I think I’ve figured out the 2016 Republican presidential contest

Yesterday I saw a piece on Politico called “Jeb Bush is 2016’s John Kerry.” Reading that, it struck me why I had thought that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker had a 90% chance of emerging as next year’s Republican nominee for president: I was unconsciously assuming that the 2016 Republican contest would play out along the lines of the 2004 Democratic contest.

In the Politico piece author Bill Scher mentions that former Florida governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush is currently registering 4% support on polls of likely Republican primary voters, then reminds us that in November 2003 then-Massachusetts senator John Forbes “John Forbes” Kerry registered 4% support in polls of likely Democratic primary voters. Since Mr Kerry went on to win his party’s nomination, Mr Scher suggests, Mr Bush might be able to follow his example and become the Republican nominee next year.

I don’t agree with Mr Scher’s analysis. What makes the 2016 Republican contest look so much like the 2004 Democratic one is that the early going is dominated by an unlikely insurgent, former Vermont governor Howard Brush “Doctor” Dean among the Democrats in 2004, loudmouth landlord Donald John “Don John” Trump among the Republicans this year.  In each case, the insurgency is fueled by the disconnect between the party’s elite and its mass supporters over one key issue. In 2004, the vast majority of Democrats were firmly convinced that it had been a mistake for the USA to invade Iraq the year before, while the party’s moneymen were giving their backing to presidential candidates and other politicians who supported the war. Dr Dean rose to the head of the Democratic polls as the only seemingly plausible candidate who was unequivocally opposed to the war. This time around, over 90% of Republicans are firmly convinced that immigration policy should be made more restrictive, while the party’s moneymen are giving their backing to presidential candidates and other politicians who want to make it less restrictive. As the loudest and most extreme restrictionist voice, Mr Trump has driven relaxationists like Mr Bush to the sidelines.

How did John Kerry, who voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and didn’t admit that he’d been wrong to do so until 2006, manage to win the nomination of a party whose voters were almost as solidly against that war in 2004 as Republican voters are today against the relaxationist line on immigration to which candidates like Mr Bush are committed? First, he benefited from good luck, as Dr Dean and then-Missouri Representative Richard “Dick” Gephardt allowed themselves to be drawn into a highly visible and extremely unattractive personal feud in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, an event held in a state where people famously value politeness.  That feud knocked those two men out of contention there, opening the door for Mr Kerry to win a surprise victory in Iowa which led directly to wins in New Hampshire and the other early states, turning him from a no-hoper to a front-runner almost overnight.

Second, the only people who pay much attention to a presidential campaign the year before the voting starts are enthusiasts and professionals. The enthusiasts greatly outnumber the professionals, and are not consistently focused on the ability of a candidate to win a general election. Once the voting starts, a wider variety of people check in to the process, and electability is usually one of their top concerns. Dr Dean did not look like a very good bet to beat George Walker “W” Bush in that year’s general election, and other antiwar candidates, such as then-Ohio Representative Dennis “Look at My Wife!” Kucinich and the Rev’d Mr Alfred “Al” Sharpton seemed likely to pose even less formidable challenges to Mr Bush.  Mr Kerry struck those voters as a likelier winner, and while his support for the Iraq war would prove to be an embarrassment in the general election, his background as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and as a relatively dovish senator reassured Democrats that once in office, he would be eager to end the ongoing wars and reluctant to launch new ones.

Mr Bush may yet benefit from fighting among the top-tier candidates, but the rest of the scenario that put Mr Kerry on the top of the Democratic ticket seems most unlikely to replay itself in his favor. As the brother of George W. Bush, Mr Bush has always faced serious doubts about his electability, making him an unlikely recipient of votes from people looking for a winner.  And as someone who has for decades been outspoken and firm in his support for a relaxationist approach to immigration, he has no credentials at all that would make him acceptable to Republican restrictionists as Mr Kerry’s antiwar past made him acceptable to Democratic doves. In that way, Mr Bush’s 2004 analogue is not the once-and-future peace campaigner Mr Kerry, but then-Connecticut senator Joseph Isadore “Joe” Lieberman, whose near-universal name recognition as the Democrats’ 2000 vice presidential nominee gave him a place at the top of the polls when campaigning started, but whose relentless hawkishness pushed him first to the back of the Democratic pack, and then out of the party altogether.

Other candidates who might be acceptable to the Republican party’s elites, notably former Hewlett-Packard CEO Cara Carleton “Carly” Forina and New Jersey governor Christopher James “Chris” Christie, have been making restrictionist noises of late.  If history repeats itself in the way Mr Scher suggests, it will likely be one of those two, not Mr Bush, who clambers over the wreckage of the Trump insurgency to enter the top tier of candidates.

So, how do I think the race will go?  The Republican elites who have despaired of Mr Bush are now apparently trying to push Florida senator Marco Antonio “I dreamed there was an Emperor Antony” Rubio forward. If r Rubio manages to open the voting by winning the Iowa caucuses on 1 February, he will likely go into the 9 February New Hampshire primary with the kind of momentum that swept John Kerry to victory in that contest in 2004, and like Mr Kerry will be poised to run the table of major contests, winning the nomination easily.

If Mr Rubio does not win Iowa, the likeliest winner there is Dr Benjamin Solomon “Ben” Carson, whose deep well of support from the Christian right virtually ensures that he can stay in the nomination race as long as he likes, taking 10%, 20%, 30% of the vote in state after state until the last primaries on 28 June.  Dr Carson has no plausible path to the nomination, but his supporters are so devoted and well-organized that no foreseeable event that will force him to drop out of the field.

