Authors Posts by David Freddoso

David Freddoso


The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 6-

This week, New Hampshire primary on Tuesday:

  • Trump’s Iowa flop hasn’t ended him quite yet
  • Democrats’ choices: Venality and extremism
  • Rubio’s worst debate yet came just when he needed a strong performance

With Donald Trump’s clear but not overwhelming loss in Iowa, the Republican Party briefly put off its day of reckoning — that day when Trumpists decide whether to follow another Republican, or else Republicans decide on whether they can accept Trump as their nominee.

That day will still come, one way or the other. But for now, it falls to Trump’s critics and opponents to prove he really is the wet paper bag of a campaign that everyone saw last week.

On the Democratic side, the candidates are dueling to see who can position themselves furthest to the left. It’s a game Hillary Clinton can’t win, and she has been quick to claim that it’s because of sexism.

Democrats: Again, with everyone focused on Trumpmania, there’s been a tendency to forget that Democrats have a problem on their own hands.

Last Wednesday’s forum and Thursday’s debate demonstrated that they face a choice between venality and dishonesty on the one hand, and extremism on the other. Last Monday’s Iowa result suggests that they’re increasingly attracted to extremism at the moment.

On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton delivered a surprisingly terrible answer when asked about the nearly $8 million that she and her husband have raked in just from big banks, for about three dozen speeches they’ve been paid to give to such financial institutions. Asked specifically why she had taken $675,000 for three speeches to Goldman Sachs, Clinton said, “That’s what they offered.”

Conservatives find this sort of thing distasteful, but perhaps they’re a bit biased. For progressives, it is difficult to square a defense of this sort of thing with the doctrinal belief that campaign finance is corrupting the election system. Clinton is hesitant, even defensive about releasing the transcripts of these speeches. There probably isn’t any smoking gun here, just some casual praise for the financial industry that would be rather embarrassing for her in her race to the left against Bernie Sanders.

Speaking of which, what about Sanders? He’s the only remaining alternative to Clinton now that Martin O’Malley has dropped out of the race. On Thursday, the elderly socialist expanded his critique of Wall Street beyond the usual populist schtick about how it tanked the economy, and the perfidy of millionaires and billionaires, etc. This time, he got really serious: “The business model of Wall Street is fraud,” he said.

This may well be what a lot of liberal Democrats want to hear. But it’s also (in addition to being false) the sort of wild-eyed statement that makes one unelectable in a general election. One hundred percent of Americans know there’s some corruption on Wall Street, but roughly 50 percent of them also own stock.

As others noted, the absence of Martin O’Malley or any other third candidate from last week’s events removed the buffer between Clinton and Sanders. Both thus strove to move as far leftward as they could, and to attack one another relentlessly. It was hammer and sickle — er, tongs.

If Republicans could have chosen any result for the Democrats in Iowa, it probably would have been a narrow Sanders win that would further weaken Clinton before she ultimately wins the nomination in the end. What they got — a nominal and empty Clinton triumph — was just as good if not better.

Clinton blew a 55-point lead in Iowa to win by a quarter of a percentage point. And of course, that’s in terms of notional convention delegates — Clinton might well have had fewer Iowans caucus for her than did so for Sanders. What’s more, she would have lost in delegates, too, if she hadn’t won six out of six tiebreaking coin tosses at various precincts throughout the state.

For now, the conventional wisdom is that Clinton will lose on Tuesday, but then is safe after New Hampshire. Once the states with black voters begin to vote, she is supposedly invincible. And Sanders has his work cut out for him to challenge that assumption by making inroads in places like South Carolina.

But Team Clinton is clearly worried about the success that Sanders has enjoyed so far — hence the ludicrous accusations of sexism that they are now leveling at the Sanders campaign and its supporters. Without even training the strongest attacks against her — her classified email problem, especially — the least likely vessel for a socialist revolution is slowly pulling her apart, bit by bit.

Republicans: First, the Iowa result. Ted Cruz (the winner) and Marco Rubio (strong third-place finisher) both got what they needed out of Iowa to emerge as serious contenders. Donald Trump underperformed big expectations with his second-place finish. It’s not enough to end him just yet, but a second loss in New Hampshire — coming as it would against what all the polling says — certainly would.

On Saturday night, the Republicans debated, and this time Trump bothered to show up. One of the more remarkable differences was that Trump was no longer the center of attention. In fact, he was just another guy on stage.

The fact that Rubio had become the perceived frontrunner was clear from the way he became everyone’s target during the debate. And he did not handle it well. He came under especially heavy criticism for an exchange in which he punched down at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and retreated to the safety of anti-Obama talking points.
This was Rubio’s worst-reviewed performance yet — and probably his first bad performance in any debate so far. It came just when he seemed to be on the verge of putting away Christie and the rest of the non-Trump-non-Cruz candidates.

Christie, who had nearly fallen out of the polling universe in New Hampshire before the debate, probably has too much ground to make up to finish better than fourth or fifth in New Hampshire on Tuesday. Not so John Kasich, whose New Hampshire-focused campaign is finally getting traction at just the right moment.

Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Christie. If two or all three of those keep going after New Hampshire, their presence in the race comes mostly at Rubio’s expense in the contests that follow in Nevada (where Rubio hopes to win) and South Carolina (where he will be lucky to finish third). This would cloud Rubio’s path to the nomination.

