Category Archives: 2016 presidential election

America’s Wind of Change

As I noted below, I don't think New Hampshire can give us any clear indications as to the future roll-out of this extraordinary 2016 presidential campaign.  But it has at least confirmed that 2016 is the year of the anti-establishment iconoclast.  That the insurgencies in both parties were well advanced was clear before New Hampshire, and the vote there has given it a bit of real-poll traction.  The key thing, as must have been noted a zillion times already today, is whether those odd insurgencies can be maintained away from the rarefied atmospheres of Iowa and New Hampshire.  If there is a consensus wisdom it seems to be that Trump has the better chance of taking it all the way to the convention floor in what is a significantly more disrupted party, and of course he has reliable deep pockets where Sanders needs the regular mass contributions of his punters.

The poll tracking from Real Clear Politics currently has Trump comfortably leading Cruz in South Carolina (36 to 19.7 polling points), with Rubio still in third.  I guess that still awaits the wash from New Hampshire mind you, so the next few days' polls will be particularly keenly watched for any signs of a Rubio depression.

On the Democratic side, Clinton has a still more comfortable lead over Sanders of 62 to 32.  Even less accurate but nonetheless interesting, the national match-up polls have Clinton losing to both Rubio and Cruz, but just beating Trump, whilst Sanders loses only to Rubio, beating Cruz (just) and Trump.

While both insurgencies suggest a real sense of alienation from the body politics, it is the Democrat race that merits perhaps some closer attention.  Trump has been sucking a lot of the oxygen from the campaign coverage recently, because he provides more outrageous, media-friendly outbursts.  The Sanders rebellion is more considered, and based around a rising grassroots anger amongst Democrats at the failure of their leaders, and the political establishment generally, to tackle the over-weening influence of big corporate money - specifically banking money - in their national politics.  In the storm created by this anger Hillary is proving especially vulnerable, which is why Sanders has stolen a state she once won from under her nose, and edged ahead in nearly all of the voter gender and age demographics.

If you don't quite get the anger of Democrats - and I must confess I didn't - then this Slate piece from H.A.Goodman really digs into the anti-Hillary anger and exposes her frailty as an old-style political chieftain mouthing grassroots friendly platitudes which her funding simply doesn't square with.  The old adage of "follow the money" is further explored in this Atlantic piece from Conor Friedersdorf which looks at the extraordinary links between the Clintons and the giant Swiss bank UBS.

If the Democrat yearning is for a clean candidate who can repair their liberal credentials then Sanders is the man.  The problem then, of course, becomes the growing polarisation of America.  A Sanders-Trump or Sanders-Cruz face-off in the autumn takes to the national stage what has been going on in Washington for some years now - a complete, binary approach to politics that has no room for the once shaded area of the middle where compromise used to take place.

This is still a Democrat-Republican race mind you.  Michael Bloomberg may offer the media a decent story and a veneer of honest broker between the two extremes, but the reality is that he is probably as redundant as the old Republican establishment, thrashing around trying to find people to support them.  Bloomberg's a maverick and combines business savvy with progressive social views, but he's no iconoclast and divided America may be looking for a whirlwind to clean it out, not a gentle breeze.

New Hampshire’s Lessons

What does New Hampshire tell us about the likely future course of the US presidential nominations?   Nothing.  Seriously.  There will be no lack of important commentary on Rubio's struggle to finish third, and how that means he is falling back/still very much in the race.  How Sanders' win is 2008 again for Hillary/is no real concern to Hillary.  How Trump is clearly headed for the Republican nomination/is still a joker leading a pack ready to devour him.

Iowa and New Hampshire are fascinating states, and their early primaries give some actual voting figures to a race that has had to rely on polls since last summer.  Momentum in those states has traditionally allowed candidates to move ahead with more funding into the sunlit uplands of the south and west.  But the reality is that these lily-white states are not very representative of the immense diversity that is America's demographic,  and while providing excitement they have not fundamentally changed the contours of the nomination race.  These remain a likely Clinton win for the Democrats, after which her real struggle, to convince a divided America of her credentials for the presidency, begins.  And a Trump/Cruz/Rubio fight for the Republican nomination, with Trump and Cruz vying for the loony vote whilst Rubio seeks to stack up the Establishment.  Current wisdom is that Rubio would be much the most dangerous candidate in a Clinton fight, but if there is any takeaway from these early votes it is that Trump is no longer a joke.  He's a serious - and currently front-running - contender who could yet upset all previous political calculations.

