More guesses about how the 2016 US presidential race will turn out


Out of the starting gate

Since I’ve been so brilliantly successful at forecasting the progress of the US presidential campaign so far, I’ve decided to share more predictions.

At Five Thirty Eight, Nate Silver sees “Four Roads Out of Iowa for the Republicans.”  I also see four sets of outcomes for tomorrow’s Iowa caucuses, but not quite the same four Mr Silver sees.

I see four possible winners. Loudmouth landlord Don-John Trump is leading the polls among Republican voters in Iowa and most other states.  If he wins the first contest, (let’s say he has a 35% chance of doing that,) his odds of winning everywhere else likely increase.  However, it has several times happened that the winner of the Iowa caucuses has gone on to receive a smaller percentage of the vote in the next contest, the New Hampshire primary, than the New Hampshire polls had suggested before that Iowa win. George H. W. Bush in 1980, George W. Bush in 2000, and Barack Obama in 2008 can all be cited as examples of that sort of anti-momentum. A highly unconventional candidate like Mr Trump might be especially vulnerable to anti-momentum.  New Hampshire voters might be leery of giving him wins in both of the first two contests, thereby putting him in a commanding position in the rest of the primary season.  If they do desert him, the likeliest candidate to benefit would be Ohio governor John Kasich. Mr Kasich is rising in the New Hampshire polls, drawing big crowds at events in the state, and dominating the airwaves there. So if Iowa goes to Mr Trump, I would put the chances of New Hampshire also voting for him at about 70%, and of it turning to Mr Kasich at about 20%.

Texas senator Ted Cruz is also strong in the Iowa polls, and his voters do seem likelier to turn out for the caucuses. So I’d give him a 50% chance of winning Iowa. If he beats Mr Trump by a narrow margin, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone; Mr Trump’s chances of winning New Hampshire would probably be at least 70% in that case. On the other hand, if Mr Cruz wins by a wider than expected margin, that would put Mr Trump on the defensive, and again Mr Kasich comes into the picture as a possible winner in New Hampshire. Maybe his chances would rise as high as 40% in that case, with a 50% likelihood Mr Trump would win New Hampshire.

Florida senator Marco Rubio has consistently stood in third place in the Iowa polls, and is the only conventional Republican candidate making a stand there.  Mr Cruz and Mr Trump have been feuding with each other in recent weeks; Iowa caucus-goers don’t like that sort of fighting, as witness the Democratic race in 2004, when frontrunners Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt spent weeks filling Iowa television and radio with attacks on each other, then neither finished in the top two on the night.  It’s possible Mr Rubio could pull the kind of upset this year that John Kerry pulled on the Democratic side in 2004.  If that happens, Mr Rubio will eclipse Mr Kasich, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former Florida governor John Ellis Bush, and onetime tech CEO Carly Fiorina to become the default candidate of those looking for a conventional Republican candidate. That will likely guarantee him a win in New Hampshire, and probably make him unbeatable down the road to the nomination. If he doesn’t win Iowa, Mr Rubio won’t win anywhere; he’s been static in the polls, fundraising, and organization for months and months, and simply is not very good at connecting with Republican voters.  If he does win in Iowa, though, he’s the nominee.  (Unless something embarrassing bubbles up from his past, or something else unforeseeable happens.)  On the other hand, that Iowa win, is pretty unlikely, I’d say about a 5% chance. So let’s say that translates to a 4% chance of a Rubio nomination.

Retired brain surgeon Ben Carson, briefly a frontrunner in the polls last year, is now polling at about 10% in Iowa.  However, the final polls before the 2012 Republican Iowa caucuses showed former Pennsylvania senator Richard Santorum with about that same level of support, and he won. Mr Santorum’s people were the hardcore religious conservatives, the group that is far likelier than any other to show up and take an active part in the Republican caucus meetings. Dr Carson draws his support from the same bloc, and he has been a familiar figure among them for decades. While Mr Cruz may have made sufficient inroads with the religious right that Dr Carson is unlikely to emerge tomorrow night as the big winner, it would be foolish to discount his chances altogether.  I would guess that he has about a 10% chance of winning Iowa. If he manages that, Mr Trump and Mr Cruz will both be seriously damaged, and Mr Kasich is virtually certain to win New Hampshire.

