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Primary time for presidential contenders

25 January 2016

Aspiring party nominees face a reality check once primaries get under way at the beginning of February, writes Lesley Russell. In the spotlight will be a rising sense of panic in the Republican establishment


Hogging the limelight: a Donald Trump election billboard in a residential backyard in West Des Moines, Iowa, with lights and security cameras. Tony Webster/Flickr

Hogging the limelight: a Donald Trump election billboard in a residential backyard in West Des Moines, Iowa, with lights and security cameras. Tony Webster/Flickr

The month of January is flying by, and suddenly, after numerous debates, endless polls and an avalanche of pontification and prognostication from the pundits, the early primaries and caucuses loom.

This has been a very unusual presidential campaign. On the Republican side, a large number of candidates, many of them polling badly, still hold hopes of the nomination. The rogue outsider, Donald Trump, hasn’t been overtaken or knocked aside by establishment candidates; indeed, despite (or perhaps because of) his lies, lack of coherence and boorishness, he remains the frontrunner, with the Tea Party favourite, Ted Cruz, as his only real competitor. On the Democrat side, Bernie Sanders is giving Hillary Clinton sharp reminders that the nomination is not automatically hers, while Martin O’Malley struggles for a fair share of attention.

The averages of the most recent national polls prepared by Real Clear Politics have Trump (on 34.6 per cent) well ahead of Cruz (18.8 per cent) among potential Republican voters, but that’s still only a third of the possible Republican vote. Then there’s the long tail, with Marco Rubio (11.2 per cent), Ben Carson (8.4 per cent), Jeb Bush (4.8 per cent), and Chris Christie, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum barely registering.

The Republican leadership’s anxiety, bordering on panic, about the dominance and durability of Trump, and increasingly of Cruz, and their bewilderment about how to defeat them with a candidate more representative of Republican values, is old news. But two facts – that so many candidates remain in the race and that major donors such as Sheldon Adelson have yet to commit – indicate that Republicans hold out some hope that their party’s nominee for the general election has yet to emerge from the shadows.

If this is indeed the case, the nominee is unlikely to be among the current candidates, none of whom has made a serious effort to distinguish his or her views from the extreme, and in some cases abhorrent, proposals espoused by Trump. Jeb Bush, once seen as the establishment favourite, has been weak from the start, and his poll figures would probably be even worse without the millions of dollars he amassed early and has spent on lambasting his opponents.

Ironically, Bush’s bête noire is not Trump but fellow Floridian Marco Rubio. He too has been posited as a possible establishment candidate, and some in the GOP have recently cautioned Bush about his attacks on his fellow candidate, seeing them as creating further openings for Trump and Cruz. But Rubio consistently fails to poll above third or fourth place, has no obvious likely wins in the first few primary and caucusing states, and seems unlikely to emerge as the better alternative to Trump and Cruz.

The state polls reflect the national polling. In the Real Clear Politics average of polls of Republican voters in Iowa, Trump has a narrow lead over Cruz (29 per cent to 26.4 per cent), ahead of Rubio (11.4 per cent) and Carson (8.5 per cent). Trump (32.0 per cent) is substantially ahead in New Hampshire, leading Kasich (13.4 per cent), Cruz (11.4 per cent) and Rubio (10.5 per cent). Trump also leads in South Carolina and Nevada.

The dynamics of the race have changed with the recent endorsement of Trump by former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. This was undoubtedly engineered to shore up Trump’s primary votes on the right and undermine Cruz’s growing popularity. Prior to this astounding switch of Palin’s loyalties, FiveThirtyEight predicted that Cruz would win in Iowa, a result that would damage the ego of the candidate who has declared himself unassailable, and shake loose some votes in New Hampshire, but wouldn’t destroy Trump’s campaign unless he made it do so. He has instead chosen the short-term solution of Palin’s endorsement – a solution he may live to regret later in the campaign.

The situation will play out very differently for the Democrats. Much has been made of the fact that Sanders is very competitive with Clinton in Iowa and especially New Hampshire. Sanders doesn’t poll well with minority voters, however – he trails Clinton by a wide margin among non-white Democrats – and these two states have minuscule non-white populations (4 per cent in Iowa and 2 per cent in New Hampshire). In South Carolina, Clinton is ahead by 40 percentage points, and she leads by 19.5 points in Nevada and 29.5 points in Massachusetts.

