June 8, 2016
We’re done with the primary season, and barring unexpectedly quick FBI intervention, we have our two major party nominees. Despite the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are still well on track to serve as standard bearers. Bernie Sanders is done. Clinton needs to win over as many Berners as possible over the next few months, but California voters decided to end the drama.
The conventions are still more than a month away. Traditionally, we would now enter a bit of a dead period, a time for candidates to consolidate their party machinery and pull everything together under the radar. A time for each candidate to attempt to define their opponent before the conventions give a chance to package a desired view. But we now live in Trumplandia, so it probably won’t go that way.
Here’s where we stand on the morning after California:
The Mexican Judge is killing the Ryan wing of the GOP
Trump says something beyond the pale. Pundits gnash their teeth and proclaim this is the End of Trump. His numbers dip mildly and temporarily before he rebounds by changing the subject and putting his opponent on the defensive. Rinse, wash, repeat. Why is his claim Judge Gonzalo Curiel is unable to impartially rule on the Trump University case due to his Mexican heritage any different?
In terms of how the overall electorate views him, or even how his campaign strategy adapts, it’s probably not. Just another in a series of comments previously believed beyond the pale. But he’s completely obliterated the shaky ground Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and many other prominent Republicans anxiously stood on.
As someone I stole this from (wish I remember who, or if it was an article, a tweet, or what) pointed out, Trump’s claim destroys the color blind stance conservatives have taken at least since 1980. They were opposed to affirmative action because they wanted to treat people equally. Conservatives say things like equal opportunity, not equal outcome. Bush 43 talked about the racism of low expectations.
People like Ryan, Rubio, and Walker grew up believing in this Reaganesque gospel. It’s one of the defining principles of modern conservatism. Not all self-described participants in the conservative movement agree on all elements of social policy. Not everyone is on the same page regarding foreign policy and military interventions. But every self-respecting National Review reader is on the same page on this one.
The catch is only a percentage of conservatives really believed this. Another group, one we would now recognize as Trumpists, were in favor of ending affirmative action because it put various whites in a less favorable position than their fathers or grandfathers, through no particular fault of their own.
Like so many other parts of GOP/conservative doctrine, different voting groups were finding agreement for strategic reasons, but failing to realize they were less on the same page than they thought. Trump pulled the rug out from conservative intellectuals who thought a large portion of the country agreed with them.
For various reasons, Walker, Ryan, and Rubio (among many others, we’re treating them as a proxy for the larger constellation of their generation of Reaganites), felt the need to weakly endorse Trump, or at least say they were still planning on voting for the GOP candidate/against Hillary/whatever.
It’s difficult to see a political future for yourself if you aren’t able to at least grudgingly vote for your party’s presidential candidate. Getting on the same page behind one is the single most important function of a national political party. Each of the three are career politicians. Only Rubio has even spent a couple years outside of elective politics since they left college.
These guys grew up believing in a set of principles and have spent their entire adult lives working towards governing in line with them. Two were expecting to do a bit better in the nomination contest and had a rude brush with reality. The other was hoping to stay under the radar as budget committee chairman, before getting conscripted into a far more visible role.
As it was, each was in an uncomfortable position, made more uneasy when Trump became the presumptive nominee. When it became clear there was no alternative option to rally around, no viable third party conservative who was running and could actually push the election to the House, if not win outright, they each caved in various ways.
Trump offered nothing in return. He didn’t publicly agree to modify/modulate his tone. He didn’t sign up for the Ryan agenda. This was extremely suboptimal, but the Reaganites felt they had no better option. Going to war would prove very dangerous with most of the party establishment having thrown in (at least officially) with Trump.
The primary results indicated Walker, Rubio, and Ryan were actually dependent on scads of Trump voters to push their agenda forward. True conservative believers (at least in the William F. Buckley) sense, were in shorter than previously realized supply. Striking out would have seemed like a suicide mission, especially for career politicians.
Then Trump kneecapped them by repeatedly asserting Judge Curiel was incapable of performing his job due to his ethnic heritage. When it was discovered Curiel was born in Indiana (what could possibly sound more American) and spent a year in hiding from Mexican drug lords who put out a hit on him when he was a prosecutor, it got worse.