Iowa in perspective

Excellent piece in the New York Times from Nate Cohn on the Iowa caucuses.  He pushes down into the figures and comes up with some shrewd analysis.  As someone concerned by the Cruz strength, I was particularly interested in this gutting of the Republican front-runner's figures:

But his path to the nomination is still not an easy one. He will face full-throated opposition from many prominent Republicans, as was the case here in Iowa. And Mr. Cruz’s narrow victory was not especially impressive. It depended almost exclusively on strength among “very conservative” voters, who are vastly overrepresented in the Iowa caucuses. There was no primary state where “very conservative” voters represented a larger share of the electorate in 2012 than they did in Iowa. He won just 19 percent among “somewhat conservative” voters and a mere 9 percent of the “moderate” vote.

Like many commentators today, Cohn considers Rubio to be the real winner in the Republican stakes; a last-minute headwind of support put him within biting distance of Trump and could build up to make him the establishment candidate to take on - and beat - Cruz.

The Washington Post, of course, also has excellent coverage (as does Slate) with this piece by Chris Cillizza offering a quick tally of losers and winners.  He sees Hillary breathing a sigh of relief in avoiding a major loss; she may have won or she may have tied or she may even have lost very marginally - but it was a win in that she has kept up her momentum and continues to look like a much better and stronger campaigner than in 2008.

The American papers obviously offer more informed commentary than much of the British media, although the BBC's Jon Sopel and  the Times' Tim Montgomerie are prescient observers, as is Today's James Naughtie whose enthusiasm for the process combines with his customary insight to make thoroughly worthwhile listening (scroll to around 35:10 here for example).  I was disappointed with the Spectator Coffee House's simplistic and uninformative piece, especially given their excellence in the field of British politics, but you can't have everything.

The Iowa Storm

You can see why Iowa has a state law mandating that it be the first state to hold caucuses in presidential election years.  If she wasn't, few candidates would do much listening to this small Mid-Western state.  As it is, every four years she gets huge amounts of love and attention lavished on her and it must feel good.

How much the Iowa caucuses can determine the course of presidential nominations remains moot of course.  In 2008 the Democrat race took a new and irrevocable turn when Barack Obama beat the "unbeatable" Hillary Clinton.  In 2012, however, Rick Santorum was victorious in the Republican race - and now he is merely a footnote in presidential election history.

So we should be wary of predicting long-term trends from the informal votes of a small but committed Iowa population.  That said, this is at least the first time real people have committed themselves to different candidates, and whatever lies ahead it's the first indication we have of how much or little these candidates appeal to ordinary voters.

The Democrat race - still neck and neck as I write - represents something of a success for Bernie Sanders.  The small-time senator from Vermont is giving the big-time former Secretary of State and First Lady a real run for her money.  She's not been buried, and the Sanders insurgency hasn't got the steam - it appears - of the Obama one eight years ago.  But by pipping or equalling Hillary in the final count, Bernie is keeping his race alive and the Democratic party benefits in consequence.  Hillary does too.  The Sanders campaign keeps her both grounded and sharp, and the whole party gets energised, as Slate notes here.

There are few similarly positive gains for the Republicans, even with the much vaunted Rubio third place showing.

Trumps' bubble hasn't been burst, but it has been pricked, by Ted Cruz's victory and that will send moderate Republicans into a tailspin every bit as bad as would a Trump victory.  Worse, possibly.  Where Trump makes outrageous noises to gain attention, he is in fact a pragmatic businessman-turned-politician who would probably show some executive competence and, when it came to real-time decision making, would be unlikely to take stupid risks.  The same cannot be said for Cruz.  He's a flip-flopper, certainly, and has all the sincerity of Lucifer, but you get the impression that this snake oil salesman par excellence would be just the man to take America down a disastrous ideological path because his base demanded it.

