Wednesday, 10 February 2016

When voters don't understand their job (a US election post)

The point of the primaries is to pick a nominee and the point of the early contests is to narrow the field somewhat so that the choice is clearer. The trouble is that voters in neither Iowa nor New Hampshire appear to have read their job description. Donald Trump’s failure to win in Iowa had him reeling, but his win in New Hampshire - and at 35% he hit the very top of the predicted range - restores him to favouritism. Ted Cruz, for all that he should have been weeded out by now, is in it for the long term thanks to his Iowa win. He also speaks to the Tea Party and the evangelicals in a way that no other candidate remaining does.

But in the mainstream column there is a clusterf*ck of epic proportions. John Kasich ‘won’ New Hampshire by coming second to Trump and will receive flavour-of-the-moment status despite his campaign being low on money. For the Ohio governor, New Hampshire was always going to be a good contest but there are few bright spots on the primary horizon. The failure of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie to shine - and Marco Rubio’s descent back into the pack - gives Kasich a few days of attention which he will have to make the most of if he is not to fade again.

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While it is likely that Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson will be dropping out soon, the plethora of candidates in the ‘Not Trump or Cruz’ column is troubling for the party. The media love to talk up the prospect of a contested convention but the GOP appear to be playing into their hands. A run of states friendly to the Trump (and more so, Cruz) vision is coming up and the supposedly mainstream candidates could be calmed in very shallow waters unless something can be sorted quickly.

But (and it is a big caveat), if the mainstream could get behind a single candidate, then the pressure will fall back on Cruz and Trump. Neither is the sort of character to bow out but if they are facing a single establishment candidate then they are likely to lose a lot of states.

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If Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina do drop out after New Hampshire then what happens to their supporters? They may have been also rans but they had the backing of about one in nine republican voters. The pollsters (who largely got it right in NH) suggest that the Carson fans will break for Cruz above Trump and the Fiorinas for Rubio above the Donald. But there may be a bit of tactical scrambling to be done among the remaining candidates over the next 48 hours.

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The next primary is South Carolina which is a something for everybody state. Unlike Iowa (lots of evangelicals) and New Hampshire (lots of liberals), each of the different parts of the Republican Party will be able to find a lot of supporters for their cause next week. So the primary will be an opportunity to see who is able to turn out their supporters and, possibly, win a few from one of the other camps. But it is also possible that it will produce yet another muddled result in which everyone can take a positive and no candidate drops out.

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If I had to guess what will happen then I think Chris Christie will be bowing out this week or next. So too will John Kasich after his few days in the sun and a disappointing result in South Carolina. Which will leave the mainstream to Jeb and Rubio. And whilst Rubio was given his chance after Iowa, his showing in the New Hampshire debate was pretty disappointing and late-deciding voters on Tuesday say they were put off by this. If he doesn’t recover pretty soon then he might be seen as another busted flush. So for all that the latest Bush has been written off and his vote tally underwhelmed in New Hampshire, it may well be time to see Jeb as the great survivor. Buy Bushes.

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A footnote on John Kasich. So far, he is the only candidate (on either side) talking about winning the general election. As a left-leaning Republican it is probably the case that he doesn’t really have anywhere else to go. But while the bulk of the GOP candidates are talking to a small constituency on the right of American society, it was pretty clear that Hillary Clinton wanted to be able to tack to the centre and hoover up enough support to win the Presidency before the GOP even had their nominee sorted. But the strength of the Bernie Sanders campaign has thwarted this ambition.

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Is Hillary Clinton the new Barack Obama? In a complete reversal of eight years ago, it is Clinton who is relying on the higher income, intellectual and ethnic minority voters. Bernie Sanders is picking up the blue collar and rural Democrats who Clinton won last time. (Clinton still wins among women and loses among the young, however).

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For all that Sanders won big in New Hampshire, the odds are still stacked against him for the nomination. None of the next few contests are even close to his ‘backyard’ either geographically or demographically. He has the momentum at the moment but will have to capitalise on it hugely - and pick up a resonance among black voters that he has failed to show so far - if he is to have a chance.

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Speaking of having the odds stacked against him, Sanders must also overcome the vagueries of the Democratic system. He (all but) tied with Clinton in Iowa and won comprehensively in New Hampshire but some how trails Clinton in delegate numbers. Not that it will be close enough to matter come the convention, but young idealistic Sanders fans will find it hard to come to terms with this sort of machine politics fix. (H/T John Ault for the link)

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The billion dollar question is whether former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will do more than hint at a third party candidature. It is said that he is determined to avoid a Trump (or Cruz) presidency. The trouble is that whilst a third party candidate has traditionally been of the Ross Perot right - and thereby weakened the Republicans - a Bloomberg centrist run is likely to take votes away from the Democrats. Pit Bloomberg against Hillary and they may battle to a score draw allowing Trump or Cruz to win on a (very messy) plurality. Only if the Democratic nominee is Bernie Sanders does Bloomberg actually emerge as a possible winner. And that ain’t gonna happen.

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