He’s exactly the type of Latino that National Review conservatives like to highlight as a positive example of what people from immigrant families can accomplish. Curiel was first appointed to the bench by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in California. The Walker/Ryan/Rubio approach to building the GOP involves making people like Curiel and those who admire him regular Republican voters.
If they back away from endorsing/voting for Trump they look weak. If they stay with him, they undercut the underpinnings of everything they supposedly stand for. It’s unlikely any are emotionally ready to cut bait on the careers they’ve spent 20+ years establishing.
It’s different for Mitch McConnell. He’s near the end of his run. Best case, the GOP holds the Senate and he gets another couple years as majority leader. Nobody thinks of McConnell and being greatly principled at the same time. His job is to keep his party in the majority. His objection to Trump’s broadside against Curiel is the belief it harms vulnerable senators (he likely also disagrees with the logic, but that’s not his primary concern.)
The whole reason for his existence is to deal with shit like this. It’s why you make a McConnell the leader instead of someone who might appear more popular. He’ll get out his shovel and muck out the barn as best as he can. But the others are being neutralized right as they thought they were reaching the peak of their careers.
How they and others in their group respond now and over the next couple of years will decide whether the Republican Party shakes this off and finds a way to move forward, perhaps led by the populist wing instead, or if we have some new options by 2020.
Democrats reject Sanders once and for all. How do Berners respond?
The GOP isn’t the only historic major party with a bit of an existential crisis. There was never a fight within the Democratic Party on who to nominate. Clinton picked up at least 95% of all the endorsements of even marginal value. She had over 90% of the super delegates who committed before the voting was done, most before the voting started.
Over 60% of the registered Democrats who participated in the primaries chose her (that includes caucuses.) While Democrats viewed Bernie favorably, there was never any question about who regular Democratic voters preferred. Sanders won one closed primary (Oregon.) His strength was entirely in caucuses and open primaries in demographically favorable states.
It’s not fair to say his support was limited to white voters. He won a majority of votes among voters under 40, and particularly in the Democratic Party, those individuals are disproportionately voters of color. You can’t pull 80% of voters under 30 if you can’t attract non-white votes. So the “political revolution” is not an entirely (or even mostly) white one.
But it’s not a Democratic one either. While some Berners are actually registered Democrats, their allegiance is to the philosophy of Sanders, not whatever approximates Democratic Party orthodoxy, a set of positions somewhere between those of Bill Clinton and President Obama. That’s where Hillary hangs out. So does Joe Biden. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is the modern definition of a party hack, not a dedicated progressive with strong democratic socialist leanings.
Sanders is going to wind up with something on the order of 12 million primary/caucus votes. It’s a big number, but also only 4% of the total population (including those too young to vote.) Of those, some are actual Democrats who just preferred him to Clinton and will at least grudgingly return to the fold to vote against Trump.
Another couple million voters went along for the ride with their more motivated friends. They were new/newish registrants, perhaps having voted for Obama in 2008 and/or 2012, assuming they were old enough at the time. These are the people who showed up for him in presidential years, but were of no use keeping Republicans from midterm victories.
If Hillary can effectively demonize Trump (or keep him from making her look even worse), the majority of these voters will show up for her too. Depending on how poorly Trump wears with Republican and GOP-leaning voters, they might be enough for Democrats to take the Senate back.
But then there’s the other few million votes. These are the true Berners. The contributors and volunteers. The #BernieOrBust crowd. Those who think Clinton is as big a liar as Trump, and at least as wrong on major policy issues. The ability of the Democratic Party to proceed with a structural majority in presidential elections and a fighting chance to regularly hold the Senate, while competing to regularly hold the House after the next re-districting is based on these Berners continuing to associate with the party.
Many are actually registered as independent/non-affiliated, while others are registered Democrats who are that way in spirit. Like Senator Sanders, they caucus with Democrats, but aren’t really part of the party. We’re often tempted to view Bernie and Elizabeth Warren somewhat interchangeably as idols of the progressive movement. That’s not accurate.
Warren is a liberal/progressive Democrat. She’s a strong partisan. Without question, she’s to the left, but she’s a committed Democrat. She’s the mirror image of Ted Cruz, except she gets along with her co-workers better. Cruz argued a real conservative Republican was the best choice. If Warren were running, she would have made the same claim about a real progressive Democrat.
