by both candidates. Sanders accused Clinton of having previously accepted the label of "moderate," arguing that "you cannot be a moderate and a progressive." The Clinton campaign responded by attacking Sanders's voting record on guns while accusing Sanders of a "low blow" in criticizing Clinton's credentials.

Fights over ideological bona fides are commonplace in the Republican Party but rare on the Democratic side. In large part, that is because most Republicans define their party as properly acting as the agent of conservatism, while most Democrats view their own party as representing the interests of one or more social groups. Democrats locked in primary battles may accuse each other of insufficient loyalty to the party, or to a component constituency within its coalition, but usually refrain from describing themselves as progressives (or liberals) or questioning the liberalism/progressivism of others.

Sanders, of course, is an ideologically-motivated politician who had previously declined to affiliate himself with the Democratic Party as a sign of his own independence from its non-liberal factions; the entire thrust of his attack on Clinton—and, by extension, much of the Democratic party apparatus itself—is based on an ideological critique. The Clinton camp, perceiving the popularity of Sanders's message among Iowa and New Hampshire voters, has gingerly attempted to associate itself with the "progressive" label even as it continues to insist that its candidate's more incremental, pragmatic approach is the best way to accomplish Democratic goals. But this is new territory for a party that is unused to publicly debating ideology as such, and it is clear that the Clinton side is wary of making statements on the topic that might prove counterproductive in a future general election.

For Sanders, the problem with getting bogged down in an ideological dispute is that many Democratic voters are unlikely to side with him. The distribution of ideological self-identification within the Democratic primary electorate in 2008, the last contested presidential nomination race, was as follows in the ten biggest states in the country, according to media exit polls:

California: 50% liberal, 37% moderate, 13% conservative
Texas: 37% liberal, 40% moderate, 22% conservative
Florida: 51% liberal, 37% moderate, 13% conservative
New York: 57% liberal, 33% moderate, 9% conservative
Illinois: 48% liberal, 41% moderate, 10% conservative
Pennsylvania: 49% liberal, 40% moderate, 10% conservative
Ohio: 40% liberal, 46% moderate, 14% conservative
Georgia: 47% liberal, 41% moderate, 12% conservative
North Carolina: 42% liberal, 37% moderate, 21% conservative
Michigan: 49% liberal, 41% moderate, 10% conservative

As we can see, self-identified liberals constituted more than half of the Democratic electorate last time around in only two of these ten states—and more than 51% in just one (New York). Even among the party base—voters committed enough to participate in relatively low-turnout primary elections—liberals are in the minority. Moreover, many self-identified liberals are unlikely to also consider themselves "progressives," the preferred term of the Sanders campaign but a label that is not widely used in contemporary American political rhetoric. When Sanders talks about progressivism, in other words, many Democrats either won't be inclined to take his side or won't even know what he's talking about, and his accusatory use of the word "moderate" seems to ignore the millions of Democratic voters who describe their own politics in precisely those terms.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Iowa: Some Things We Learned Last Night

1. Donald Trump clearly underperformed his poll numbers. Some have suggested that he was hurt by skipping the debate last week, but it's more likely that polls systematically overestimate his support, especially in low-turnout, organization-dependent caucus states. (And don't be misled by all the talk about record turnout—in comparative terms, the participation rate in the caucus was still much lower than in most primaries.)

2. The evangelical-vs.-non-evangelical divide was somewhat overstated going into Iowa. Cruz benefited from the evangelical vote, but did not win it overwhelmingly. Similarly, he was not as dominant in the western, Steve King-represented section of the state as expected, but made up for it by running surprisingly strongly in the eastern cities and suburbs.

3. Ethanol is no longer the "third rail" of Iowa politics. My guess is that American politics has become strongly nationalized in the era of the Internet, national media, and partisan polarization, reducing the electoral importance of parochial interests.

4. Rubio was smart to declare victory after running a close third, and will benefit in the national media from the perception that he's best positioned to actually win the nomination. The unresolved question is whether he gets a bigger media bounce from coming in third than Cruz does from placing first—particularly in the conservative media that most Republican primary voters consume. If so, he could be well-positioned in New Hampshire to consolidate much of the non-Trump vote.

5. There really isn't a "Paul wing" of the Republican Party.  Ron Paul won 10% in Iowa in 2008 and 21% in 2012, suggesting that there was a significant bloc of libertarian-minded, non-interventionist Republicans that might become established as an enduring faction within the GOP.  Rand Paul, though a senator, only got 4% this time.

6. Bernie Sanders is a very talented politician with an attractive message and manner in the eyes of many Democratic activists and voters. Though his chances of actually winning the nomination remain quite remote, it's very surprising in retrospect that he did not seek a national political profile before this election.