Noah Millman

Fetch and Carry

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

I hate to throw cold water on Ross Douthat’s pundit fantasy – Rubio getting Kasich out of the way by offering him the VP slot – but . . . wouldn’t that be a huge gift to Ted Cruz? And isn’t Cruz Rubio’s biggest worry over the next week?

Think about it. Cruz is positioned as Mr. Solid Gold Conservative in the race. Kasich is running as a self-proclaimed relative moderate. If Rubio offered Kasich the VP slot, he’d be playing right into Cruz’s script. “He betrayed us with the Gang of Eight – and now he’s offered the Vice Presidency to a man who supports Obamacare. What other conservative causes will he betray if we give him the keys to the White House?” Is that really the message he wants out there going into Super Tuesday?

That’s apart from the fact that an overture to Kasich makes Rubio look weak, like somebody who can’t win on his own . . . and there isn’t much of an answer to that charge because it’s true! Rubio can’t win on his own! That’s the premise of Douthat’s column!

And it’s also unnecessary given the geography of the upcoming contests. Kasich has basically abandoned the fight for the majority of Super Tuesday states. He’s not going to be a major factor in Georgia, Oklahoma, or Arkansas – all states where Rubio has polled very competitively in the past month. He may try to make himself a factor in Virginia or Minnesota, two other states where Rubio has polled if anything even more competitively – but so what? Kasich was polling at 2% in Minnesota a month ago, when Rubio was polling in the lead. If Rubio’s stock drops, and Kasich rises to, I don’t know – 10%? – how exactly is that a knock on Kasich, as opposed to an indication that Rubio just can’t close the sale?

Rubio has a path to the nomination. It involves winning at least a handful of states that are effectively three-person races between himself, Trump and Cruz, in Super Tuesday states where the terrain is far from unfavorable for him. If there’s a real split on Super Tuesday, with Cruz winning, say, Texas, Oklahoma and Alaska, Rubio winning Virginia, Minnesota and Georgia, and Trump winning Massachusetts, Vermont, Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama – then even though Trump will be the clear delegate leader, there will be three viable candidates. Kasich will collapse, and Rubio can go into the big winner-take-all contests on March 15th having made a credible case for his candidacy – and a far more-credible one than Cruz will have. It’s really not clear to me why Rubio needs to drive Kasich out of the race to make that scenario happen. On the contrary – what he needs to do is out-hustle Cruz, and make a strong case for his own candidacy in forums that are naturally more favorable to a quite conservative candidate like Rubio than states like Ohio and Illinois that Kasich is counting on – but that won’t vote until March 15th.

Here’s the thing: there is no anti-Trump vote to be consolidated. There’s an anti-establishment vote that Trump has consolidated. That vote is not a majority – but the remainder is not so unified in its loathing of Trump that Rubio would magically win a majority if other candidates would just step aside and let him win. Even if Rubio’s plan is the be the Republican Dukakis – the perfectly acceptable candidate who first beats the other acceptable candidates and then beats the unacceptable candidates – he can only get there by actually beating them.

So seriously: stop trying to make fetch happen. It’s not going to happen. Unless he makes it happen himself.

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Rubio Is a Funny Candidate For the “Establishment”

Is there really an establishment, anti-Trump “lane” of any consequence in the GOP race? I’ve been asking that question for some time, for one simple reason: since Trump’s rise, there have been no strong, center-right establishment candidates in the race.

Trump, Cruz and Carson (and Rand Paul) have been generally understood as anti-establishment candidates whom the political class would be unhappy with. The candidates typically classed as “establishment” or “mainstream” from the beginning were: Bush, Christie, Kasich, Walker, Perry—and Rubio.

But Rubio is a peculiar candidate to be calling “establishment” or “mainstream” for two reasons. First, because his positioning in his Senate election and in terms of his stances on a host of issues is quite right-wing—more right-wing than Trump’s on most issues apart from immigration. And second, because he ran for the Senate, and now for the White House, as an upstart candidate defying a party leadership that wanted him to wait his turn.

You can tell the weirdness of Rubio’s positioning as an establishment favorite by looking at who supporters of different candidates choose for their second choices. The data in a recent NBC tracking poll is highly instructive in that regard.

When you look at Rubio’s own supporters, and ask them who their second choice is, the #1 pick—with 31%—is Ted Cruz. The #2 pick—with 17%—is Donald Trump. 9% go to Ben Carson. So, a substantial majority of Rubio’s own supporters prefer an anti-establishment candidate to any of the other “establishment” choices.

And when you look at the “establishment” candidate’s second choices, while there is a clear preference for Rubio, it’s far from overwhelming. Bush supporters, when asked who they’d pick second, picked “Don’t Know” first, with 23%, then Rubio, with 19%, then Kasich, with 16%. Trump, Cruz and Carson together garnered 32%. So it’s far from clear that Bush dropping out will bring his voters overwhelmingly to Rubio’s side (though Rubio will likely pick up the bulk of his campaign infrastructure).

Kasich supporters, when asked who they’d pick second, gave 24% to Rubio – but gave 21% to Bush and 16% to Donald Trump. Again, hardly an overwhelming preference for Rubio. A similar pattern obtains when you look at Christie and Fiorina supporters. As each establishment candidate drops out, Rubio would expect to garner 20-30% of that candidate’s vote. The remainder goes elsewhere, smeared out among the other remaining candidates, with Trump garnering half to two-thirds as much as Rubio.

Meanwhile, guess which candidate’s voters give the largest share of second-choice votes to Rubio?

That’s right: Ted Cruz. 33% of Cruz voters would opt for Rubio as a second choice, followed by Trump, who gets 26% of Cruz voters, and Carson, who gets 17%.