If Mr Trump comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire looking like winner, he’ll have to knock all of his opponents out of the race quickly, lest his poverty choke his campaign before he can clinch the nomination. If he wins Iowa, Dr Carson will probably back out of the race; if he wins it by a wide margin, Mr Cruz may see his candidacy collapse.  If he wins New Hampshire, he’ll knock Mr Kasich, Mr Christie, Mr Rubio, Ms Fiorina, and Kentucky senator Randall “Rand” Paul out of the race.  Mr Bush has enough money in the bank and enough institutional support that he can continue his campaign indefinitely.  He will likely spend many millions of dollars trying to win the primary in South Carolina regardless of the results of the first two contests. If Mr Cruz is still in contention at that point, as it seems virtually certain he will be, then the outcome of the South Carolina primary will be quite unpredictable.

If Mr Kasich wins the New Hampshire primary, he may slip through the Trump/ Cruz/ Bush scrum to win South Carolina as well.  Even if he doesn’t manage that feat, a win in New Hampshire would give him the mainstream default candidate status Mr Rubio could gain by winning Iowa.  That in turn would take him to March 15, when the first states hold primaries in which the winner takes all of that state’s convention delegates, instead of giving each candidate a share of delegates proportional to his or her percentage of the vote. The two biggest of these states are Ohio, which Mr Kasich will certainly win if he is a viable candidate, and Florida, which is also likely to favor a candidate more conventional than Mr Trump or Mr Cruz. If he wins those two states, Mr Kasich will be all but unbeatable in the later stages of the nomination contest.  But he has to win New Hampshire; he stands so low in the polls nationally and has so little organization or institutional support that anything less than a first-place finish there will force him out of the race.

Of all the Republican candidates, Mr Kasich sounds the most like a president; no less an an observer than the late Richard M. Nixon has declared that he is his party’s most, and indeed only, electable candidate.  I would rather not see a Republican elected president, so I suppose I should hope they nominate Dr Carson or Mr Bush or Mr Cruz, each of whom, for his own particular reasons, would probably drive well over 50% of the electorate to oppose him unalterably.


Former colonial power considers censuring nationalist demagogue


Donald Trump admires a typical resident of the UK

There was a debate today in the Palace of Westminster on a proposal to urge the Home Secretary to ban Donald Trump from entering the United Kingdom. Mr Trump is a demagogic politician whose support in his bid to become US president is based primarily on nationalistic resentment. Therefore, it would be difficult to imagine a development more perfectly calculated to increase his support and to improve his odds of becoming his party’s nominee for that office than a formal censure of him by the former colonial power, especially if that censure is delivered a few days before the voting begins in the first electoral contests.

This much is so obvious that one cannot suppress a cynical curiosity as to the true motives of those sponsoring the proposal. The foremost advocates of the recommendation represent predominantly Muslim constituencies. Why would members of parliament representing people towards whom Mr Trump has shown such extraordinary hostility embrace a proposal that would do more than anything else in their power to help him become president of the United States? Well, in the first place, it is unlikely the Home Secretary will actually take any such action. So they can go home and tell their constituents that they did something to express their alarm at the rise of so objectionable a figure, without triggering any real-world consequences.

If by some odd chance Mr Trump actually were banned from entering the UK, his resulting surge of support in the USA would certainly bode ill for British Muslims, especially if it were to take him all the way to the White House. But it might not harm Muslim M.P.s.  On the contrary, they would be able to invoke fear of him and of the USA to consolidate support for themselves as a last line of defense for British Muslims in an openly hostile West.