This has become Cruz’s best hope — that he can outlast Trump while keeping the potential Rubio vote divided for as long as possible in a marathon 50-state scramble for delegates. Cruz doesn’t need to win New Hampshire, nor will he. A second- or a strong third-place finish is good enough for him to declare victory.

Another thing making Rubio’s life more complicated is that Bush also seems poised to finish stronger than expected. He definitely helped himself in Saturday’s debate. Team Bush thinks he can keep going by knocking out Rubio with negative ads, but Bush has little reason to stay in the race if he can’t at least beat Kasich on Tuesday.

Fortunately for Rubio (and Kasich), Donald Trump also had an atrocious performance on Saturday night. He was even more irritable and unfocused than usual. He actually let Jeb Bush get the better of him on the issue of his abuse of eminent domain. He also went out of his way to insult the New Hampshire audience that will soon decide his fate — when they booed one of his answers, he accused them all of being “special interests” and big GOP donors.

Trump is near or above 30 percent in many polls of New Hampshire. But polling in the state is historically miserable, thanks mostly to late and post-Iowa deciders. A Trump implosion — caused not only by Saturday’s debate antics but also by his campaign’s total lack of a ground game — could set the stage for another surprisingly tight three-way or even four-way finish on Tuesday. It is not impossible to imagine some combination of Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, and Bush all clustering around 20 percent in the final tally.

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 5-

To: Our Readers
This week:

  • The only reason Trump doesn’t already have it in the bag
  • Late movement toward Rubio seems evident, but maybe not enough
  • Who can unite a party with this kind of ideological war going on?

Thanks in part to Donald Trump‘s decision to boycott the only Iowa GOP presidential debate, the outcome of the caucuses tonight remains in doubt. There are late polls suggesting a tightening three-way race between Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. One of them, which excluded respondents who don’t know where their caucus site is, suggests something close to a three-way tie (20%-19%-19%). Another more conventional poll by a reputable pollster (Marist, for the Wall Street Journal) shows Trump 32, Cruz 25, and Rubio 18, which at the very least hints at a sharp late movement in the Florida senator’s direction.

But let’s face it — Trump’s utter lack of an Iowa ground organization is the only reason his victory in Iowa wasn’t already a foregone conclusion. If not for this, the other candidates would probably have given up by now.

In terms of raw numbers, Trump seems to have enough supporters out there to checkmate the GOP now and in the future — not a majority of the party, but certainly enough to change its course.

Trump’s candidacy has revealed an enormous fissure in the GOP. Can it be fixed? Is there any way to put the party back together again?

Whatever happens tonight at the caucuses across Iowa’s 99 counties, the Republican Party has an awkward moment coming up. It could come as soon as tonight — especially if Trump has a decisive victory or an unexpectedly brutal defeat. The day of reckoning will most likely be delayed at least a bit if he wins or loses narrowly, both more likely outcomes.

Either way, the day will come when the Republican Party has to figure out what exactly it is.

Prior to 2015, the answer seemed fairly clear. There had been a time when the Republican Party was the antislavery party. Later, it was the party of the country club and the Chamber of Commerce. Later, it was taken over by ethnic and staunchly anticommunist social conservatives .

With the rise of Ronald Reagan and the 1994 revolution, the GOP finally became a more ideologically coherent party. Even so, it was made up of loosely affiliated factions with related interests, who came together around a common set of ideas. There were always important differences between the factions that made up the Reagan coalition, and perhaps these differences best explain what is happening now.

As recently as 2014, the differences among conservatives seemed less obvious to the casual observer than the similarities. This remained true even during the very tumultuous and bitter intraparty fight over the 2013 government shutdown. As long as the GOP was divided between the true believers of conservatism and an establishment that just didn’t want to take those ideals quite as seriously, it was still a philosophically united party. The divisions were over second-order questions of courage or tactics, but everyone shared the same stated goal. Republicans still spoke the same language, but some spoke it more loudly (or as others might put it, more loudly).

Trump, on the other hand, has created a conflict within the party that is completely different from that “Tea Party versus Establishment” conflict. He has found a major fissure in modern conservatism and he is trying to widen it, breaking up the existing movement and perhaps reshaping it into something new.

If he succeeds, he will have demonstrated that the differences among various kinds of conservatives were much greater and more important than most anyone thought. Specifically, he will have shown the appetite for immigration restrictionism is strong enough to override all other conservative ideals — those involving religious traditions, the right to life, gun rights, foreign policy, personal liberty, economic and trade policy, tax policy, etc.

One way to illustrate this is to look at Ann Coulter’s famous comment after Trump’s campaign released its immigration white paper: “I don’t care if @realDonaldTrump wants to perform abortions in White House after this immigration policy paper.”

Surely, Coulter meant this in a tongue-in-cheek way. But still, it illustrates what is going on in the minds of those conservatives who are tempted by Trump. Immigration becomes a political obsession, to which all other conservative ideals — even the most important ones — are subordinated.

And that immigration issue, although it has had many conservative adherents in the past, was never really part of Ronald Reagan’s conservatism. So Trump is proposing a much larger change for the GOP than most of the mainstream media realizes, because it understands conservatism poorly, routinely assuming that actual conservative movements like the Tea Party are racist and xenophobic.