Sanders deserves credit for running a high-minded campaign, for attracting unexpectedly large levels of campaign financing, and for giving voice to the issues that matter to progressive voters, who struggle to have their voices heard in today’s America. But Clinton not only has the résumé and the ability to attract non-aligned voters, she also has the endorsements that are among the best predictors of success in the primaries.

The biggest issue for the Democrats is that the media is filled with Trump’s demagoguery and the attempts of his Republican rivals to compete. This has left little room for a public debate on their array of policies. Trump has been allowed to set the terms of the debate for all the candidates and he very effectively feeds the media beast. The situation will only worsen as Palin is given licence to speak out.

The media is complicit in this. Bernie Sanders attracts 20 to 30 per cent of primary voter support (similar levels to Trump) but the Tyndall Report has found that he gets just one-twenty-third of Trump’s level of media coverage. Indeed, the report found that Trump has received more coverage (or free publicity) than all the Democrat candidates combined. The real victim is O’Malley, who is polling better among Democrats in Iowa then either Bush or Christie is among Republicans – but you would never know it from the way he is ignored by the media.

In the wake of the most recent debates and these new polls, pollsters and commentators have had a field day discussing the consequences of the predicted battles between Trump and Cruz and between Sanders and Clinton. But in a country where voter turnout is voluntary and often dependent on factors such as the weather, the polls can only ever reflect voting intentions. Not until the first primary votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses on 1 February, followed by the New Hampshire primaries on 9 February, the South Carolina primaries on 20 February and the Nevada caucuses on 23 February, will anyone really have a clear idea of where this election season is headed and who will emerge as the likely nominees to fight the general election.

The Republican nominee will need commitments from 1236 of the 2470 delegates. The first states to vote or caucus in February will deliver a relatively small number of delegates (133) but the results will heavily influence perceptions, financial contributions and media focus. The real allocation of delegates starts on 1 March, when thirteen states hold their primaries. The situation is made more complicated because in some states delegates are awarded proportionately to those who get more than a certain percentage of the vote (although after 15 March most states award delegates on a winner-take-all basis) and not all delegates are required to vote at the convention for the candidate they represent. The biggest numbers of delegates are from Texas (decided in March), New York (decided in April) and California (not decided until June). Further information about how and when delegates are determined for both major political parties can be found here.

This means that there are several possible scenarios for the Republican convention to be held in Cleveland in July. Two of them have Trump as their central character, but only one has Trump as the eventual nominee.

Under the first, as laid out by his campaign advisers in an interview with Politico, Trump gets the nomination on the first ballot, unifies the party he has fractured and reinvents himself as a pragmatic businessman and family man, using advertising to enhance his appeal with minority voters. He paints himself as an outsider in stark contrast to insider Hillary Clinton. To win, he would need to hold all of the states Romney won in 2012, rely on a heavy turnout of white voters to flip Ohio, Virginia and Florida (states Obama won in 2012), and then win any one of Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, Nevada or New Mexico.

Unifying the party he has been so complicit in dividing will be a mighty task. And this scenario does not account for the fact that the numbers game for Trump may be harder than it first appears because 437 of the delegates are unpledged, including 168 who are members of the Republican National Committee and not exactly recognised as his supporters. In order to win the Republican nomination without any of the unpledged delegates, Trump would need to win not 50 per cent plus one but 60.78 per cent of the delegates from the caucuses and primaries. Given that his poll support hovers around 33 per cent, this would be a difficult task.

The Republican leadership is preparing for another scenario, a brokered convention. Such contingency planning is always undertaken, but this year there is a very real possibility that no candidate will win enough delegates to receive the nomination on the first vote. It is also possible that the acceptability of the leading candidate will be challenged. For example, there could be a challenge to Trump on the grounds that polls show Cruz or Rubio have a considerably better chance of defeating Clinton. More likely, in the face of concerns about Trump as a chaotic candidate, an outsider could be put forward.

In its current fractured state, this would be a risky scenario for the GOP, and especially for Paul Ryan. By virtue of his position as speaker of the House, he will chair the convention, but he is also often mentioned as the person most likely to be drafted as the nominee. Under such circumstances, after the first ballot, delegates would be free to vote for any candidate, leading to much backroom negotiation. Brokered nominees don’t generally fare well in general elections; the last Republican-brokered nominee was Thomas Dewey in 1948 and the last Democrat-brokered nomination was Adlai Stevenson in 1952.

Trump has already given notice that if there are backroom deals ahead of or during the convention he would regard that as vacating his pledge not to run as a third-party candidate for the presidency and to support the eventual Republican nominee if he doesn’t win the primary. There are interesting times ahead, and some very fraught politics. •

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