What we’ve learned from the three contests so far is that, if the electorate in a given state is more conservative (like Iowa and South Carolina), Rubio does well winning late-breaking deciders. If it isn’t (as in New Hampshire), then he doesn’t.

Super Tuesday’s states are mostly on the conservative end of the spectrum – and hence should give Rubio a chance to break through and actually win states like Virginia (where he polled second to Trump earlier in February), Minnesota (where he was leading in a January poll) or Colorado (which hasn’t been polled recently, but where Rubio was strong in a November poll). But by the same token, there are strong opportunities for Cruz to win, particularly in his home state of Texas but also in nearby Oklahoma and Arkansas. And Trump, of course, is strong across-the-board, not only across the southern states but in states like Massachusetts.

But the real point is, when we move to the northeast and the more easterly parts of the midwest, it’s less clear that the territory is so favorable to Rubio. In two Michigan polls from mid-February, Rubio polled 10% and 12% respectively—in-line with Kasich’s polling, and far behind Trump. Illinois and Ohio haven’t been polled recently, but if Kasich can hold out until Ohio he should do very well there, and Illinois is similarly favorable territory for Kasich.

As well as for Trump. Because that’s the thing: Trump is not only a candidate running against the establishment; he’s also the relative centrist in a three-way race with two distinctly right-wing candidates. Rubio is far more palatable to moderate and “somewhat” conservative voters than Cruz is in such a race. But it’s not obvious to me that he’s far more palatable than Trump.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s clear that the GOP establishment is about to line up fully behind Rubio, certainly if reports like these are to be believed. It’s just worth remembering that this is itself a bit of a strange result, and, therefore, it shouldn’t be too surprising if even more centrist, establishment-oriented Republican voters don’t fully fall into line.

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Handicapping South Carolina

If you look at the Real Clear Politics chart of the average polls results for South Carolina, you’ll see a trend that looks somewhat like what Iowa looked like before the caucus, namely: Trump in the lead but dropping, and Rubio steadily rising. Trump’s lead is considerably larger than it was in Iowa pre-caucus, plus he’s held that lead in South Carolina far longer, plus South Carolina is a primary rather than a caucus. But the trend lines are still somewhat similar. So: is a similar surprise in the offing? Will Trump significantly underperform his polls? Will Rubio ride positive momentum (and endorsements by much of the state’s officialdom) to significantly outperform?

It basically depends on whose polls you believe. Thirteen different pollsters have polled South Carolina in February, but only three of them have polled the state multiple times: ARG (four times), the South Carolina House GOP (five times), and Emerson (twice). The other ten have only polled the state once this month. Since pollsters’ methodologies differ, it’s sometimes difficult to know whether an apparent trend is real if it’s generated by the entry of a different pollster.

So I took a look under the hood of the average. Here’s what I found.

First, in none of the three pollsters who polled South Carolina multiple times did I see a material trend away from Trump. In ARG’s first February poll, Trump garnered 35%; in its most recent poll, he garnered 34%. Similarly, in the first SC House GOP poll for February, Trump garnered 35%, and in the most-recent he garnered 34%. Emerson’s first February poll was much later than the other two, so it’s not really comparable, but between its two polls Trump rose from 33% to 36%.

Second, the dip that Trump has taken recently is largely driven by two polls, one from Harper covering Feb 16-17, and one from NBC/WSJ/Marist covering Feb 15-17, both of which showed Trump’s support in the high-20s rather than the mid-30s. Harper showed stronger-than-typical support for Kasich (13%), whereas the Marist poll showed stronger-than-typical support for Cruz (23%). Both actually showed weaker-than-average support for Rubio.

Third, the trend toward Rubio is most-pronounced in the ARG poll. Rubio went from 14% support in their first February poll (2/12-13) to 22% in their most recent poll (2/17-18). This move did not come at the expense of Trump, as noted above – but neither did it come at the expense of any other candidate polled. ARG has consistently shown higher support for Kasich than average (either 14% or 15% in each poll), and has consistently shown lower support for Cruz than average (ranging from 12% to 14%), but neither candidate’s numbers have moved materially in the past week. So if their finding that Rubio is surging is correct, it’s because he’s winning over voters who previously did not declare a preference (the total for the six remaining candidates went from 88% to 96% over the past week).

The SC House GOP poll, on the other hand, shows only modest movement – and that movement is toward both Rubio (up from 13% to 16%) and Cruz (up from 16% to 18%) since February 11th. This move is also fully accounted for by a drop in the percentage registering no preference (total for the six outstanding candidates went from 91% to 96% over the period). None of the other candidates moved materially over the period.

Finally, if I strip out the ARG and SC House polls, and look at the rolling average of the other pollsters, I see no move toward Rubio, a meaningful drop in Trump’s support (driven by the new Harper and Marist polls above), a modest drop in Cruz’s support – and a meaningful rise for both Bush and Kasich.