But if Trump is right, then when the many factions within conservatism are turned against each other, the passion that a plurality of Republicans can still agree on is hostility toward illegal (and/or legal) immigration.

Trump has an ace up his sleeve as he works to fracture conservatism. A significant number of Trump’s followers — perhaps even a majority — come from outside of it. Trump’s project is not merely to break up conservatism, but to take a chunk from it and weld it to a number of other politically homeless constituencies who make up the core of his following — Trump-celebrity followerism, trade skepticism, white nationalism, birther conspiracism, simple cynicism about politics, and a few other, smaller such -isms.

Can such a thing be done? No one has ever come as close as Trump has this cycle. But part one of the answer comes tonight, when Iowans decide.

More important than the question of whether it is possible is what form the Republican Party will take if it succeeds or fails. The answer to the question, and even the correct question itself, depend on what happens tonight and in the primaries that follow.

Let’s say the caucus-goers pick Trump overwhelmingly and he goes on to become the nominee. The question then becomes whether the rest of the conservative movement goes along with this major ideological change, or whether they will refuse to give up control of the Republican Party without a fight. And if they resist, what form will their resistance take? Will they wait until Trump loses the general election? Will they put forward a third-party or independent candidacy against him? Will traditional conservatism just become another small faction in the party, or will the conservatives reassert control at some later date?

If Trump wins, will new Trump-esque candidates begin running in primaries everywhere? Or is Trump truly sui generis?

On the other hand, let’s say Trump is crushed — he surprisingly finishes third tonight behind Cruz and Rubio, and his support elsewhere suddenly vanishes as the wheels come off the bandwagon.

In that event, what happens to all of his supporters? Sure, some never voted before, and many of those will go back to political non-participation. But can any of them be persuaded to stay involved? Would any of them want to support a Cruz or Rubio candidacy for the presidency? (There are hints that some might, as a recent poll suggests that a combined 37 percent of Trump supporters have Cruz or Rubio as their second choice.) 

And what about the Trumpists who used to think of themselves as American-style conservatives — people who were persuaded to back Trump because they listened to too much Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, or Laura Ingraham? Will these go back to conservatism? Or will their experience in this new movement lead them instead to the ranks of alt-right and white nationalist organizations?

The harder questions emerge if Trump wins — the easier but still thorny ones if he loses. How do you hold together a coalition that formed long ago under different circumstances? How do you bring together a party for the general election that is having a true ideological war in the primary — with serious doctrinal differences that are of kind, not just of degree?

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 4-

This week:

  • Team Establishment is handing Trump the nomination
  • Has Trump driven up GOP registration in Iowa?
  • He hasn’t. But does it matter?

Iowa caucuses: Just a week left, and many of the leading lights of punditry are now convinced that Donald Trump is going to win in Iowa. The polls bear this out — although even now it is worth noting that last-minute surges in Iowa are the rule rather than the exception, and polls even just one week away from the election don’t tend to be predictive.

The odd thing is that establishment GOP hatred of Ted Cruz is so intense that leading establishment figures are now speaking as though they view a Trump victory as the best possible outcome at this point. It’s somewhat ironic, given Trump’s iconoclastic style, even if it fits Trump’s actual not-very-conservative ideology.

The various establishment players participating in this tomfoolery come at it from a few different angles. Perhaps they are working together, perhaps they aren’t. Although some anti-Trump conservatives view this as a conspiracy, it is sufficient to note what is actually happening in plain view and contributing to a possible Trump nomination.

On the one side, establishment Senate Republicans, past and present, are leaping in to say nice things about Trump, whom they should be shunning with crucifix and silver stake. But the fact is, Republicans like Orrin Hatch and Bob Dole and Richard Burr dislike Ted Cruz more than anything else in the known universe. And they have their personal reasons, sure. But their newfound Trump bromance seems like a case of hatred overriding rationality.  In reality, Cruz is unlikely to get the nomination even if he wins Iowa. Trump. on the other hand, could well prove unstoppable if he wins there.

The other group that has come to Trump’s aid is the Jeb Bush camp. As Robert Tracinski put it at The Federalist: “Jeb’s only chance, and his actual strategy, is that somehow every other alternative to Trump will implode, leaving Jeb as the only sane choice.” Or better, as Jeb SuperPAC strategist Mike Murphy put it, “I’d love a two-way race with Trump at the end.” This seems to be precisely what Murphy is trying to arrange. Begin with the token Jeb effort against Trump in Iowa — the billboard that quotes Jeb Bush saying that Trump is unhinged. If this isn’t designed to get Trump’s vote out, then nothing ever was. Jeb’s unfavorables are among the only ones that rival Trump’s, and Trump has gotten more mileage bashing Jeb than doing anything else in his entire campaign.

Murphy’s pro-Jeb organization, Right to Rise, is by now best known for proving that money can’t buy elections. But its pounding of Marco Rubio in Iowa — a state where Bush isn’t even pretending to compete at this point — demonstrates amply what’s going on. Jeb puts up token resistance to Trump in his rhetoric, but his money is aimed at derailing Rubio early, which of course helps Trump win Iowa.

So one group of old bull lawmakers goes after Cruz. Jeb’s money goes after Rubio. Only after Trump wins Iowa does the GOP establishment realize it has created a monster it can’t control. This puts the GOP on the verge of an ideologically and politically destructive Trump victory.

