It is finally, officially, really...2016! Yes, the election year is here and with it the primary season, more scrutiny of polling numbers, and the realization that things aren't always what they seem.
This time last year Donald Trump was never going to be the GOP Presidential nominee and Hilary Clinton was the obvious and inevitable lock for the Democratic nomination. It was supposed to be a matter of time before we witnessed the ultimate culmination of one of the single longest Presidential bids in U.S. history with Hilary finally becoming the first female U.S. President. Between then and now an entire year has passed and my, oh my, what a year it was.
YEAR OF THE HAIR?
2015 was the year of Trump's rise from goofy celebutant (If that's not a word it should be, so I'm going with it) pretender to clear and obvious GOP frontrunner. It was the year of “feeling the Bern” as Bernie Sanders went from long-term and well respected Democratic Senator from Vermont to primary frontrunner in Iowa and New Hampshire, ahead of Clinton. Had you predicted Trump as the leader going into Iowa, even six months ago it would have been met with laughter and skepticism, which is why no pundit was saying it would happen. Yet, here we are...you would have been correct. Trump, first classified as a toupee wearing blow-hard that didn't know the first thing about running a campaign and probably wouldn't be trusted by the Republican faithful is now the blustery, straight talking candidate that says it like it is. Unreal.
I have been standing by my own predictions of Christie v. Clinton, and I'm not ready to give that up just yet, but I am starting to feel the sand shifting beneath my feet. The once logical and inevitable choices are blasé, boring, and brackish. And the polls, MY GOD MAN THE POLLS! Trump is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the indisputable frontrunner for the GOP. Sanders is leading or tied in Iowa and ahead by leaps and bounds in New Hampshire. (Not to mention Leo is the favorite to win the Oscar...2016 could be a true year of big changes.)
For those of you that haven't been following along with my political musings, I like to use the numbers from Real Clear Politics a great webpage for the politically minded. The national average polling section compiles information from both right and left leaning companies, and uses a variety of samples so the numbers are much more realistic and representative of the actual national mood. However, polling numbers should always be viewed with a degree of skepticism; in 2012 the race between Obama and Romney was within 3-5% on almost every poll, but Obama ran away with the election. The polling had failed to pick up on the shifting dynamics of race and ethnicity in Florida, plus there is the “I don't want to admit it” effect of answering a pollster's questions that can suppress true voter intentions. Basically, if I ask you in person if you support Trump you're more likely to say no than if you are filling out an anonymous form.
As of the middle of January, Trump is sitting fairly steady at about 35% overall in the GOP. He is the clear frontrunner, but the inverse of that number means that 65% of GOP voters are not going to vote for Trump, at least at this point. Trump's numbers are where I think the potential for voters being less than truthful to pollsters is most likely. Admitting you fully support Trump has additional baggage because of the labeling of Trump as racist. So, there could be a portion of the GOP voters being polled that just aren't willing to say out loud that Trump is their candidate, even if it's a subconscious issue for them. If we assume Trump really has closer to 40% support that still leaves well over ½ of the GOP voters opposed and could lead to a contested convention, but it should not lead to a Trump nomination. But, at least for now Trump is the “most likely” nominee, so let's run with it.
Trump's numbers have been reasonably steady for the last few months. Cruz is rising, Rubio appears to be losing steam, Bush has been dead in the water since June, but Christie (yes my pick) is still making waves. The GOP race is very far from over and we won’t have any real clarity until Super Tuesday. What makes this even more interesting is Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Trump. While this could solidify Trump's position, I think it will be fool's gold.
At the same time, Sanders is slowly and methodically chipping away at Clinton. His numbers are real. He built them slowly. Clinton's numbers are like a huge rock resting on top of a pole. The rock is high, but it wasn't built slowly. Sanders numbers are like a pyramid. At first it didn't look like much because the base takes so long to complete, but once it is done it can hold so much more than the pole can. Layer by layer Sanders has built and in October the pyramid started to cast a shadow. That shadow is getting bigger. That pole is getting weak, and the rock is very heavy.
Sanders is at about 38% nationally. Clinton is at 51%. O'malley is still running, but I'd be shocked to see him get even 5% at his highest as he is under 4% now. Quick math shows there is something missing: about 8% of the “other/undecided” group. (A/K/A the group still hoping for Biden.) What happens if Sanders picks up most of that group? He could easily get to 44-45% without touching Clinton's base. If he is able to sway just some of Clinton's less devoted supporters, or encourage high turnout among voters under 45, then the Democratic race is suddenly within the margin of error. Holyshnikes.
On the Republican side it's pretty simple. People are sick and tired of ___________(fill in the blank) and Trump is going to fix it. Imagine getting very ill. You go to the doctor's office. After you stare at a slightly off-white wall, read an old children's magazine, and look at that sort of interesting painting of the people in the boat for the 17th time, the door opens and you're ushered back. The doctor spends 30 seconds looking at your chart and then says to you “This is some bad stuff, but I'm going to make you better and you'll be better than ever when I'm done. Trust me, I'm a doctor.”