Moreover, a President Trump, taking office after the UK government had taken a stand against him in so dramatic a fashion, would be in a position to inflict almost unlimited humiliations on that government. If you wonder how that would play out, just think of the consequences of John Major’s decision to actively promote George H. W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 1992.  In the period from 20 January 1993 to 1 May 1997, John Major’s life took on an almost nightmarish quality as Bill Clinton demonstrated time and again just how severely an American president can punish a British prime minister who displeases him. Mr Clinton did all of that out of the public eye, as a purely private vendetta. Imagine what Mr Trump could do with the full force of US public opinion behind him. The sponsors of this recommendation, in a world where the news is daily showing the prime minister, the cabinet, the Queen, and all of the other nominal leaders of the UK crawling on their bellies and begging the US president to relent from his wrath against them, might even attract support from non-Muslim Britons disgusted by that desperate tableau. They might emerge as symbols of patriotic defiance against the power that was grinding Britain into the dust and exposing its leaders as gormless sycophants.

Donald Trump is too poor to run for president


That barrel is terrific

The winning candidates in each of the last few US presidential races have headed campaigns in the course of which about $1,000,000,000 was spent. There is no reason to suppose that the winner of the 2016 race will ride any smaller a wave of money.

Donald Trump claims to possess a personal fortune of $10,000,000,000. This claim is unlikely to be true. More to the point, whatever the true scale of Mr Trump’s wealth, very few businesspeople are in a position to liquidate 10% of their holdings in order to finance one personal project. Mr Trump’s debts and other commitments are such that he is surely not at liberty to do that. Estimates of Mr Trump’s cash on hand range from $70,000,000 to $250,000,000, far short of the amount that is typically spent even on winning a major party’s nomination, let alone competing against the nominee of the other major party in the general election.

Mr Trump continues to assert that he has enough money to self-finance.  His refusal to solicit campaign donations is so essential to his appeal that it is unclear how he could start asking for money without dynamiting his base of support.

That creates two problems. First, Mr Trump’s campaign expenditures thus far have been quite modest. He has received so much coverage free of charge from cable news and other media outlets (all the way down to this blog post, apparently) that he hasn’t needed to buy advertising. The only way he can keep gaining that free coverage is to make news, and the only way he can make news is by making remarks that are more shocking than any he has made before. Unless conditions turn so bad that the electorate starts looking for an out-and-out revolution, that’s a one-way street that leads directly to a brick wall.

If Mr Trump somehow manages to be elected president, he would face a second problem. Assume that the net worth of all of his assets really were as high as $10,000,000,000. And assume that he was able to sell them all at their full value, despite the fact that every potential buyer would know that that he was under pressure to sell them. Assume all that. A US president is effective only to the extent that s/he is the leader of an effective party. If Mr Trump has $10,000,000,000, it might conceivably be possible for him to spend $1,000,000,000 of that and finance a successful campaign for the presidency. But even $10,000,0000,000 would not be enough to finance the entire Republican Party for four to eight years. Presidents help their parties raise money. They are expected to do it. If Mr Trump should refuse to do that, he would quickly lost the support of his party and with it any chance he might have of enacting his platform.

It’s more than you did

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I assumed I would join the US military, probably the army.  All of us at my high school who expected that of ourselves were deeply interested in stories about US servicemen who had been taken prisoner in Vietnam.  We read and reread books about their time in captivity, followed the postwar careers of ex-POWs like Admirals Jeremiah Denton and James Stockdale, and even developed our own tap codes to communicate with each other at odd moments around school.

One day my father asked me why we were so hung up on those guys.  “They’re heroes!” I exclaimed.  “What makes them heroes?”  he asked.  “Well, they were, uh, captured, and, uh, they, well, they held up pretty well under torture, some of them.”  My father explained that when he was in the army in the 1940s, they used a working definition of “hero” that included taking enemy troops prisoner, but did not include allowing oneself to be taken prisoner.  The clip from The Simpsons embedded above (in Portuguese) reminded me of that conversation.  Speaking of Timmy O’Toole, whom they believe to be a boy trapped in a well, Homer says “That little Timmy is a real hero.”  “How do you figure?” asks Lisa.  “He fell into a well and now he… can’t get out.”  “How does that make him a hero?”  “It’s more than you did!”