Cruz is the preferred candidate of the evangelical vote.  This is a potentially huge vote, and the last Republican to really energise it effectively was George W Bush.  Take from that what you will.

There is an episode of the popular American TV series "Supernatural", made in 2008, when one of the demon-hunting Winchester brothers is catapulted into the future to see what the apocalypse would be like once it's run its course.  He goes just 6 years ahead - to 2014 - and one of the most horrific indications that the world was indeed doomed was a newspaper headline proclaiming "President Palin Bombs Houston"!  It undoubtedly spoke to the real fears of 2008 liberal America about the then fiery - if monumentally inarticulate - Republican vice-presidential candidate, even if it now comes across as a piece of nostalgic whimsy.  Well, look again, because the idea of a President Cruz is ten times scarier than the (even then) unlikely prospect of President Palin.

Then there's Marco Rubio.  His strong third place finish is giving rise to comments which suggest that he is now the establishment candidate poised to take down the Trump/Cruz rising.  Rubio is more polished than either of his rabble rousing rivals, but only in this Republican race could he possibly be seen as a moderate influence.

Iowa has shown us trends that may or may not continue as the primary season lengthens, but it already shows us the depths to which US Republicanism has fallen, and heightened the need for the Democrats to be as battle-fit as possible in the autumn.

Have we been here before? Clinton versus an insurgent

She was meant to have had a lock on the Democratic Party nomination, in a year that looked good for a Democratic presidential candidate.  Hillary Clinton had the sort of star power few could hope to emulate, and she was one half of a couple who virtually embodied the term "power couple" in a party that was firmly in hoc to their machine.  And then came Iowa, and an insurgency that proved to be her undoing.  Barack Obama's soaring rhetoric and hope for change undid Hillary's hopes of breaking the glass ceiling for women in 2008.

And here she is again.  Her machine is intact, her supporters well motivated, she's captured the endorsement of one of the country's leading liberal newspapers, the New York Times; yet once again this once impregnable candidate faces a grassroots insurgency that could de-rail her second attempt at the presidency.

Of course it's not quite the same as 2008.  Hillary is a wiser person and a better candidate.  Her debate performances - under-reported at a time when everyone is obsessing over the Donald's wrecking of the Republican debates - have been far sparkier and effective than before.  Plus, she does have eight more years of hard won experience behind her, four of them as the former insurgent, Barack Obama's Secretary of State.  Bernie, meanwhile, has mobilised extraordinary support, and could certainly provide an upset in Iowa before what looks like a big win in New Hampshire (bordering his own Vermont state).  But Bernie can't match Obama's rhetoric, and he can motivate liberals but arguably not the mainstream who will there to be grabbed in the event of a very rightist Republican nomination.

It can, in fact, only be good for Clinton and the Democratic Party to have a race come much closer.  It would not have benefited Clinton at all to go through a coronation before the rough passage of the main election in autumn.  This way, she has to really hone her campaigning instincts, and she has to work out why so many Democrats and previously uncommitted voters are flocking to Bernie.  This Washington Post piece, and the turning of a sceptic noted here by Cody Gough, shows why "the Bern" is whirling up such a wind, and Hillary would be foolish to discount this.  She runs as an establishment candidate - her experience is a key selling point - at a time when many American voters seem dead set against that amorphous entity.  Capture some of the Sanders insurgency and Hillary really could have a winning formula.

This BBC report brilliantly captures the difference between the Clinton and Sanders rallies in Iowa and in so doing points up much of the distinction between these two seasoned politicians.

Hillary is no shoo-in any more.  Bernie Sanders has done the Democratic party a considerable service for that.  Whether the Senator from Vermont can provide the political weight to balance the excitement of his campaign, against a candidate who has weight aplenty, will ultimately determine who really is the most credible candidate to go against what will likely be one of the most dangerous Republicans in over a generation.  The Democrats should enjoy their primary season.  But they need to get this choice right.