So here’s what I conclude:

  • Trump is still overwhelmingly likely to win tomorrow.
  • Because of the size of Trump’s lead, if he meaningfully underperforms his polls he’ll still win. But if he does meaningfully underperform, it’ll be because – as in Iowa – there was a late surge in the anti-Trump vote, rather than because his voters are switching.
  • There may be real movement of late-deciders towards Rubio, such that I’d say he is favored to take second place, with Cruz coming in third. Because of Rubio’s support from the press, both mainstream and conservative, even a close second-place finish will be spun as a considerable victory, which will boost his national numbers and also his numbers in his most-winnable Super Tuesday states (most prominently Virginia, Minnesota and Colorado).
  • The candidate with the most to lose right now in South Carolina is therefore Cruz. If he comes in third in South Carolina behind Rubio, he may also come in third in Nevada, and his numbers will likely weaken in states he absolutely must win on March 1st, like Oklahoma, Georgia and Arkansas, to remain viable. If Cruz does come in a strong second in South Carolina, that’ll be a sign of a strong ground game, or of a rise in support for Kasich and/or Bush at Rubio’s expense, rather than movement of voters in his direction.
  • It would be a considerable surprise if either Bush or Kasich makes it into the top three – but it is not by any means impossible. Kasich has consistently placed third in the ARG poll, and Bush has polled a close fourth consistently in the SC House GOP poll. And both candidates have moved up in the past week (albeit from a low base) in the average of the other pollsters. If either Bush or Kasich beats Rubio, despite Rubio’s surge in institutional support, I’d expect Rubio to go into free-fall. If either of them beat Cruz, then ARG wins the pollster of the month award.
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Is Scalia’s Burial Mound the Hill Social Conservatives Should Choose to Die On?

I know I’m a bit late to the memorial on this one, but I wanted to respond to Ross Douthat’s call for a “perhaps-foredoomed but still necessary last stand” on the part of social conservatives in response to the passing of Justice Scalia.

The heart of Douthat’s case is the following:

Since 1968, the year that the modern right-of-center political majority was born, Republican presidents have made twelve appointments to the Supreme Court; Democratic presidents have made just four. Yet those twelve Republican appointments, while they did push the court rightward, never delivered the kind of solid 6-3 or 7-2 conservative majority that one might have expected to emerge. Instead, John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Harry Blackmun all went on to become outspoken liberals, Blackmun and Anthony Kennedy went on to author decisions sweeping away the nation’s abortion laws and redefining marriage, Sandra Day O’Connor and Kennedy both ratified Roe v. Wade — and so on down a longer list of disappointments and betrayals.

Meanwhile, none of the four recent Democratic appointees, whether “moderate” or liberal, have moved meaningfully rightward during their tenures. On the crucial cases of the last decade (including the cases Stern lists) they’ve reliably voted as a bloc. The most genuinely unpredictable of the four, Stephen Breyer, is basically crusading to eliminate the death penalty already. The more moderate of President Obama’s two appointments, Elena Kagan, has voted with the more liberal Sonia Sotamayor more reliably (especially in 5-4 decisions) than, say, Scalia voted with John Roberts. And the court’s only actual swing vote remains, of course, a Republican appointee.

So telling Republicans that they should accept a moderate liberal lest they risk a real liberal is likely to inspire a bitter chuckle, since from the perspective of conservatives they risk at least a moderate liberal in practically every appointment anyway. (Including the last Republican president’s, since most fairly or not many conservatives feel they dodged a bullet with Harriet Miers.) And if you’re starting from that kind of disadvantage, you simply can’t afford to throw away even a chance at appointing a real conservative in the name of a play-it-safe compromise: If there’s one thing conservatives have learned from forty years of judicial appointment battles, it’s that when you compromise, you lose.

Further, you lose the most on the issues that animate the party’s socially-conservative voting base — as opposed to donors, think-tankers and the Chamber of Commerce —because it’s social issues where time and again the elite consensus has tugged Republican appointees leftward.

So it’s not just that conservatives have good reasons to be more skeptical than Stern that even a “moderate” Obama appointee would ultimately hesitate to overturn (or at least carefully undercut) some of the precedents he cites; it’s that on certain issues they have extremely well-grounded anxieties. Tell the average conservative voter that they should accept an Obama appointee in the hopes of preserving Citizens United and McCutcheon, and they’re likely to stare blankly and then shrug when you explain the campaign-finance law implications. But tell them that, despite having a fighting chance to replace him with a conservative, they should trade their great champion and bulwark on abortion, marriage and religious liberty — to borrow from one eulogy, “the mighty rearguard in our long and slow defeat” — for an Obama appointee at a moment when social liberalism is ascendant and the legal and cultural consequences of same-sex marriage are beginning to ripple across the country and the courts … well, they’ll look at you like you’re insane.

And they would be right to do so. [Emphasis mine]

I understand exactly what Douthat is saying here. But with respect, if you find yourself in a situation that “when you compromise, you lose,” the solution cannot be “never compromise”—because compromise is the nature of politics. That framing of the problem is a framing that guarantees failure. The only possible solution is to change your political situation so that new, more favorable compromises are possible.

Douthat’s complaint, in essence, is that the GOP is very careful to nominate judges and justices who are pro-prosecutor and pro-business, but are much less-careful to nominate judges and justices who are attentive to the concerns of social conservatives. But is it the case that only full-spectrum conservatives could possibly be attentive to social conservative concerns? Is it at least possible that there are pro-union, pro-defendant judges and lawyers who—perhaps by virtue of their religious faith (Mormon, evangelical Protestant, Orthodox Jewish, etc.)—are especially sensitive to the particular concerns of traditional religious believers?

If that is possible, wouldn’t it be a productive political experiment for a prominent social conservative leader to present President Obama with a list of such judges and lawyers, and say: if you pick one of these guys, we will not oppose their nomination. We will not carry water for the Chamber of Commerce on this one; if you want to make sure there is basically no chance the ACA or your EPA rules or what have you get overturned, that’s fine with us provided you give us someone who might well vote the way Scalia did in Hobby Lobby.