Iowa voter engagement: So what will happen to Trump in Iowa next week?

Given the common claim that Trump is bringing all kinds of new voters into the process, a look at voter registration in Iowa (courtesy of Iowa’s Secretary of State) would probably be helpful.

Screenshot 2016-01-24 at 1.53.51 PM

This chart runs up through New Year’s Day. The first thing you will notice is that there has been no big uptick in voters affiliating with the GOP in preparation for the caucuses. But the second thing you’ll notice is that it’s probably unreasonable to expect one. It doesn’t appear that this happened ahead of other caucuses either, at least not for the Republicans.

In each presidential year, the big (or not-so-big) move seems to happen on caucus night itself, when voters re-affiliate and the statistics show up in the numbers for the following month. (In 2008 and 2012, as with this year, that means they reaffiliated in January and it showed up in February). The larger jumps in registration seem to come with general elections, when the parties ramp up their efforts to get like-minded voters to the polls.

For campaigns in a hotly contested primary, voter registration is kind of a sucker’s game. New voters are far less likely to turn out for primaries (let alone caucuses), so why not just focus on contacting and winning the votes of those already registered with a history of turning out?

The third thing that stands out (or perhaps the first thing, because it’s the most distinctive feature of the graph) is the Democratic registration figures that jump out at the beginning of February 2008, the month after Obama won the caucus. The result suggests that nearly 60,000 voters reaffiliated as Democrats in order to participate in that lively caucus, the lion’s share going for Barack Obama. There was a corresponding drop of roughly 50,000 registered unaffiliated voters, plus a tiny uptick on the Republican side.

In all, about 17,000 new voters registered for the caucus itself — 10,000 for the Democrats, 7,000 for the GOP. In total, 240,000 participated in the Democratic caucus and 119,200 in the GOP caucus. And some part of that has to do with voters coming of age (anyone who will be 18 in time for the general election can caucus). So even a data-savvy Obama campaign was not able to do that much relatively speaking in terms of getting completely new and previously unregistered voters involved.

It is significant that that Democratic primary brought in about 10,000 new voters, but that’s clearly the exception. And even taking the Obama phenomenon into account, newly registered voters — or at least, net newly registered voters — historically play just a small role in the Iowa caucuses, not even in the two elections since Iowa adopted same-day voter registration in 2007.

So what does this tell us about 2016? A couple of things. One is that there isn’t proof yet that Trump’s task is impossible. The other is that Trump has a huge challenge ahead of him, one that very few have surmounted in modern times. Trump has poll numbers, but he has almost no organization on the ground in Iowa that can convert them into the sort of rare win that Obama obtained. Can he do it anyway?

In sharp contrast to Obama, Trump has captains for only a small fraction of Iowa’s 1600 precincts (it was less than 10 percent as of a few weeks ago), and most of those captains have themselves never even caucused before, which puts them at an even greater disadvantage. He also has a very modest data operation compared to what Obama had. Basically, what Trump needs is for tens of thousands of Iowans to break all the rules of what has happened in caucuses — and especially in Republican caucuses — during the 21st Century.

Can it happen? Well, Trump has broken many rules of politics so far, surviving in the polls what would kill most candidates dead. But polls are not real life. If Trump pulls it off in Iowa, it will be the first time he has actually succeeded in a real-world test. This is terra incognita, unless it isn’t. It will be fascinating to see what happens.

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.

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 2-

This week:

  • Which does the dreaded establishment prefer — Trump or Cruz?
  • Three weeks to Iowa — is Clinton sagging?
  • Scandals and lies taking their toll?

President 2016

Trump vs. Cruz: National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar, an excellent and experienced political reporter, asked what he called the “$64,000 question” to a number of establishment-minded Republicans whom he characterized as “seni­or GOP strategists.” They were given the opportunity to answer from behind the wall of anonymity, which often makes truths against one’s own interest easier to tell.

His question: Given that next month’s Iowa caucuses are shaping up as a contest between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, whom would they prefer come out on top?

“The clear win­ner,” he writes, “was Trump.”

It is important to understand why — and it certainly isn’t because these people would prefer to have Trump as the nominee. The first reason is that they believe Trump cannot win the nomination in the end, even in the event he wins Iowa. The second is that they despise Cruz so much that it is interfering with their rational thinking.

They do not view Cruz as a savior from Trump, as many conservatives view him, or as the one to blunt his momentum going forward. Rather, they view Cruz as the real problem, whereas Trump is just a harmless amusement who will pass away.

We view this as a serious error. The party regulars (or the so-called “establishment”) is taking the modern party’s foundational ideas (with which, over time, they have made their peace) and their endurance for granted. We share the view that Trump cannot win, but believe Cruz must play a major part in stopping him, making an indispensable contribution to Trump’s downfall.

The risk of a Trump win in Iowa is that he becomes unstoppable after that. The virtue of a Trump defeat there — from the perspective of conservatives who oppose him — is that his support in the states that follow is mostly the product of celebrity and his status as the apparent frontrunner. That will all vanish if he evaporates in Iowa.

Why the hatred for Cruz? It surely goes back to the perception, based on his short and explosive tenure in the Senate, that he is not a team player. This is true (for better or worse), and the 2013 shutdown, which could have had catastrophic consequences for the party if not for the disaster that immediately followed, was entirely his fault. But believe it or not, that shutdown was mostly inside baseball. It directly affected very few Americans at the time it happened.

