The 2016 campaign has been among the wildest and most unpredictable in history, and many events have transpired since my initial post surveying the presidential field. I’ll give my take on the state of play in each presidential nomination race, as well as a first look at the Senate races down the ballot.
The Democratic primary race has been as placid as the Republican race has been volatile. Hillary Clinton was stuck in a negative feedback loop for awhile, but once Joe Biden decided not to enter the race and Clinton performed well in the first primary debate, she largely resumed her dominant position. Bernie Sanders made some noise in early polling, but whatever surge he had appears to have leveled off. He’s still doing well in New Hampshire, and once he’s able to run ads in Iowa, he may be able to move the needle there too. But unless he can pull off wins in Iowa and New Hampshire and reshuffle the deck, Clinton looks to be in a solid position to win as she continues to roll up establishment support, which is the biggest predictor of primary winners. She also has attracted a fairly broad coalition of many different types of voters, and her approval ratings among Democrats remain strong. Some Democrats worry about her polarizing nature hampering her in a general election, but many of those concerns are overshadowed by Sanders’ own potential general election difficulties.
Martin O’Malley is probably largely campaigning for VP at this point, and I’m not sure he’d even be considered for that post. Democrats have no real reasons to vote for him instead of Sanders or Clinton. Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb have exited the race, with Webb dropping hints that he may run as an independent. He may actually draw more votes from the Republicans than the Democrats, as he largely cast himself as the moderate-to-conservative Democrat in the race. That would be an interesting, though probably ultimately inconsequential, development if it were to happen.
Donald Trump, despite my general skepticism about his chances initially, has remained at the top of the polls and has garnered a slew of earned media coverage over his outlandish statements, such as his call to block all Muslims from coming into the country, a move that earned him ridicule from many members of his own party. This is why, despite polling evidence, I think Trump is still somewhat of a long shot to actually win the nomination. Nobody in the Republican establishment wants it to happen, fearing he would lose badly in a general election. Plus, his ideology is difficult to pin down. While many of his positions, such as his call to repeal Obamacare and his pro-gun stance, are in lockstep with Republican Party orthodoxy, many of his other positions, such as a call to end super PACs and his tax proposals, are not. If he wins the majority of pledged delegates, we could be in for a very interesting Republican National Convention.
Part of what is boosting Trump’s chances is the fact that none of the other Republican presidential candidates have looked all that good so far. Jeb Bush has fallen out of favor with the establishment after several tone-deaf comments and uninspired debate performances, but he still has tons of money. Ben Carson has a similar problem, making many bizarre comments that led many to question his worthiness as commander in chief. Ted Cruz is a mirror image of Bernie Sanders, in that he is probably too far towards the ideological extreme of his party to win. Chris Christie has been working New Hampshire hard, and it’s possible that if Trump throws the race into chaos, he could be the beneficiary, though he has a lot of baggage from his governorship dragging him down. Rand Paul’s campaign largely fell apart after the first primary debate and has failed to gain back any traction. Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, Rick Santorum, and John Kasich never had all that much support to begin with. Scott Walker’s campaign fell apart faster than the 2015 Washington Nationals, and he, along with perpetual longshots Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal, have dropped out since I last surveyed the race.
I’ve believed for a few months now that the Republicans’ best chance to win the general election would be to nominate Marco Rubio. He would be a fresh face, and a good generational contrast with Hillary Clinton. He’s also staked out some moderate positions on issues like immigration that would make him more appealing to the general electorate. But even he has shown weaknesses. His campaign infrastructure is not well-developed, his fundraising hasn’t been great, and he sometimes looks overly stiff in speeches and debates. He has earned criticism for alleged improper use of a government-issued credit card while serving as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, and there are rumors of extramarital affairs that could threaten his bid. But right now, he still looks like the best option.
Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, North Dakota, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, and Washington don’t look like particularly competitive Senate races, but there are plenty worth following. I’ll run through some developments state-by-state. I’m not going to make any ratings just yet, as it’s too early in the cycle to really do that. The Republicans start out with a 54-46 edge in the Senate, so they should be considered slight favorites to retain control. However, they will be defending far more Senate seats than the Democrats will, and further surprise retirements such as David Vitter’s in Louisiana could stretch their resources thin and make it more difficult for them to retain control.
Arizona: Democrats scored a coup when Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick decided to run for this seat. She has a history of winning in Republican districts and could pose a stiff challenge. John McCain also has lived under the constant threat of a primary challenge lately, and if that succeeds, Kirkpatrick could have a much easier path to victory. I think McCain will ultimately prevail if he is renominated, though.
Colorado: Michael Bennet is seen as vulnerable, and if the Republicans don’t make the mistake of nominating an extremist like in 2010, they could steal this seat. Colorado is such a swingy state that the performance of each party’s presidential nominee will likely determine who wins here.
Florida: This is a pure toss-up, and candidate selection will be very important. Will Democrats nominate bomb-thrower Rep. Alan Grayson, or more moderate establishment-backed Rep. Patrick Murphy? Grayson would likely lose in purple Florida, and Murphy has electoral street cred, having beaten Republican darling Allen West by the skin of his teeth in an R+3 district in 2012. Rep. Gwen Graham, one of the few Democratic highlights of the 2014 midterm elections, may take a shot at this seat as well, as her district was made far more Republican in a court-ordered redistricting. On the Republican side, moderate Rep. David Jolly held a narrow lead in the last poll of the race, but it’s still anybody’s game between him, Rep. Ron DeSantis, and Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera.
Illinois: Mark Kirk should be the type of moderate Republican Senator that should hold on in a blue state like Illinois. But controversial comments made during his first term along with complications from his recent stroke have Democrats jockeying for position to take him on. Rep. Tammy Duckworth looks like his strongest challenger.
New Hampshire and Ohio are similar in that Democrats have recruited well-known names to take on incumbent Republican Senators. Sen. Kelly Ayotte will likely face Gov. Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire. Hassan’s opposition to the settlement of Syrian refugees in her state may be an attempt to vie for the moderate voters in a somewhat idiosyncratic state like New Hampshire. Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland will take on Sen. Rob Portman, likely in a more favorable environment than when he lost his reelection bid in 2010.
Nevada: Harry Reid’s retirement has thrown this one into toss-up territory. Rep. Joe Heck and former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto look like the most likely Republican and Democratic nominees, respectively.
Pennsylvania: Club for Growth darling Pat Toomey is often thought of as too extreme for a purple state like Pennsylvania, but his polling numbers have held up well in prospective matchups against his three most likely Democratic opponents. He no doubt is benefiting from incumbency, and once the campaign gears up, things may change. But he starts out as the favorite.
Wisconsin: On the other hand, incumbent Ron Johnson is looking very vulnerable in a rematch with ex-Senator Russ Feingold. The RealClearPolitics average has Feingold up double digits, as many voters are feeling buyer’s remorse about electing Johnson.
The House looks almost certain to remain in Republican control, though their 246-188 edge leaves them overextended, and Democrats will likely pick up seats. It would take a 2006-style wave for Democrats to take the House, and I think the only way that happens is if the Republicans nominate a candidate like Trump or Carson for President who flops. I’ll take a look at gubernatorial races in a future post.