President Obama might well ignore the overture. But it would be useful anyway, and for three reasons. First, it would clarify just who is spurning whom, and just who is truly unwilling to compromise. Second, it would send a very clear signal to the Chamber of Commerce that the strength of their position is far from impregnable – that social conservatives are just as capable of abandoning their erstwhile allies as they are of being abandoned. And finally, it would send a very clear signal to parts of the Democratic coalition – unions, environmentalists, anti-incarceration activists, etc. – that there are opportunities for novel alliances worth exploring.

Justice Scalia, in his dissent in Obergefell v Hodges, noted the problem with having as highly unrepresentative a body as the Supreme Court—with its plurality of Harvard-educated New Yorkers – making value judgments for the country as a whole. Scalia himself  was, of course, one of those Harvard-educated New Yorkers, but his point was that such mal-representation wouldn’t be a problem if the Court stopped making value judgments—an ambition which I would argue is impossible and that I suspect most would agree is unlikely even if possible. So rather than say, “Scalia can only be replaced by another Harvard-educated New Yorker who happens to be a full-spectrum conservative,” why not say “let’s follow Scalia’s advice and make our litmus test be socio-cultural rather than ideological”? This may be going too far, but maybe Harriet Miers—or her Democratic equivalent—is exactly the type of Justice social conservatives should be hoping for, as opposed to a narrowly-dodged bullet.

Because if the only people folks like Douthat can count on to consider their particular concerns are people who also buy into the rest of the right-wing package, and yet some who accept the rest of the package will prove unreliable allies to social conservatives, then social conservatives are simply going to lose and lose again. And it’s not obvious to me how a last stand of the sort he calls for helps to change that.

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What Comes Next?

It would be exceptionally foolish for me, the man who said Donald Trump could very well run the table, to predict the next twist and turn of this campaign with any confidence. It feels like this thing is now Trump’s to lose, since he will run better in South Carolina than Cruz will in Michigan, and the establishment is in deep disarray. It feels like Clinton needs a win to right her campaign, but that one is fairly assured her in South Carolina for demographic reasons. But South Carolina is weeks away, and this campaign has surprised enough observers often enough to make anyone unconfident in their prognostications.

We’ll know where we stand when the first South Carolina polls come out. The state hasn’t been polled since mid-January, before Ted Cruz won Iowa, to say nothing of events since. At that point, Trump was polling in the mid-30s, Cruz in the low-20s, and Rubio and Bush in the low-teens. The best evidence of the state of play pre-New Hampshire is from nearby states: in February polls, Rubio polled tied with Trump for second in Arkansas, tied with Cruz for second in Georgia, and a close third behind Trump and Cruz in North Carolina. In all, Bush was a non-factor – but his campaign has been much more active in South Carolina. Since Trump’s decisive victory in New Hampshire and Rubio’s collapse in New Hampshire, I’d expect the first post-New Hampshire polls to show Trump clearly leading, Cruz a strong second, and Rubio and Bush fighting for third – in other words, that the race will have reverted to just about where it was in January. But we’ll see soon enough.

In any event here are a few other things I’ll be watching for, in roughly the order that I expect them.

Chris Christie endorsement. Chris Christie came in sixth in New Hampshire, has no money and no campaign infrastructure for the rest of the race, has not polled meaningfully in any other early-voting state and the states coming up are distinctly inhospitable to him. I can’t imagine he’ll stay in much longer.

But will he endorse one of his rivals? If so, who – and will it matter?

It might, at the margins. If he endorses, I assume he’ll endorse one of his fellow governors, either Bush or Kasich. Either could use some kind of good news, and use it to further beat up on the suddenly-struggling Rubio campaign. That might make a bit of difference in the battle for third place in South Carolina – and might make a bigger difference down the line if either campaign makes it that far.

Washington’s non-binding caucus. No delegates are being awarded in Washington State on February 20th. And most of the campaigns will be ignoring that contest. I bet the exception will be Ted Cruz – and that’s why I expect him to win. It won’t mean anything, but the Cruz campaign will labor hard to convince people that it does. Unfortunately, it’s the same day as South Carolina, so he won’t be able to spin good news to positive effect there – but if Cruz comes in second in South Carolina but wins Washington, that’ll at least soften the blow.

Nevada’s Democratic caucuses. Nevada’s caucus comes before South Carolina’s primary on the Democratic side. The caucus is hard to poll, and hasn’t been polled much, but the conventional wisdom is that Hillary Clinton has the whip hand in a state with such a large Hispanic population.

I wonder whether the conventional wisdom may be wrong. Nevada is indeed browner than Iowa or New Hampshire. But Nevada is also younger than Iowa or New Hampshire. And a heftier percentage of Nevadans are non-citizens (10% versus 2%-3%), who I would suspect skew browner than the state – and non-citizens can’t caucus. Nevada is also a relatively more-unionized state than the national average, and the largest union (the culinary workers) has remained neutral this year (they endorsed Obama in 2008). Finally, the latest poll we have of Nevada is from mid-December, when Clinton was leading by more than 20 points. But at that point, she was also leading by 15 points in Iowa, and had only recently lost her lead in New Hampshire.

As a caucus, Nevada will reward organization and enthusiasm. Those don’t seem to be Clinton’s strongest points so far. Another loss here – or even another very narrow win – could cause real panic in Brooklyn.

Ben Carson departure. He’s no longer a factor in the primaries – except that he’s still pulling high-single digits in post-Iowa polls of many states, not just southern ones like Georgia, Arkansas and North Carolina but also Michigan. Those are votes that Cruz, Rubio and Trump all covet, and could all make plausible plays for.

Carson could shape the race on Super Tuesday if he drops out after South Carolina and endorses. He could shape the race even more profoundly if he drops out before South Carolina and endorses – though I find that prospect extremely unlikely. If, on the other hand, he waits until after Super Tuesday to drop out, Carson’s main impact on the race will have been to make it easier for Donald Trump to win the nomination by siphoning away values-oriented voters who are repelled the multiply-married trash-talking billionaire, but are looking for someone purer of heart than Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.