Bernie is not a Democrat, though his democratic socialism and Warren’s progressivism overlap plenty. Warren supporters were very prone to voting for Bernie. Sanders supporters would feel better with Warren on the ticket. Still not interchangeable. If Hillary were to lose this round and Warren to become the nominee in 2020, there’s a path to keep Berners and Democrats under the same tent.
But if Hillary wins, or loses and Warren chooses not to run, Berners have a big decision to make. Can they partner with enough progressive Democrats to have a real say in the future direction of the party, or do they go their own way. A couple million committed activists are enough basis for an alternative. If you gave Bill Kristol the same ammunition, he would look forward to building a Conservative Party for Ben Sasse or someone else to lead in 2020.
Hillary does not necessarily need these votes to defeat Trump. It would improve her odds, but you can make the math work without them. Even if Berners are still angry and planning on making life miserable for President Rodham Clinton, some may still vote for her. You’ll see this schism analyzed through the prism of November 2016, but as with Trump, a victory might actually cause a bigger, more permanent split than a loss.
Tons of demand for a third or fourth option, no signs of traction though
The major party nominees objectively suck. When two-thirds of the country doesn’t like you, you’re a bad nominee. Their favorability ratings are in the same ballpark as Bush 43 post-Katrina, Nixon a couple months pre-resignation, Carter with a cratering economy, gas lines, and a lengthy hostage crisis.
If you’re the equivalent of unpopular presidents at the depths of their respective tenures and haven’t even started governing yet, you suck. Independent voters are particularly negative. Plenty of polling indicates a majority of non-affiliated voters disapprove of/dislike both candidates. They frequently choose “other” when surveyed.
This time, other has a name. Libertarian Gary Johnson is likely to appear on ballots in all 50 states (or get damn close.) The Green Party, last heard from when Ralph Nader helped torpedo the Gore Presidency, has a candidate of their own, Jill Stein, and is going to wind up on plenty of state ballots too. David French was a false alarm, but Kristol hasn’t completely given up on finding a conservative third party choice, arguing it’s not as too late for ballot access as people think.
While it’s a leap to think any of these options are capable of winning the presidency or even taking a couple of key states to push the election to the House, there is room for someone to reach the 15% of polling support required to qualify for the official presidential debates this fall. That would allow them to maximize their impact in November, and perhaps build a foundation for 2020.
To that end, there are a couple of problems. As with the GOP attempt to stop Trump in the primary, there are too many options. Should a Berner opt for Johnson or Stein? Should a conservative pick Johnson or someone like French (if they appear)? Some polls are only querying Clinton v. Trump. When they expand, usually Johnson is the only addition.
A few surveys actually first ask about the main two, then add Johnson, then add Stein. Monmouth did this in New Jersey. Others just take the first two steps. What we find is Johnson is getting around 10% support when he’s the third and only extra choice. As soon as Stein is introduced, he has to share, and their combined number barely moves.
That means at the moment, most of his support is because of who he isn’t, not who he is. It’s tough to see how that changes real soon. His best chance for exposure was immediately after winning the nomination in a tumultuous Libertarian convention. After slugging it out over Memorial Day Weekend, he was set to do plenty of TV on that Tuesday. Do you remember his effective blitz of the cable networks?
Me either. Trump and his press conference, followed by Clinton’s foreign policy speech/Trump slamfest, followed by more Judge Curiel fun, followed by the run up to California and discussion of the future fate of Bernie and the Sandersistas completely blocked out his existence.
Even if you assume most polls will include outside options by September, and you figure at least 20% of voters will specifically pick someone who isn’t Clinton or Trump, Johnson would need three quarters of that support to qualify for the debates. That would require no conservative/#NeverTrump option, and Johnson to split supporters with Stein less evenly than he currently is.
If the word isn’t getting out, “Green Party” is likely to sound better to many Berners than Libertarian. Humboldt County, long famous as a grow spot, was Sanders’ best county in the California primary. Bernie did exceedingly well in all of the states with full legalization. Johnson ran a cannabis company and partakes in the product. All a neat angle, but not enough to get him to 15%.
