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?