Bill lashes out. There’s this thing the Clintons do, when they are losing – they lash out, in ways that hurt themselves more than anyone. In 2008, after South Carolina, Bill Clinton belittled Obama’s victory by suggesting that African-American voters flocked to him purely out of racial solidarity – which was the right thing to do if he wanted to ensure that Hillary would have no chance with those voters for the rest of the campaign. More recently, the Clinton campaign trotted out Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright to insult young women who are supporting Bernie Sanders, suggesting that they will go to hell if they don’t vote for Hillary and that the only reason they aren’t supporting her is that the cute boys are all campaigning for Bernie. I’m sure that’ll do wonders for her numbers with young voters.

If the national polls tighten, and especially if there are indications Hillary Clinton might lose Nevada, I will be genuinely shocked if Bill Clinton doesn’t say something appalling between now and the South Carolina primary that backfires spectacularly. Most likely it will be some kind of insult or threat aimed at the African-American community, something about what they owe him and his wife or how Sanders is trying to dupe them. It won’t be well-considered, it won’t be planned – and it will cause real damage.

Enough damage to lose South Carolina? I doubt it. Enough damage to make Bill toxic for a crucial stretch of the primaries? More likely. Enough damage to cause problems for Hillary in the general election, if and when she clinches the nomination?

We’ll see.




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What I’m Hoping For Out Of New Hampshire

Cards on the table: I’m not going to be supporting the Republican nominee in November.

I might not be supporting the Democratic nominee either. I’m not a Hillary hater, but I never liked her husband (and I think he’s going to be a huge problem when and if he gets back into the East Wing). I think she’s a poor political talent and a poor manager. Most important, I think her foreign policy is far too reflexively bellicose. But against most Republican candidates, I’d still be rooting for her to win even if I can’t bring myself to actually vote for her. (Not that it’ll matter whether I do or don’t; if she’s having trouble winning New York, it’s already long over.)

So, assuming I’m rooting for the Democrat, presumably I want the Republicans to be in maximal disarray, and to nominate their weakest general election candidate. Right, Mr. Chait?

Not really. First of all, I think any Republican nominee has close to even odds of winning the general election. Some candidates have stronger prospects than others. I think the strongest general-election candidate for the GOP is probably the personable and non-crazy John Kasich, followed by the slick and well-packaged Marco Rubio, and the weakest is probably the extreme and personally-repellant Ted Cruz followed by the hapless legacy Jeb Bush. But none of them are so weak that they couldn’t win, and none of them are so strong that they are the obvious choice for a party concerned primarily with winning (which may be one reason the party is having so much trouble deciding). And if we go into a recession, even Ted Cruz would have a better-than-even chance.

Beyond that, it’s important for the health of the Republic that we have two (or more) parties that offer plausible choices to the electorate, both worthy of being trusted with governance. I don’t want either party to be in a state of chaos, or to nominate someone who would make a totally unacceptable president.

So, if I want a nominee who’s at least minimally acceptable, and I don’t want chaos, then presumably I’m in the anybody-but-Trump category. Right, Mr. Linker?

Not really. First of all, while I think Trump would be a very bad president, I don’t think he’d be obviously much worse than some of his opponents. Trump’s enthusiasm for torture is horrifying – but it is exceptionally common in the party that nominated Mitt “double Guantanamo” Romney, and the candidate who most directly confronted that corrosive evil has unfortunately dropped out. I would expect a President Trump to run gleefully roughshod over legal and Constitutional niceties – but, we still have the separation of powers, the division of power, and the existence of an opposition party to challenge an exercise of Trump’s worst instincts, and Trump would have less reason than a normal party leader to count on Republican party loyalty should he find himself threatened with impeachment.

But, more to the point, when you set aside the obnoxious bluster, Trump’s actual instincts are considerably less alarming in some areas than some of the other candidates. In particular, he is a rare Republican who seems comfortable with the idea that foreign affairs is not a zero-sum game. He doesn’t say it’s wrong to deal with an evil regime like Iran; he thinks he, as purported super-negotiator, would have gotten a better deal. If Putin wants to prop up the Assad regime, he doesn’t see why we should interfere – if they fail, that hurts Putin, and if they succeed, that hurts ISIS. He is certainly not a realist, and certainly not anti-interventionist – as I’ve said before, he’s a to-hell-with-’em-hawk. But he seems to understand that sometimes the only way to win is not to play.

Which is more than I can say about some of his Republican opponents – most particularly Marco Rubio.

Finally, it’s not obvious to me that if the GOP establishment actually got its act together and picked a winner, and muscled that winner over the finish line, that this would do anything to quell the chaos that Trump has channeled so effectively. After all, part of the reason we are where we are is that the GOP establishment did exactly that in 2012.

So . . . what is it I want?

First, I want the nomination process to continue. I want the Republican electorate to be forced to ask, “what do we want our party to be” and not merely, “who’s more electable” or “who’s the real conservative,” the questions that the establishment and the conservative movement prefer to ask. Trump has, in a more-than-imperfect way, forced that question. I don’t want the question withdrawn prematurely.

Second, I want credible non-Trump candidates both to continue to challenge him frontally where they believe he’s wrong and to copy him in challenging the establishment conservative consensus where they themselves may believe he’s got a point. The party needs to have a real debate about immigration, about foreign policy, and about its core economic policy ideas. That debate should continue all the way to the convention.

Third, I want the ultimate nominee to be someone who I will not be terrified of should he actually win the presidency.