Anyway, in the USA in the post-Vietnam era, conventional military heroism, of the sort that actually involves engaging the enemy and destroying him, was heavily problematized.  It was already that way in the later years of the USA’s war in Vietnam, which may explain why public statements from the Nixon administration about the criteria that a peace deal would have to satisfy focused so heavily on the status of American POWs that critics claimed that an observer whose knowledge of events in Southeast Asia came entirely from those statements would conclude that the war began when North Vietnam attacked the USA and abducted a number of American military personnel.  That focus distracted both from humanitarian objections to the manner in which the USA was waging war in Vietnam, and to broader objections to the fact that the USA was waging war in Vietnam.  By turning attention to the evidence that the North Vietnamese were mistreating American POWs, the administration stirred Americans’ sympathy for their imprisoned countrymen, a sympathy which had the effect, for many Americans, of pushing aside the concern that objectors to the war had expressed for the sufferings that US actions were inflicting on the Vietnamese people.

The idea that the USA was fighting in Vietnam to rescue the Americans who had been taken prisoner in Vietnam while the USA was fighting in Vietnam, unintelligible though it may seem now, was still pretty strong in the popular culture of the 1980s.  So in those years Hollywood released a whole slew of hit movies about fictional missions to extract American POWs from Vietnam, movies with titles like Rambo: First Blood Part Two and  Missing in Action.  Those particular movies traded on the idea that the Hanoi regime so intensely craved the presence of American POWs that it kept a bunch of them around after the war was over.  This may be another idea that is unintelligible to people who did not spend the years from 1970 to 1990 in the USA, but I assure you it was everywhere in this country in those years.  The “MIA flag,” symbolizing this belief, is still prominently displayed in many parts of the USA.

This is an actual picture of the MIA flag over the White House taken in September of 2011

All of this is to explain that Americans in general tend to have strong feelings about those of their countrymen who were held as prisoners of war in Vietnam, and that these feelings are precisely contrary to those which would be prescribed by the usual code of warriors throughout the ages, who have regarded it as their duty to fight to the death rather than offer their surrender to the enemy.  I teach Latin and Greek in a university deep in the interior of the USA; I used to assign my students Horace‘s Ode 3.5, in which the Roman general Regulus, captured by the Carthaginians, advises the Senate to refuse to make any deal to secure his return or that of his men, saying that it would be a disgrace to give up any of the gains Roman arms had won to ransom men who had forever lost their manliness by allowing themselves to be taken prisoner.  My students were shocked by Horace’s disdain for prisoners of war, and by the fact that with this disdain he was expressing the standard Roman view of the matter.  They often exclaimed that prisoners of war are heroes.  “How do you figure?” I would ask, and an interesting, unpredictable conversation would always follow their attempts to answer.

What brings all this to mind are some recent remarks by New York real estate heir turned presidential candidate Don-John “Donald” Trump.*  Mr Trump said that John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war does not in fact qualify him as a war hero.

This statement has attracted a great deal of criticism.  One difficulty Mr Trump would face, were he to try to retract it, is that he might then have to explain why being captured makes a warrior a hero.  Another difficulty is that Mr McCain’s record is not in all respects comparable to that of a hardcore resister like Jeremiah Denton or James Stockdale.  Some of the less appealing sides of Mr McCain’s record can be found delineated here, here, and here.  I don’t want to dwell on these matters, because I know myself well enough to find it impossible to be sure that I would have acted any better than Mr McCain did were I subjected to the same pressures, but I do think that, on the one hand, respect for those personnel whose conduct did in fact meet a higher standard and, on the other hand, a habit of the accurate use of language prohibits calling Mr McCain a “war hero.”

*In fact, Mr Trump’s legal name is and always has been “Donald John Trump,” but his campaign is a means by which he has been enjoying himself hugely while being grossly unfair to other people.  So I choose to enjoy myself slightly by being mildly unfair to him.  “Don-John” it is!