And so we have a paradox: From an ideological perspective, Cruz is more or less a real Reaganite. He is very much within the tradition of modern conservatism (as are most of the other remaining GOP candidates, ranging from Jeb Bush to Rand Paul). That is something Trump cannot claim to be, as he seems to be embracing a blood-and-soil nationalist idea that is more common among the European Right and alien to American ways.

A Trump nomination would mark a massive ideological departure for the GOP. It would mean the end to the more libertarian and fusionistic Reaganist ideology as the driving Republican philosophy — again, a philosophy with which the GOP establishment has finally more or less made peace.

But the establishment views Trump as easier to beat in a long slog. And it seems to shrug off the possibility that the American Right could be overtaken by birther kookery, much less the fascist sort of ideas on trade that it has long resisted.

In short, the modern Republican establishment is rooting for someone completely unelectable and unlike them against someone who, although perhaps also unelectable, is much closer to their own ideological tradition. And they are doing so for what they consider to be practical reasons.

How very fitting, and surely too clever by half.

Clinton Slide: The new set of large-sample Marist polls in Iowa and New Hampshire reinforce the notion that Ted Cruz leads in Iowa and that Trump (for now) maintains a 16-point lead in New Hampshire over Marco Rubio.

We remain confident in the belief we expressed last week — that a second or close third-place Rubio finish in Iowa, along with a Trump collapse, will lead a lot of the non-Trump, non-Cruz vote in New Hampshire coalescing behind Rubio. (The more “establishment” candidates — Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush — control a combined 44 percent of the vote there, compared to Trump’s current 30 percent.)

But the real action appears to be, surprisingly, on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton was supposed to have put Bernie Sanders away by now, but Democratic caucus-goers appear to be having doubts. She now leads Sanders only narrowly there, 48 to 45 percent. In New Hampshire, she trails by a similar margin, 50 percent for Sanders and 46 percent for Clinton.

This is not to say that Clinton will not win the Democratic nomination. After Iowa and New Hampshire are over, Sanders will not find it so easy to compete with her in states where black voters make up a large share of the Democratic primary electorate — South Carolina in particular, and throughout the South. Clinton appears to own the black vote.

But what does her apparent fall-off in Democratic primary support in those first two, nearly all-white states mean?

Again, we raise our hypothesis from months ago about how bad Clinton’s situation (scandals, unfavorables, etc.) would have to get before Democratic voters begin to view her as unelectable and abandon her. Because based on the Marist poll’s view of Iowa and New Hampshire, she may very well be:

In Iowa:

  • Clinton leads Trump by eight points among registered voters (48 percent to 40 percent), but Sanders is ahead of him by 13 (51 percent to 38 percent);
  • Cruz tops Clinton by four points (47 percent to 43 percent), but Sanders beats him by five (47 percent to 42 percent);
  • And Rubio is up by five points over Clinton (47 percent to 42 percent), while he’s tied with Sanders (44 percent to 44 percent).

In New Hampshire:

  • Clinton is ahead of Trump by just one point (45 percent to 44 percent), but Sanders tops him by 19 points (56 percent to 37 percent); 
  • Cruz beats Clinton by four points (48 percent to 44 percent), but Sanders leads him by another 19 points (55 percent to 36 percent); 
  • And Rubio bests Clinton by 12 points (52 percent to 40 percent), while Sanders leads him by nine points (50 percent to 41 percent).

Now remember first that Iowa and New Hampshire are not exactly Republican states. The last time a Republican carried Iowa was 2004, and before that you’d have to go back to the 1984 Reagan landslide. Likewise, Republicans haven’t won New Hampshire since 2000, and before that 1988.

If Clinton is trailing both Rubio and Cruz in both states — Rubio by double digits in New Hampshire — that’s pretty bad news for her, even at this early stage.

For a point of comparison: In 2012, Mitt Romney did lead Barack Obama in a handful of polls of Iowa, but he never eclipsed him by more than 3 points, and never led him in the polling averages. Romney led Obama in six of the dozens of polls taken in 2012, but never by more than 4 points.

But remember also that it’s very significant that Bernie Sanders is outperforming Clinton against all comers. That is probably the most frightening part of this poll for Clinton. It means that she suffers from something that goes beyond the dissatisfaction with President Obama’s job performance in both states. (In the Marist polls, he has 52-to-40 percent disapproval in Iowa, 52-to-42 percent disapproval in New Hampshire).

The consistent showing in other polls (no such numbers were released with these ones) of high unfavorability for Clinton and supermajority belief that she is a dishonest and untrustworthy person is surely having a toll on her candidacy. But that is all going under the radar, thanks to the veritable circus going on in the GOP primary. Under cover of Trumptopia, Republicans might be on their way to mounting a serious bid for the presidency in 2016.

The Briefing Volume IV, Issue 1

This week:

  • Iowa caucuses approach
  • How Cruz, Trump, Rubio, or Christie could win
  • Senate race recap

President: With just a few weeks left until the February 1 Iowa caucuses, it’s worth mentioning what to look for in the coming days. It’s worth noting that even as late as this, historically the frontrunner in the polls has not proven to be the winner. If Ted Cruz does pull it off in Iowa — and every indication is that he will — it will have been an unusually stable race.

