Let’s say you were to take a hypothetical candidate for a major party presidential nomination and this hypothetical candidate came in a respectable second in the Iowa Caucuses, had a strong first place finish in the New Hampshire Primary, and was currently leading in the polls for the next several primaries. This person would be well on his or her way to locking up the nomination quickly – it would be a no-brainer.
Except this year that person is Donald Trump. For the first time I’m starting to entertain the very real possibility that he just might emerge as the eventual Republican nominee for president. And I agree with Ezra Klein: this is a “terrifying moment in American politics.” The current second-place candidate Ted Cruz is not much better.
Wow. What a choice. This is how Alexander Hamilton must have felt when asked to endorse either Thomas Jefferson or Aaron Burr for president in the election of 1800.
A few days ago I quasi-endorsed Marco Rubio as the best choice in what was then the top three of Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. I still stand by that, although I agree 100% that his Saturday debate performance was bad, bad, bad. The key question is whether a lousy debate performance disqualifies someone for the U.S. presidency? I don’t believe so, as the skills necessary to be a good debater are not the same as those needed to be a good president. However, debates do show us how a person performs under pressure (which is very important for the presidency) and Rubio did not impress on that score.
At this point it looks like the GOP field is narrowed down to five candidates: Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, and Bush. I’d like to think that Kasich would be able to translate his strong second-place finish in New Hampshire into another second- or first-place finish in South Carolina and beyond, but the odds of that happening are small. Bush’s chances are even smaller at this point. Based on demographics and ideology, I think Rubio has a better shot than Kasich or Bush in South Carolina and Nevada, meaning he’s still the most realistic alternative to Trump and Cruz.
Ideally, Christie would endorse Rubio today and Bush and Kasich would drop out before South Carolina and do the same. That would give Rubio enough of a support base to start winning primaries against Trump and Cruz.
Probably not going to happen, though.
On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders had a great night for sure. I’m skeptical of his long-term chances, though, given that his support base is geographically limited and he will have a very hard time repeating yesterday’s success in the next several primaries. It’s still Hillary Clinton’s nomination to lose.
A lot of this discussion boils down to the question of “who is more electable in November?” The “political science” answer for U.S. presidential elections goes something like this: there are a few basic “fundamentals” that determine 90% of presidential election outcomes: party-line voting, economic performance during the election year, and incumbent presidential job approval. Because of party-line voting each candidate is usually guaranteed at least 45-ish% of the vote. It’s the remaining 10% that’s up for grabs, and this is where candidates and campaigns make much of the difference. Trump, Cruz, and Rubio could likely each get at least 45% of the vote just by virtue of being the Republican nominee (as most Republicans will vote for the Republican nominee). My strong personal hunch is that Rubio would do the best of the three getting an additional 2-7%, Cruz maybe another 1-5%, and Trump maybe another 0-2%. But those are purely off-the-top-of-my-head speculations on my part.
Same thing goes for Clinton and Sanders. My gut says that Clinton would get anywhere from 2-7% more than Sanders would in the general election.
Of course… most of these political science predictions are based on some fundamental assumptions, one of which is that both parties nominate an otherwise well-qualified candidate. So far Donald Trump has managed to defy all the political science models and political laws of physics for that matter. Who knows what would happen if he were to get the nomination? On one hand, he might morph into a more-or-less conventional candidate and the election may end up being conventional as well. On the other hand, a Trump nomination might cause an irreparable fissure in the Republican Party resulting in the rise of a third-party candidate which will split the Republican vote, guarantee a Democratic victory, and then cause a monumental realignment over the next few years as the GOP goes through its biggest identity crisis of the last century.
Who knows? If anything, I’ve learned to be more cautious with my predictions this time around.