If neither Mr Rubio nor Dr Carson wins Iowa, then the winner there is likely to have been Texas senator Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz.  Mr Cruz is running a campaign that strikes many observers as the most similar to a winning campaign of any in the field at the moment, he has been concentrating his efforts on Iowa, and his hard-right profile might appeal to Republican caucus-goers.  If Mr Cruz does win Iowa, he will probably go directly to South Carolina for a showdown with Dr Carson.  If Mr Cruz wins both Iowa and South Carolina, he might consolidate the support of the Republican right-wing; if not, he will struggle to stay in the field, no matter how well-balanced the structure of his campaign may be.

New Hampshire’s primary is the least predictable of the early contests.  Seven candidates have a real chance of winning there: Mr Rubio, Mr Christie, Mr Kasich, Ms Fiorina, Mr Trump, Mr Cruz, and Mr Bush.  While New Hampshire is typically leery of hard-right figures such as Mr Cruz, the presence of so many other candidates, coupled with the possibility of a boost from an upset win in Iowa, makes it possible that he might win there with 20% of the vote or so.  And Mr Trump’s strong polling in that state is to be taken relatively seriously, as New Hampshire residents do check into the process a bit earlier than do most Americans.

If Mr Christie, Ohio governor John Richard “Ouch! My Back!” Kasich, Ms Fiorina, or Mr Bush should win the New Hampshire primary, that candidate would become an alternative for Republican elites in case Mr Rubio falters.  It would be very difficult for any of these candidates to follow up such a win, however, since none of then is currently operating an organization in or raising funds from even half the states where the nomination will be decided.  And none of those four can continue without a win in New Hampshire.  But Mr Rubio is in many ways an extraordinarily slight figure; he does not lead the field in national polling, early-state polling, fundraising, cash on hand, organization, endorsements, or any other measurable index of strength.  He is a first-term senator who would be facing an uphill battle for reelection were he trying to become a second term senator; only 15% of Floridian voters say they would like to see him as president.  So he might collapse after a loss in New Hampshire, and one of these four might move into the elite-favorite role.  If that is Mr Christie or Ms Fiorina, that role might culminate in the nomination.  Mr Bush and Mr Kasich, however, are so badly compromised in so many ways that even the united support of the establishment probably could not get them past Mr Cruz or Mr Trump.

If the winner in New Hampshire is Mr Rubio, Mr Trump, or Mr Cruz, those elites will have only Mr Rubio available to them as the sort of candidate who makes them comfortable.  That would suit Mr Rubio’s interests, of course. However, it may also suit Mr Trump or Mr Cruz.  Those men do not want to gain the support of the party’s establishment; they want to revolutionize the party and replace its establishment.  If the GOP’s principal moneymen rally around Mr Rubio after New Hampshire, Mr Trump or Mr Cruz may choose that moment to drive the message home to the party’s restrictionist base that Mr Rubio is as much a relaxationist as Mr Bush.  Drop that hammer, and the Rubio 2016 may seem less like an army to march with and more like a burning building to be trapped in come the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses of 1 March.

So there are a number of ways that the race could play out.  It is quite possible that Mr Rubio will win every major contest.  It is equally possible that after Super Tuesday, Mr Trump and Mr Cruz will be the two candidates fighting it out for the nomination.  The “smart-money” pundits seem to be expecting a Rubio-Cruz showdown; I don’t see a lot of scenarios where those two men are both viable candidates after 1 March, though certainly some of them are possible.  And one of the other four elite-friendly candidates could win New Hampshire, pick up the wreckage of a Rubio collapse, and go on to edge out Mr Cruz or Mr Trump after a hard-fought primary season.

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4 Comments

  1. I’m still saying, “If not Trump — who?” Trump’s polling numbers only look hyuuj because everybody else’s are so bad (with the weird Carson exception), but if a contest is winner-take-all it doesn’t take a high number to win, just a better number.

  2. Well, if Rubio wins Iowa, he wins the nomination- no one else will have time to hit him hard enough to stop him in that case. And that could happen. If Carson wins Iowa and Rubio wins New Hampshire, Rubio probably wins the nomination, though Trump or Cruz could still give him a fight. But if Cruz wins Iowa and Trump wins New Hampshire, Super Tuesday is going to be one hell of a circus. .

  3. You’re gaming it out farther than I. I don’t see Rubio the amnesty apostate winning Iowa, but then Santorum won-ish Iowa in 2014 and Huckabee won in 2008 and in neither case did momentum carry much beyond the state. I give Trump the nomination. Should orange-head not make it all the way, well, too bad for him! I wouldn’t be crying about being wrong.

  4. The reason I think Rubio could win Iowa is that Romney came so close there in 2012. Also, with Carson locking up so much of the fundamentalist church vote and Cruz and others splitting the rest of the anti-establishment right, the 24.5% of the vote that Romney got in the Iowa caucuses might be more than enough to put Rubio over the top. Might not be, of course, and you have way more experience with this stuff than I do, so I wouldn’t argue with you.

    Rubio’s other big advantage is that he’s the only candidate whose hopes don’t hinge on any particular combination of states. Cruz has to win either Iowa or South Carolina or he’s out, and even if he wins both of them he’s helpless if Rubio does well. Trump, Christie, Fiorina, Kasich, Bush, none of them afford to lose New Hampshire, and even if one of them wins there they have to hope that there’s time for the immigration issue to deliver the death-blow to Rubio before Super Tuesday. Only Rubio is the master of his fate regarding the primary map.

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