There are two kinds of candidates in this race. Rather than use stale or misleading terms like “establishment,” or misleading ideological identifiers like “moderate” (since some of the “establishment” candidates are more conservative ideologically than Trump) we prefer to distinguish between the “traditional” or “conventional” Republican candidates and the “unconventional” or “new” ones.

Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and Ben Carson belong in this latter category — Cruz because of his role in the 2013 government shutdown, Trump and Carson because they are non-politicians, and Trump in part because he presents a non-traditional ideology within the GOP that does not fit within the bounds of Reagan conservatism.

The former category — conventional or traditional — includes conservatives (such as Rubio) and moderates (such as Kasich and Christie).

The theme to bear in mind as this race progresses is that no matter what happens in Iowa, there will always be a market for one conventional candidate against Cruz and Trump, right up to the conventions, and that applies whether Trump or Cruz lasts or collapses after Iowa.

Our assessment of the race at this point is that Cruz, Trump, Rubio, and (perhaps surprisingly) Chris Christie are the candidates who have a legitimate shot at the nomination as of this moment. Another candidate could certainly rise from obscurity in the next few days, but let’s have a look at what sort of path these four candidates must follow if they are to win.

Donald Trump has been the nominal GOP frontrunner for about six months. TrumpIn some ways he has been annoying to Republicans, but in others helpful. After all, by making himself a lightning rod for negative media attention, he has deflected it from others.

But as for Trump’s actual chances of winning, they are a lot more remote than they seem. His Iowa result may prove to be a historic disaster, not unlike what Howard Dean suffered in 2004, simply because he has no ground game to speak of. The New York Times reported before Christmas that he had precinct captains for less than 10 percent of the locations where Iowans will caucus next month. That puts him light years behind Cruz and even Rubio, and it suggests that he will vastly underperform whatever poll numbers he carries into the end of January.

Remember: Caucuses are much more involved than primaries, and require voters to give up an entire evening on a weeknight. It’s very hard to get people to caucus. Campaigns that depend on drawing out first-time caucus-goers — precisely Trump’s strategy — tend to fail.

Moreover, although this aspect is a bit less critical in simple primary-voting states like New Hampshire and South Carolina, the Times notes that his get-out-the-vote operation is even weaker in those places than it is in Iowa.

Trump’s new campaign ad — the first for which he has paid for airtime — simply repeats his most controversial proposals (no Muslims, Mexico pays for a border wall) rather than trying to cast him in a positive light. This is very unconventional indeed, but the convention exists for a reason. It usually helps candidates to start on such a positive note.

The most likely outcome we see is Trump losing Iowa by an unexpectedly large margin, and then his support suddenly falling off elsewhere. But he may do better than that and live on into New Hampshire, in which case he will complicate the race for others. There is also a slim chance he wins there and regains the momentum. The big question for him, really, is whether the Iowa result is perceived as doing better than expected or suffering a huge, humiliating defeat. It could really go either way.

Ted Cruz is the frontrunner at this moment — there is no question. He is CruzImage100511favored to win in Iowa, and he is polling strong enough elsewhere (he is second or third in New Hampshire) that an Iowa win could well bump him into contention, and bump Trump into irrelevance.

Cruz is probably done for if he somehow loses Iowa, but this appears to be increasingly unlikely. The trick for Cruz, if he does win Iowa, is to win over as many of the current Trump and Carson supporters as possible in the states that follow.

A major Trump collapse in Iowa is the best thing that could happen for Cruz. If Trump remains standing after Iowa, his job is a lot harder in the later states. This is why, although his chances seem better than Rubio’s at the moment, he also has a greater chance of being knocked out sooner than Rubio.

Marco Rubio has a serious shot at the nomination, and based on early CIB042815-Rubiopolling he is the most likely to beat Clinton if he gets it. But his path might be the most difficult to see at this point of any of the three genuinely viable candidates.

Rubio is highly unlikely to win in Iowa. But a second or a close third place finish there might be all he needs to power him to a strong finish in New Hampshire. One poll taken before Christmas — the local ARG poll — has him within six points of Trump in the Granite State, but others have him further back.

His problem is that the field of conventional or traditional candidates in New Hampshire is too fractured. Between himself, John Kasich, a resurgent Chris Christie, and an almost-dead Jeb Bush, there will have to be some amount of consolidation if Rubio is to find a path to victory. And bear in mind that if Trump collapses after Iowa, his supporters (if they do vote) are more likely to go with Cruz than Rubio, so he might need even more consolidation than one might expect based on the current polling.

Failure to win outright in New Hampshire would not necessarily mean the end for Rubio, but even a strong second would mean that his donors and supporters will have to be very patient. A strategy that involves wins in mostly later primary contests — especially if it entails not winning anywhere until March — is quite risky, as Rudy Giuliani discovered in 2008. A loss to Trump in his home state of Florida (again, assuming Trump does not crater nationwide after a few earlier losses) could also be quite embarrassing for Rubio.

Still, unless and until Christie manages to overtake him, Rubio will be the natural standard-bearer for the traditional, conventional element of the party. As long as he keeps that distinction, the possibility of a Cruz or a Trump nomination will provide an abundant source of continued relevance and funding for his campaign. Due to the nature of his opponents and the donors’ demand for an alternative, Rubio will not feel pressure to drop if he gets a result in New Hampshire that makes clear he and not Christie is the alternative to Cruz and Trump.