For all of the above reasons, what I want most of all out of New Hampshire is . . . to stop Marco Rubio.

Laying my remaining cards on the table: I genuinely believe Rubio is the most dangerous candidate of the whole bunch, more dangerous than Trump and certainly more dangerous than the declaredly more-extreme Cruz. It’s partly that Rubio’s foreign policy views are exceptionally ideological and divorced from reality, but more that his whole political identity seems to me to have been engineered based on positioning, and positioning within the world of professional ideologists. The candidate he reminds me of most is John Edwards, and I loathed Edwards.

The Robo-Rubio business from the last debate is overblown in any literal sense – any candidate can be thrown in a given moment, and the pressure of live debates is very different from the pressure of the situation room. But I’m extremely glad it happened, because Rubio really is an empty suit – or so it has seemed to me for months. It’s a well-tailored suit for winning a Republican primary, but that’s not good enough, and anyway, I don’t even know if it’ll fit right once he finally grows into it.

I’m not going to predict how New Hampshire is going to vote. But what I hope happens is that Trump wins with roughly 30%, that Kasich’s momentum carries him well above his recent polling to crack 20%, and that either Bush or Cruz comes in third with roughly 15%.

Looking past New Hampshire, keeping the race, and the real debate, going means keeping the race open. That means hoping that Cruz wins South Carolina (since if Trump win’s he’ll be the overwhelmingly strongest candidate going into Super Tuesday, and he’d be favored to win some of the large Northern states that follow, like Michigan, Illinois and New York).

An open race, in which Cruz and Trump are the leaders but neither looks capable of putting it away, but where the establishment hasn’t coalesced around Rubio, is probably the best-case scenario for a Cruz nomination. It’s also probably the only scenario under which a brokered convention is a real possibility.

And I can live with either prospect.

Ted Cruz is a jerk and an extremist on many things. But at least he seems to care about the Constitution; at least he opposes torture; at least he has some skepticism of over-committing the American military; and at least his extremism is worn relatively honestly. A Cruz-Clinton race would certainly be a choice, not an echo. And Cruz would probably lose, which would hopefully force some kind of reckoning with the wages of extremism.

A brokered convention, meanwhile, would force the GOP to come up with a candidate who actually satisfied the various factions in play at the convention, most definitely including the mob behind Donald Trump. The party would finally get to decide, but they’d have to decide publicly, without the facade of popular endorsement that primary-season bandwagoning produces.

And who knows? Maybe they’d settle on somebody like Kasich who isn’t so terrible? Stranger things have happened.

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Fetch Happens

For over a year now, Marco Rubio and his substantial cheering section have been trying to ignite Marco-Mentum without notable success. Well, they finally made fetch happen – and just in the nick of time.

In the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, there was clearly something stirring. Trump’s numbers were falling; Rubio’s were rising. Just as in 2012, there was a late-breaking surge for the rising candidate. It’s just that this time, the rising candidate was a media darling rather than a factional protest candidate of the social-conservative right.

The first interesting question is: why? Rubio did not invest in the kind of ground-game infrastructure in Iowa that Cruz did. The things that might be appealing about him – youth, glibness, media support – have been true for some time. Why the late surge?

I’m reluctant to believe that skipping the final GOP debate actually made that much difference – but maybe it was a fatal error? Maybe merely showing the voters a field without Trump made it more plausible to distinguish among those alternatives rather than see them as a non-Trump mass?

Maybe this really was a case of “the party hasn’t decided yet” and it finally made up its mind. Mainstream GOP voters in Iowa simply weren’t being told by their betters who they have to choose (as they were told in 2012), and so they didn’t choose until the last minute. And of the remaining non-Trump, non-Cruz choices, Rubio was actually the most appealing.

Maybe all the Trump hype (which I participated in) actually energized those non-Trump, non-Cruz voters to show up and represent the mainstream of the party. Cruz’s Iowa victory is a victory for organization, a plan well-executed. Both Trump’s disappointing second-place showing and Rubio’s strong third-place showing, by contrast, were the product less of careful planning than of enthusiasm. High turnout was supposed to help Trump. Instead, it helped his opponent.

So what happens now?

Before the late surge for Rubio, I argued that Trump was in the dominant position. He could lose Iowa to Cruz, but in a Trump-Cruz race Trump had the distinct upper hand. And if Trump won Iowa, he would be favored to win New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and then practically run the table.

Rubio’s strong third-place showing clearly changes that calculus. Rubio’s mainstream opponents in New Hampshire – Bush, Kasich and Christie – will face a dilemma. If they turn their fire on Rubio, they risk facilitating a modest Cruz surge in New Hampshire, and setting up a Trump-Cruz contest for the South. If they lay off Rubio, then he should be able to capitalize on his Iowa results to finish a strong second in New Hampshire, which would decisively end all of their campaigns. Nonetheless, I would expect all of them to come under heavy party pressure to pursue the latter course, and focus their fire on Cruz. As a consequence, if Rubio doesn’t come in second in New Hampshire, that should count as a disappointment.

But the real state to watch is South Carolina. Rubio picked up the (presumably long-arranged) endorsement of Senator Scott. His numbers were moving modestly upward in South Carolina before Iowa. And both Bush and Carson, who had meaningful support in the last batch of polls, would be expected to decline. If their voters go to Rubio rather than to Cruz (I assume they won’t go to Trump), then he has a real chance to win the state.

