The 2016 election cycle officially kicked off this month, and we’ve already had our first caucus and primary in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively. As per usual when confronted with results slightly different than expectations, the media went batshit. So is this true? Is the race thrown into such a wildly unpredictable place that we have no idea what’s going to happen? Let’s go to the videotape, shall we?
Iowa and New Hampshire definitely Felt The Bern, as Bernie Sanders more or less tied Hillary Clinton in Iowa and walloped her in New Hampshire by 22 points. Does this mean that the Democratic race has been thrown into chaos as Clinton’s aura of inevitability has been shattered? I’m not sure I buy it yet. Sanders’ voters thus far largely consist of white liberals. And it turns out that Iowa and New Hampshire are full of white liberals. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight compiled this handy chart that shows that those states are, in fact, the second and third most favorable for him on the map, behind only his home state of Vermont.
See those states at the bottom, like Nevada, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas? Those are some of the next states to vote, and they are full of nonwhite voters who remember the days of the “first black President” and have a deep loyalty to the Clintons. These states could help her roll up the delegates she needs to build a formidable lead.
However, there are some hints that Sanders could cut into her margins. He did very well with younger voters in New Hampshire, and there are signs that college freshman are more politically engaged than they have been in a long time. Pair that with a surprisingly strong showing among women, and he could have a big enough coalition on his hands to make this a real race. Strong numbers among women may be hard to maintain in less favorable territory against a well-liked female candidate, though. What few polls we have since New Hampshire in the next states to vote show Sanders getting some bounce: a CBS News/YouGov poll showed him shrinking Clinton’s lead from the high 30s to 19 points in South Carolina. Though, an American Research Group poll shows her maintaining a 38-point lead. There’s only been one poll of Nevada since New Hampshire, and while it shows a tie, it’s from a pollster I’ve never heard of, which makes me wary of trusting its results. Caucus states are much harder to poll than primaries, too. Sanders has run a strong campaign that is aware of its strengths and weaknesses, launching a tour of HBCUs and touting endorsements from black media figures like Cornel West and Killer Mike. If he can expand his voter base, perhaps winning Nevada and holding Clinton to a single digit win in South Carolina, this race will get even more interesting.
Now this race really could be headed for chaos. Or not. Early on, I wrote that I thought Donald Trump was a long shot to win the Republican nomination, mostly because I believed that establishment Republicans would unite in an effort to stop him. But then Ted Cruz happened. Cruz won the Iowa caucus and finished a surprising third in New Hampshire, a state which isn’t a good fit for him demographically. Establishment Republicans arguably hate Cruz more than Trump, and thus have been training their fire on him more lately. Meanwhile, Trump won the New Hampshire primary, performing exactly as expected even after underperforming his polls in Iowa. This shows that both candidates’ voters will turn out, and their support is real. Oh, and throw in the fact that the next states to vote are states in which Trump leads, and which have a lot of the evangelical voters Cruz is courting heavily, and it looks like one of them might just pull this off.
The problem with that: neither is very electable at all. Trump’s approval ratings, while solid among Republicans, are abysmal among the general electorate. Cruz is the kind of Barry Goldwater-esque reactionary candidate that almost always struggles in general elections, and doesn’t appear to possess the personable nature or oratorical skills of Ronald Reagan, the only candidate of similar ideological stripe to actually win the White House (and he was less conservative than Cruz).