By the same token, for Chris Christie to succeed, he needs to eclipse Rubio CIB041515-Christieas the traditional party candidate by performing well in New Hampshire, and then adopt the same kind of late-state strategy himself. (The last poll of New Hampshire had Christie more or less even with Cruz and Kasich and not too far behind Rubio.) Again, if he manages to establish himself as the traditional or conventional alternative in a three-way race against Cruz and Trump by March, he will be the one who taps into donor fear over Trump and Cruz, and his campaign will not die for lack of funds.

Those are the four candidates with at least a bit of viability. The rest will likely continue to deteriorate. If any of them surges, it will be noteworthy indeed.

For Jeb Bush, The New York Times sums it up: “In Iowa, Mr. Bush has two main goals: to finish no lower than fifth…and, more important, to beat Mr. Christie.” Yes, there is some low expectation-setting going on here, but fifth place? Come on. He is a non-entity in Iowa and probably plays no role afterward. His SuperPAC is attacking Rubio in Iowa not to help Bush there, but to blunt any momentum Rubio might pick up there on his way to New Hampshire.

Bush might be better lumped in with other also-rans who are sure to drop out before South Carolina of not New Hampshire — Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson (how the mighty have fallen) Carly Fiorina, and Rand Paul.

Senate Recap: Were a Republican to win the presidential race, a Democratic Senate majority would be a severe annoyance. By the same token, a Democratic president would have more leverage were she (of course it’s “she”) to enjoy control of the upper chamber.

As the year begins, the Senate picture continues to look dark for Republicans, but not hopeless. The simple fact is that they have failed to expand the Senate map as they would have liked. Their loss of the chamber is by no means a foregone conclusion, but Democrats have a very good shot at taking it over. Just how good will depend in part on whom the Republican voters choose to nominate.

With no strong candidate emerging in Colorado to take on the persistently unpopular Sen. Michael Bennet, D, Harry Reid’s open seat in Nevada still looks like the only realistic pickup opportunity for the GOP.

Meanwhile, their chances of keeping seats in Wisconsin and Illinois have worsened. Sens. Ron Johnson  and Mark Kirk remain by far the most vulnerable Senate incumbents of 2016. Their seats appear likely to flip at this point. Johnson, who is weaker on paper, is also stronger in the bank account and might yet be saved in a sort of Deus ex Machina ending, provided that the right sort of national environment develops as it did in 2010 and 2014.

Democrats have put their best foot forward in a few other races, turning what could have been gimmes for the GOP into tossup races. Some of these will take place in presidential swing states, meaning that the GOP nomination process and its outcome could significantly affect what happens. Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio faces a surprisingly strong challenge from former Gov. Ted Strickland, D. In New Hampshire, Democrats recruited a top-tier candidate in Gov. Maggie Hassan to take on Sen. Kelly Ayotte. Hassan’s first fundraising quarter was just slightly better than Ayotte’s, although the Republican has four times as much cash on hand with $6 million in the bank.

Meanwhile, in Florida, a free-for-all has developed, with hot primaries on both sides that will not be settled until August. Everything depends on who is nominated.

A similar situation exists in Indiana, although Republicans have a much better chance of keeping the seat of the retiring Sen. Dan Coats, R, no matter who wins their primary.

So far, the saving grace for Republicans this cycle is that Democrats failed to recruit top-shelf talent in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. This means that with a decent presidential nominee who can at least come close to 50 percent, they must still be favored to keep the Senate.

On the other hand, with a poor candidate atop the ballot who fails to clear 45 percent, they almost certainly lose it.

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 43-

To: Our Readers

This week:

  • Why Republicans agreed to the omnibus
  • The drawbacks
  • Three long-term benefits


Ryan Omnibus: Conservatives have plenty of reasons to be unhappy with the omnibus spending bill that passed the House last week. But it is noteworthy that there was no massive conservative rebellion in the House, in a day and age when such rebellions seemed to be getting more common. One hundred fifty Republicans voted for the bill that Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., put forward. That’s about 50 more than had been expected originally. The low expectations existed for the very reasons rank and file conservatives are disappointed now: The bill does not stop federal funding for Planned Parenthood. It does not address the question of Syrian refugees in the way that many of them feel is appropriate. It does not stop Obama’s Clean Power Plant or Waters of the United States EPA rules (both now under litigation). It does not stop funding for Obama’s executive amnesty (also under litigation). It does not halt the Labor Department’s new fiduciary rule, a clear overreach.

For a lot of conservatives, one or more of these seems like a game-ender. Especially on Planned Parenthood, many believe that no other benefit of the law can outweigh what seems like a betrayal.

On the other hand, a fight to the death against Obama over Planned Parenthood at this particular moment would have been more likely to lead to a government-wide shutdown than the actual defunding of Planned Parenthood, and that has to be at least considered.

But there are three things this bill does that, given a long-term outlook, will promote large conservative goals that may not be immediately obvious. These are the areas to watch — the areas where history will ultimately judge Ryan’s speakership and determine how long he gets to keep it.