Rubio’s situation is comparable, in different ways, to McCain’s in 2008 and Bill Clinton’s in 1992. Like Clinton, he’s the young, up-and-coming candidate who was tagged early on as the likely winner before he’d actually demonstrated the ability to win actual votes. And, like both Clinton and McCain, his main opposition (Tsongas and Brown in Clinton’s case, Romney and Huckabee in McCain’s) are viewed as less-electable and less-acceptable to the party mainstream. Having proved himself a viable alternative, the party may well rally around him, and muscle him to victory.

But Rubio’s opposition is also considerably better-resourced than either Clinton’s or McCain’s was. Cruz has plenty of money and a strong organization. He planned for a long contest from the beginning. Trump has his own fortune (which he hasn’t had to spend yet) and has already demonstrated the ability to energize large numbers of voters.

Moreover, both Cruz and Trump have an argument on their side. Neither is a pure factional candidate, the way Huckabee was, or an incoherent protest, the way Gingrich was. On both foreign and domestic policy, there are real, meaningful differences with Rubio that have been far from irrelevant to their success so far.

If that argument is joined, there’s reason to believe that Rubio will actually have to keep fighting in order to win. We’ll soon see just how much fight he has in him.

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A Revolt Against Decadence—But Whose?

Ross Douthat’s latest column on the eve of the Iowa caucus about the Trump and Sanders “revolts” is onto something important – but I think he takes a right intuition in the wrong direction.

He begins by noting that 2016 is a funny year for a populist revolt, since the state of the union, while not great, is hardly catastrophic. “So what are Trumpistas and Bern-feelers rebelling against” he asks?

His answer is “decadence” (a key concept for Douthat these days), which he defines thusly:

Think of it as a useful way of describing a society that’s wealthy, powerful, technologically proficient — and yet seemingly unable to advance in the way that its citizens once took for granted. A society where people have fewer children and hold diminished expectations for the future, where institutions don’t work particularly well but can’t seem to be effectively reformed, where growth is slow and technological progress disappoints. A society that fights to a stalemate in its foreign wars, even as domestic debates repeat themselves without any resolution. A society disillusioned with existing religions and ideologies, but lacking new sources of meaning to take their place.

This is how many Americans, many Westerners, experience their civilization in the early years of the 21st century. And both Trump and Bernie Sanders, in their very different ways, are telling us that we don’t have to settle for it anymore.

There’s something to this as a description of our present doldrums, but I’m not sure “decadence” is the best word for it – or, rather, calling it decadence elides a key distinction between state and society. Americans who are working are working longer hours than ever and have less job security; Americans who are in school are studying for longer hours and being tested more intensively; Americans who serve in our armed forces are doing more, and longer, tours of duty. That doesn’t sound like a decadent society to me.

That elision is, I think, what accounts for Douthat’s very peculiar peroration:

The disappointment and impatience that people feel in a decadent era is legitimate, even admirable. But the envy of more heroic moments, the desire to just do something to prove your society’s vitality — Invade Iraq to remake the Middle East! Open Germany’s borders! Elect Trump or Sanders president! — can be a very dangerous sensibility.

There are pathways up from decadence. But there are more roads leading down.

If I understand him correctly, he’s saying to America’s voters: “beware of your impulse to vote for Trump or Sanders; it is coming from the same place as the impulse to invade Iraq or invite in millions of migrants.” Which is an odd conclusion, because neither the decision to invade Iraq nor the decision to invite in millions of migrants originated in any popular impulse, but were exclusively elite projects. Inasmuch as they served an emotional purpose as opposed to a practical one – and I think it’s safe to say that their purpose was at least partly emotional – it was to demonstrate the greatness (martial and/or moral) of the societies those elites dominate.

They may, in other words, be a reaction to a sense of decadence, of lack of purpose or meaning – of a need to do something to show their vitality. But the “they” in that sentence is not the people, but the elite.

And, most important, Trump and Sanders, in their different ways, are running precisely against that impulse.

Trump, after all, has announced no grand projects to prove American greatness – no new provinces he would conquer, no new planets on which he would plant the American flag. He views with equanimity President Putin’s efforts to demonstrate Russian greatness in a very Mussolini-esque manner precisely because he sees no threat to America from those actions should they succeed, and even more because he expects them to come to naught. It’s the mainstream Republican candidates who are in a collective freakout about America losing the patina of its imperial pretensions. The only monument Trump proposes to his own magnificence is a great big wall – and the only extravagant thing about that promise is his declaration that he’d get the folks on the other side of the wall to pay for it.

And Sanders’s big paleo-liberal dreams – free college! single-payer health care! – are not remotely comparable to the dreams of “national greatness” types. They aren’t even projects of social engineering. They’re just old-fashioned government benefits of the sort that many other industrialized countries have provided for decades. If they are “impossible” dreams, it’s because they are politically impossible (and perhaps for good reason – they may be bad ideas). It’s not because they are physically impossible. They are are far cry from “just do something” – the “something” is a known, established thing.

Both Trump and Sanders, in very different ways, are saying: you know, America’s leadership class has been very busy, but it hasn’t really been taking care of business. And they are telling the people to rebuke their leadership for that by throwing them out. They may be the wrong tribunes of that sentiment – Trump certainly is. But how is that impulse not exactly the right response to elite decadence?

Put bluntly: if the American people are sick of precisely the sorts of “do something” actions that Douthat highlights as signs of decadence, who, in this primary, are they supposed to vote for?

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Talking Trump’s Chances

Noah CNN

This morning, I was on CNN’s “New Day” with Alisyn Camerota talking about Donald Trump’s chances to “run the table.” You can see a slightly truncated clip of the interview here.

Where the clip cuts off, I was saying that in this cycle, it feels like Republican voters seem much more interested in someone who stands against the existing GOP power structure than in ideological litmus tests.