Emphasizing this part of his green agenda would turn off some of the GOP expats he needs to hit his number. As open as the electorate is to other options, Johnson finds himself uncomfortably straddling two distinctly different voting groups without the megaphone (real or virtual) to effectively reach them.
Unless something dramatically changes, expect the voter frustration to continue and the third party candidates to pine for a clearer path.
Hillary is the favorite until proven otherwise
In the past few weeks, Trump has reached approximate parity with Clinton in most polling. The Real Clear Politics average has shown the candidates within a point or two. It looks like Trump peaked about 10-14 days ago and Clinton has moved a bit ahead again, though we aren’t talking about major shifts.
Trump is not leading the majority of polls in key/competitive states. We’re seeing him closer in places like New Jersey and Connecticut than normal for a GOP candidate, but it’s not carrying over to states like Ohio and Florida that a successful Republican has to win. The first group of states runs more Democratic than the nation as a whole, the second group more Republican.
Even while losing Ohio and Florida, John McCain and Mitt Romney still did better there than overall. Normally, if a Republican is trailing by 5 to 7 in Connecticut/New Jersey, they would lead by at least a comparable amount in Ohio/Florida. In the current instance, he narrowly trails.
In order to say Trump is actually leading, we would want an indication he’s consistently ahead in key swing states that are traditionally Republican leaning. That’s not the case yet. Nor is he ahead in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin, which are on his list of slightly to somewhat Democratic leaning states to pick up.
None of them are out of play yet, and his map strategy isn’t absurd, but there’s a difference between having a target in reach and having at least a temporary hold on it. These surveys were taken in an environment where a good portion of dedicated Berners were still thinking #NeverHillary. Should Bernie convincingly endorse and campaign for Clinton, wind up on the ticket, or otherwise help drag his followers to the ticket, her margin would expand.
Each candidate normally gets a bounce in the polls a minimum of two times. First when they secure the nomination, second during/right after their convention. Sometimes a candidate screws this up, but they’re the two traditional chances to pick up a few to several points. It doesn’t always last, but it gives a good idea of the candidate’s temporary ceiling.
Trump already got his first bounce. It pulled him almost even. Now it’s Hillary’s turn. If she goes up by 5 to 7 points, for all of the chaos, this race is starting to look awfully similar to 2008 and 2012, with Trump being able to make it very close if the economy flags further, or an international incident is handled poorly by the administration, and Clinton able to win easily if Trump can’t keep enough Republicans and GOP leaners on board for the duration.
If Clinton surges ahead by 10-12 points, it means she’s a clear favorite, not just the candidate with an edge. George H.W. Bush recovered from a bigger deficit against Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Gerald Ford made up 30 points on Jimmy Carter before falling just short in 1976, so it’s not lethal. However, both comebacks were from the candidate who had their convention second.
In Ford’s case, he got his nomination and convention bounce concurrently. It’s the one time since most nominations were settled through the primary process that the two nominees weren’t trading favorable conditions. Bush 41 had a reasonably popular incumbent campaigning for him (Reagan’s numbers were pretty good, but he wasn’t the deity he is today.) Trump has one campaigning against him. Say what you want about President Obama, but the public likes him far more than Clinton or Trump.
In the 1980s, Republicans had an electoral map advantage. As late as 2000, George W. Bush was able to win the electoral vote while losing the popular vote. Today, the situation is reversed. If a candidate repeats his result, it’s more likely the Democrat. Bush 41 beat Dukakis by 8 points, but won over 400 electoral votes by taking a number of states by narrow margins.
The more polarized state-by-state electorate of 2016 isn’t likely to repeat that exactly, but any similar edge favors Clinton. If it evaporates, the likely cause is Trump underperforming in places like Utah, where Republicans normally win by 30-40 points, but he’s currently ahead by a few.
These are two heavily flawed candidates. We should never underestimate the ability of either to pull defeat from the jaws of victory. Perhaps Trump will successfully turn Clinton into the far greater of two evils. But as we stand today, she has the edge, one very likely to turn up in polling over the next couple weeks.
If Trump is still effectively even in the polls on June 20, the above reading was incorrect and we should view this as much closer to a toss-up.
So whether you like it or not, that’s the way it is. Today, June 8, 2016.