So can anyone else in this still-crowded field emerge as a third alternative? I still think Marco Rubio is the Republicans’ best bet to win a general election, and when he finished a strong third in Iowa, I thought he’d ride a wave of momentum to second place in New Hampshire, possibly leading to the payoff of his 3-2-1 strategy with a South Carolina win. But he stalled badly in Iowa, finishing fifth while John Kasich “surged” into second, though still almost 20 points behind Trump. Trump now looks like the favorite in South Carolina too, though he doesn’t look to get much more of the vote than the 35% that he got in New Hampshire. The best bet for the “establishment/moderate lane” candidates (Rubio, Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie) would be for all of them to drop out except one and pledge their support to each other, so that enough of the 65% of voters who aren’t voting for Trump can consolidate around one of them and then they’ll coast to the nomination. But Christie is the only one who has dropped out. Kasich might have after New Hampshire, as his funding is drying up, but finishing second in New Hampshire likely brought in a new wave of donations, keeping his candidacy alive at least a little longer. Ben Carson also remains in the race, but he has run a gaffe-prone campaign that almost no one expects to get any additional traction. I will be very interested to see what action the party takes from here, if they can at all, and what will transpire in the next few primaries and Super Tuesday. This could potentially turn into a 2008-style slog to the nomination that may even involve more than two candidates, and possibly even a brokered convention. Fascinating for nerds like me 🙂
Since I took a peek at the Senate outlook in my last 2016 update, I thought I’d look at the gubernatorial races that will be contested this year. Delaware, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington don’t look especially competitive right now, largely because the partisan makeup of those states swings heavily one way. There could always be other developments that change that, but for now, I won’t look at them closely.
Missouri: Governor Jay Nixon (D) is term-limited, and right now Attorney General Chris Koster is the only declared candidate. Former Lieutenant Governor Joe Maxwell may get in the race as well. The Republican race features four candidates, with current Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder attracting the most support in the only poll conducted thus far, but that could largely be due to name recognition. I think that Missouri Republicans would be wise to select another candidate, possibly 2012 Senate nominee John Brunner or former Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway. Nixon was roundly criticized for his handling of the Ferguson situation, and picking a nominee outside of his administration would allow them to tie Koster to Nixon’s failures. I would have to assume this race tilts toward the Republicans, as Missouri is a red state (though not deep red… they voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and almost voted for Obama in 2008) and Nixon isn’t the most popular figure at the moment.
Montana: Governor Steve Bullock’s (D) approval rating is running ahead of President Obama’s in the state in the most current data I could find, which bodes well for his reelection chances. He also hasn’t attracted any big-name challengers yet. While Montana is mostly a red state, it has shown an independent streak in the past, and is usually willing to elect a Democrat if they feel that person fits the state. I think he should be favored for reelection, but if someone like, say, Congressman Ryan Zinke decides to challenge him, maybe we’ll need to reassess.
New Hampshire: New Hampshire is one of only two states (Vermont is the other) that elect its governors to two-year terms. Maggie Hassan announced that she would be leaving the governor’s office to run against Kelly Ayotte for New Hampshire’s Senate seat in 2016, and promptly ticked off her own party by announcing that she did not want to take in Syrian refugees in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, which could be an issue in the race to succeed her. The Democratic primary race is still in flux, but Republicans scored a recruiting coup by convincing Executive Councilor Chris Sununu to enter the race. Sununu’s father John H. served as Governor, and his brother John E. served a single term as Senator. He has attracted a bunch of endorsements already and will likely be the Republican nominee for the seat. This race probably starts out as a pure tossup, and the national mood could influence which way it swings.
North Carolina: One would think that a Republican governor running in a state that tilts Republican (though has trended blue in recent years) would have a relatively easy path to reelection. Not so for Pat McCrory. A Public Policy Polling poll taken in January showed his approval rating at 35%, in line with some polls earlier this year. The same polls also show him in a tight race with likely Democratic nominee, Attorney General Roy Cooper, with Cooper even gaining a slight edge in the polls in recent months. We saw Gov. Sam Brownback have a relatively easy reelection night in Kansas in 2014 despite similar approval numbers and many in his own party turning on him, but North Carolina is nowhere near as Republican as Kansas, so Cooper has a real shot.
West Virginia: I think that the only reason anyone sees this race as competitive is because the term-limited incumbent, Earl Ray Tomblin, is a well-regarded Democrat. Republicans appear to have coalesced around Senate President Bill Cole as their nominee, while Democrats have some attractive options such as businessman Jim Justice, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, and former US Attorney Booth Goodwin (cousin of former place-filler Senator Carte Goodwin). West Virginia has lurched Republican in recent years and is one of the most anti-Obama states in the nation, so in a straight fight, I doubt Democrats could take the governorship. It would likely take a gaffe by Cole to prevent his ascension, or a successful attempt by the Democrat to tie themselves to Tomblin and his predecessor Joe Manchin, who is now in the US Senate and remains relatively popular at home.