The news since my column at The Week only reinforces my convictions about the shape of the race. The latest poll from CNN out of Iowa has Trump up 11 points over Cruz. The question – as we discussed in the segment – is whether Trump’s supporters show up in large numbers, something we can’t possibly know in advance, as well as whether events between now and February 1st change the shape of the race.

But the shape of Iowa – and New Hampshire – is already very different from past races, and different in a way that is good for Trump.

In recent history, Iowa has frequently gone to a factional candidate as a protest against the party candidate. In 2008, McCain and Giuliani ignored Iowa while Romney staked his claim to Iowa as the full-spectrum conservative alternative to McCain. Instead, the caucuses went to Huckabee, a factional candidate of the religious right. In 2012, Romney was the candidate with overwhelming establishment support. He faced a number of implausible insurgents against him, and ultimately lost Iowa to Santorum.

Cruz today, in terms of his positioning in Iowa and commitment to the state, looks something like Romney in 2008: he’s made a huge commitment to the state on the strength of his full-spectrum conservatism. He’s got a much stronger claim to that positioning than Romney did. But Trump is positioned very differently from a typical front-runner, because he is transparently not a creation of the establishment. There’s no reason to vote against Trump as a protest. In fact, a good portion of the support for Trump is driven by protest. So Cruz’s insurgent campaign is more purely factionally-driven. And on top of that, he is positively loathed by actual Republican officials in a way that Huckabee and Santorum never were.

All of that tells me that Trump has a very real shot to win the emotional argument for caucus voters’ hearts, to a considerably greater degree than Romney did in either 2008 or 2012. The main open question is how good he is at turning out his people.

Meanwhile, looking beyond Iowa, the powers-that-be in the Republican party seem to be edging towards Trump . . . as a way of stopping Cruz! There are the comments from Bob Dole, the comments from numerous insiders quoted in this New York Times piece – even perennial Trump-skeptic Nate Silver has noticed. And, of course, there’s was the endorsement by Sarah Palin.

I agree with Silver that the party isn’t deciding for Trump. But the party is deciding what they will do if there’s a Trump-Cruz race after New Hampshire. And on that question, they seem to be preparing to deal with Trump. And that leaves Trump in a much stronger position than Cruz in that eventuality.

Cruz is going to make the argument – he’s already making the argument – that he’s the authentic insurgent because figures like Bob Dole prefer Trump. But Trump is manifestly not a creature of the Republican establishment. What’s happening is simply classic bandwagoning behavior – people adjusting their positioning based on who they think is going to win. And Trump himself is adjusting to these new circumstances.

Trump is an insurgent front-runner with substantial financial resources. That’s a hard combination to beat.

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Could Trump “Run the Table?”

That’s the question I ask in my latest column at The Week. As you might guess, my answer is affirmative.

The usual response to these sorts of claims is that polling this far out doesn’t really mean much. Contests can get especially volatile as we approach an election date, nobody is paying attention yet, and Trump is riding primarily on name-recognition. But the distinctive feature of the 2016 Republican primary polling has not been its volatility but its stability — at least at the top, where Trump sits.

Volatility in recent prior GOP primary contests has been driven by dissatisfaction with the presumptive nominee: McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012. But there is no establishment candidate or presumptive nominee to be dissatisfied with this time. Instead, there’s a candidate from far outside that establishment, who is running explicitly against that establishment, but not running a particularly ideological campaign — certainly not one that lines up with traditional conservative shibboleths (which is what Cruz is doing). The extraordinary stability of the Trump vote may be a sign not merely of the high name-recognition of the candidate, but the wide and deep appeal of that stance — or of Trump personally.

And if voters in later states aren’t paying attention yet, then what will cause them to pay attention? Primarily, the results of the early contests. Primary contests are partly ways of signaling to the partisan electorate who they are supposed to vote for. So early Trump victories could well signal to the less-engaged portions of that electorate that the party has decided — and decided for Trump. Even though, in the minds of those supposedly in charge of the party, they most certainly haven’t.

Cruz is the only challenger to Trump who has gotten any kind of traction, but his rise has been overwhelmingly on the right, a path that numerous insurgents have taken and failed in. Maybe he’ll succeed this time — but why assume that Trump will be easier to defeat in this manner than candidates who were manifestly more disliked by the rank-and-file GOP electorate? Isn’t it more likely that, if voters in New York or Pennsylvania see their choice as “Trump or Cruz or some loser,” they’ll mostly go for the angry but non-doctrinaire Trump?

The rest of the crowd of candidates needs to take advantage of the nomination’s “blue wall” that supposedly stops conservative candidates from winning. But Trump already has the advantage in scaling that wall. His strongest regions are the Northeast and Midwest. He polls just as well among self-described moderates as among self-described conservatives.

The mainstream candidates can’t get any traction because Trump is ahead of them in their lane, while Cruz is the classic ideological conservative challenger. How does that story — a stronger-than-usual poll-leader blocking the moderate path to the nomination, and a more-divisive-than-usual candidate playing conservative insurgent — not imply that the less-ideological but charismatic poll leader is the favorite to win?

If Trump wins Iowa – as very he well may – that could badly hobble Ted Cruz, his strongest challenger to date. After that, he’d be strongly favored to win New Hampshire (as he is regardless).

That’s far from certain to happen, of course. But if it did happen, it would be unprecedented. No GOP candidate has won both the Iowa caucuses and the  New Hampshire primary since the dawn of the modern primary system. Not Nixon in 1968. Not Reagan in 1980. And not Bush in 2000.

And given that Trump is currently leading in the polls of basically every state after the first two, why wouldn’t the streak continue after a start like that?

You know, did warn us we’d get bored with winning.

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