Bush is the wall. Rubio is the children's magazine. Cruz is the oddly entertaining painting. Obviously, Trump is the doctor. Are you going to go out and tell people “Hey you should go to this office, the painting will make you feel so much better!” or “I don't know what this doctor is going to do, but I already feel better about it!” when you leave? Most likely the painting will get little mention, and the wall and magazine are already forgotten. Who doesn't like a guarantee of being better than ever?
Wait, what about Christie, was he part of this exam? Not exactly. Which is why he still matters so much. Christie is the second opinion. The problem is, the second opinion is a chance to have someone tell you bad news, and if the first opinion is nothing but sunshine and rainbows then why bother listening to the guy that might tell you something bad? I still think the 60-65% of “non-Trump” GOP voters will want a second opinion soon which is why I am not ready to abandon my pick of Chris Christie as the GOP Nominee (which was made WAY before it was cool). Christie's appeal is similar to that of Trump as the guy that will talk tough. The difference is that Christie could actually win a general election and Trump cannot.
On the Democratic side it is much simpler. Hilary Clinton has worn out the welcome. We all get it, she wants to be the President. That's great. So did Mitt Romney. So did Bob Dole.
Persistence doesn't always pay off.
Meanwhile, Sanders is “new” to the game. Sure, he's been a Senator for a generation but even the most politically minded hardly uttered his name before he announced his candidacy. He's physically old but his rhetoric is radical and sounds like change. Obama swept the nation with “Hope and Change” in 2008, but all he did was use the phrase. Sanders is doing much more than that. He's putting out real policy stances that are different. He is unabashedly calling out the power structure rather than just trying to make nice with it (sort of like that other guy with the crazy hair named Donald), which is the exact opposite of Clinton. Hilary, like Bill, is a very centrist political animal. In 2008 the Democratic voters wanted something new. They rejected Hilary for Obama and got a somewhat left leaning centrist for 8 years. It was more of a certified pre-owned than new. The Fox News crew might think Obama is a radical, but policy realities suggest he is far from it. The feelings that swept him from Jr. Senator to Commander-In-Chief are still swirling, and Sanders is harnessing them in an effective way, similarly to Trump.
WHAT IT MEANS.
It means the primaries matter. Like, really-super-mega-big-time matter. On the GOP side the primaries will solidify the “other” candidate. Someone will become the clear second choice to Trump, and there may be a third as well, but the bottom feeders will drop off. If you finish out of the top three in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina people tend to stop giving you money to spend on your campaign and start giving it to the top contenders. Cruz is strong, no question about that, and I think Christie really comes alive during the primaries. If Christie finishes top two in New Hampshire and top three in South Carolina he will begin picking up serious momentum. Plus, the SNL Christie is so much fun that we really deserve to have him on the ticket.
For the Democrats, Sanders could win both Iowa and New Hampshire. Check out this Iowa poll showing a possible Iowa tie. Clinton is likely to win South Carolina, but Sanders winning 2/3 of the first primaries would be a massive story. (Sanders winning all 3/3 would be a freakin' A-Bomb.) Suddenly the narrative wouldn't be about if Sanders' campaign is viable enough to beat Clinton, but would shift to whether Clinton's campaign can hold on long enough to win. Like Christie, the SNL Sanders (played masterfully by Larry David) is too good to be true. I love Kate McKinnon's Clinton, it's funny, but Larry David as Bernie Sanders is the impersonation we really deserve. He is 2016's Tina Fey as Palin. Although, if this Trump-Palin relationship blossoms then Tina Fey as Palin could be 2016's Tina Fey as Palin... but I digress.
In the end Trump is looking more like a real possibility than anyone could have guessed. As for Sanders his odds are getting better because his campaign has been pretty, pretty...pretty good.
Trump v. Sanders is possible, but I don't think it's likely. It requires the GOP to bend to a candidate that has undeniably high unfavorable ratings, and I don't think the party is really that self-destructive. Then again, this is the same GOP that thought Romney could unseat an incumbent President so, maybe they are. Of the two Sanders seems to have a more realistic chance, though I'm still confident in my prediction of Clinton v. Christie.
The details of what Sanders is proposing will start to matter more and I'm not so sure that is good for him. Plus, Clinton can outspend him by a ton (really, a literal ton of cash) and it won't be shocking to see her pick up O'Malley's endorsement if Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina don't provide him with something more than a 5% showing. Clinton/O'Malley is a strong ticket. I said a long time ago that Jay Nixon could pull the Clinton VP pick, and O'Malley is like a handsome and friendly Nixon.
Christie needs to keep doing what he has been doing, playing a good ground game and building slowly. Slow and steady can win the race for Christie, but for JEB! 2016 was over before it started no matter how many turtles he has in his pocket. Trump should be able to break down Cruz enough that when Christie comes knocking for the VP pick Cruz can jump on board, unless Rubio is already aligned with Christie. A Christie/Cruz or Christie/Rubio allegiance can keep the brokered convention from getting out of control, will please the establishment enough to support it, and can defeat Trump. I think I speak for a lot of voters, on both sided of the spectrum, when I say that would be a good thing.
- Adam Sommer
with editing by Drew Hooper