Dem Primary Getting More Interesting

The Briefing, Vol IV, Issue 3-

To: Our readers

This week:

  • Sanders surge?
  • Clinton loses debate, but still the favorite
  • Is Trump finally undoing himself?

President 2016

Democrats: Bernie Sanders had a pretty strong debate on Sunday night, and he’s surging everywhere at just the right moment.

As NBC’s Chuck Todd put it, the debate was all about him. He was the most-searched candidate throughout (a statistic of questionable value perhaps, given that no one needs to look up Clinton on the Internet), and he even managed to get more speaking time than anyone else.

To be sure, Sanders displayed an incredible ignorance of Middle East policy, suggesting at one point that the U.S. should work with Iran to topple its close ally, Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad. But that doesn’t matter so much for the audience watching Democratic debates. They know especially little about a topic that most Americans (to be fair) know little about to begin with.

The important thing about Sanders’ performance was that he was unusually willing to attack Hillary Clinton’s weak points. The first hint so far in this entire cycle that he is serious about winning the nomination came early on, when he alluded to the speaking fees that the Clintons have raked in from Goldman Sachs. He went even further later on when he called Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior “deplorable,” which is much further than most Democrats want to go.

So is a Sanders victory possible? Yes, but Clinton has a firewall, both in terms of issues and voters. She can always attack him on guns, and she can still clean his clock with black voters. Black votes matter in most Democratic primaries, even if they don’t in Iowa or New Hampshire. That’s a reality with which Sanders cannot yet compete.

Clinton wisely made the most of Sanders’ biggest liability early on, when the viewing audience was still large. She attacked him for supporting a bill that does not allow lawsuits against gun manufacturers when their properly constructed and working products are used for illicit purposes. She also wrapped herself in the Obama mantle, taking credit for Obama’s accomplishments and attacking Sanders wherever he had previously criticized Obama from his left. She is especially likely to benefit from her defense of Obamacare, at least in the Democratic primaries.

Sadly (depending on your perspective), that’s probably enough for her to scrape by adequately in any Democratic presidential debate, even if it doesn’t make her a clear winner or even a winner. Demagoguery on guns and health care, after all, is what most Democratic voters want to hear. Given the lack of a Republican president with whose policies they can show discontent, gun control is arguably their only actionable issue that stands out.

And for black voters, with whom Clinton has still a large advantage, defenses of Obama never hurt. This is where Clinton’s firewall exists with voters — she has the upper hand throughout the South and in every state where the Democratic electorate is diverse, which is most states.

Even so, the 2016 debates have revealed a great irony of this election cycle. What’s so amusing is that pro-Hillary Democratic regulars gored their own ox by hiding their debates on out-of-the-way dates in out-of-the-way timeslots in an effort to help her.

The conventional wisdom says that the underdog wants more debates, the favorite wants fewer. The deliberate hiding of Democratic debates has been widely perceived as an attempt to help Clinton cling to her advantage even as her scandals strip it away from her.

But the thing is, Clinton has performed relatively well in the debates so far, at least before Sunday night. She has managed to use the gun control issue again and again against Sanders.

Sanders, on the other side, has performed relatively poorly in most of these debate. With Sanders surging and catching Clinton now in both Iowa and New Hampshire, she could actually use a bit more exposure, and she could be helped by his being forced to debate as well. And so the DNC attempt to stack the deck in her favor is backfiring.

A Clinton loss in Iowa would not be end for her. Even a second Clinton loss in New Hampshire would not be the death of her candidacy. She is sure to outperform Sanders in the less-white states that follow, in large part because black voters tend to be very attached to the Clinton brand, and the candidates won’t face any significant number of them until South Carolina votes. (Then again, Sanders did very well with black voters in at least one South Carolina focus group.)

But if Clinton loses those first states, it raises the issue of how weak she will be as a nominee. This is no small problem, because the longer the Democratic nomination battle goes on the longer her weaknesses will be an issue in the minds of Democratic primary voters. Those weaknesses are quite formidable, and Republicans will be far less timid than Sanders when it comes to bringing them up.

Republicans: On the GOP side, Donald Trump might have finally discovered his own Achilles Heel. His most recent attacks on Ted Cruz might finally be costing him in a way that none of his previous dumb statements did up to this point.

It took Trump’s attacks on Cruz’s birthplace (he was born to an American mother in Canada) to get radio host Mark Levin — one of the most unquestioning Trump devotees this cycle — to criticize him. During last week’s debate Trump was actually booed by the crowd for going after Cruz with this line of attack.

Even so, the birtherism is also hurting Cruz in Iowa, even as it drags Trump down. The two are now roughly even in the respected Des Moines Register Poll, but both have fallen into the low 20s. As a result, the field in Iowa is ripe for a close three-way finish, not unlike the one that took place in 2012, but only if a third candidate can rally late and make a strong finish there. This is what Marco Rubio would especially love to do, because it would pay dividends for him in the primaries that follow. A strong Iowa finish is his best chance of making Chris Christie, John Kasich and Jeb Bush irrelevant before New Hampshire goes to vote. 

The Republican debate last week delivered an inconclusive outcome. Cruz clearly got the better of Trump on the birther issue, but got clobbered by Trump over his attacks on “New York values.” Rubio got the better of Cruz when he attacked his changes of position on various issues.

None of these three — the only important candidates left on the Republican side, probably — emerged as a conclusive winner. But no one was talking about any of the others afterward, and that includes Jeb Bush, who had a reasonably good debate but cannot expect much to come of it.

Another note: All polls after Iowa should be taken with a grain of salt. The Iowa result, whatever it is, is sure to have an enormous impact going forward. For one thing, it will clarify who is Trump’s true rival in New Hampshire, where so-called “establishment” candidates control about 45 percent of the vote. If they remain divided, then the race remains murky. If they coalesce behind a strong finisher from Iowa, they could derail Trump without too much trouble.

The same applies in South Carolina, where Trump has long enjoyed a lead, but a number of candidates have support (think especially Jeb Bush and Ben Carson) who will not likely last long enough to cash it in. Who will end up with that support? It depends in large part how the earlier primaries go.