1. Obamacare Repeal: Believe it or not, the stage for repeal of this law has now been set. By keeping the 2014 Rubio provision intact, which bars any taxpayer bailout of insurers losing money in Obamacare’s exchanges, this omnibus prevents the Obama administration from wasting taxpayers’ money to delay the Obamacare law’s day of reckoning.

Although the issue has been slightly below the surface for more than a year, Obamacare is currently in greater peril than it was at any point during the government shutdown of 2013. Insurers are losing their shirts in the exchanges at a rate no one expected, mostly because the law (as critics predicted) brought in a sick, high-use crowd into the insurance market without attracting enough healthy payers to cover them. Premiums have risen and are expected to keep rising at a rate that has the potential cause a rebellion on the same scale as the anger over insurance cancellations and the website.

The problem is acute enough that Hillary Clinton had to acknowledge it during the little-watched Democratic debate over the weekend, referring to it as “glitches.”

What the Rubio provision does, originally passed in 2014, is prevent the “risk corridor” program — a provision in Obamacare that redistributes some insurance company profits from Obamacare’s biggest winners in its first three years to its worst losers — from drawing any funds from taxpayers. This merely bolsters the statutory language in Obamacare, which appears to imply that the only money available to pay out is that drawn from insurers with profits greater than three percent.

But there isn’t enough money being made by profitable insurers to bail out the many big losers. And so the Obama administration desperately wants to interpret this language as authorizing a large insurer subsidy that comes from the Treasury.

The inclusion of the Rubio provision stops this. And it will not, as some have suggested, kill Obamacare, but it will let it die a natural death with dignity. The risk corridor program was not intended to prop up unsound companies for the long haul, it was just supposed to brace them for the immediate shock of the new post-Obamacare insurance world. But not only are badly created insurance co-ops going out of business after losing as much as $100 million, but larger, experienced insurers like UnitedHealth are expected to pull out, a sign of just how badly the law was designed. This will lead to even higher premiums. Instead of ruining health insurance for a decade or more, the refusal to mollify insurers with a bailout is likely to shorten the period of destruction and force repeal (or reforms, if Democrats keep the White House) sooner.

The bottom line is that Republicans were right to insist on the inclusion of this provision, even if it had to come at the expense of some of their other priorities.

2. Tax reform: Conservatives like low tax rates. They dislike special interest tax breaks. This bill makes several of the latter permanent. That’s bad, right?

Well, maybe not. This has barely been noticed, but the package that just passed takes a critical step toward passage of a tax reform plan that conservatives will like. In fact, it would probably not be possible otherwise. Although the reasons are highly technical, we will go into them briefly, because one cannot grasp this without understanding them.

When the Congressional Budget Office calculates tax revenues and budget deficits, it is required to assume that current law will be followed as it is written. That sounds reasonable to the layman, but in fact it’s absurd. Congress changes laws all the time, and with tax laws, it has a nasty habit of extending certain tax breaks temporarily over and over and over again, so that they are effectively permanent. This makes the CBO always wrong in its revenue projections, but through no fault on its own. And that matters a lot.

A holy grail for conservatives — and a goal Ryan has personally pursued for years — is a major, revenue-neutral tax reform plan that cuts tax rates for everyone and makes up the lost revenue by eliminating special interest loopholes and deductions. The desired result is a simple tax code that collects about the same amount of revenue, but without strangling taxpayers in red tape and creating billions of hours of lost productivity.

The problem is that under CBO rules, the elimination of temporary loopholes and deductions doesn’t count toward “revenue-neutralizing” tax rate reductions, even in cases where those loopholes are constantly being extended and are effectively (but not legally) permanent. In other words, you can’t come out even if you eliminate a temporary special-interest tax break and lower the tax rate by a corresponding annual amount.

This means that in order to make the math work and ensure as low a tax rate as possible, you must first make permanent as many special-interest tax breaks as possible, so that you can eliminate them and use the increased revenue to lower rates by a corresponding amount. Otherwise, you face a tough choice — either tax reform becomes an actual tax hike that most Republicans have sworn to vote against, or you have a bill that technically increases the deficit and you might need 60 instead of 51 votes to get it through the Senate.

By making several (per se undesirable) special tax breaks permanent, Ryan is preparing the field for what he’s always wanted to do, increasing the likelihood of tax reform after Obama leaves office. It’s a longer-term goal, but it’s a very important one, considering how bad tax laws, accumulated over the years by special interests’ pleading and lobbying, made the U.S. economy less competitive over time.

3. Oil Exports: This one is perhaps the most obvious benefit. By repealing the irrational four-decade ban on oil exports and getting Obama to agree to it (reluctantly), Congress has set the stage for a future in which the U.S. is a net exporter of petroleum. As recently as last year, no one believed this legal change could be made. In the end, all it took was a small sop — a special tax break for independent refiners — to grease the wheels.

It’s been a long time since the world saw the U.S. exporting more oil than it imports — more than 70 years, as a matter of fact. But it is sure to happen as soon as prices rise again, and it will affect everything from the economy to foreign policy.

Trade deficits (a very large share of which — more than half in some recent years — have been due to oil imports) could become a worry of the past even when oil prices rise again. And hundreds of thousands of new, high-paying jobs would be created and secured for the long haul.

This is a clear win for prosperity over the forces of populist ignorance and demagoguery that took hold after the oil embargo.


So there you have three very long-term ideas that underpin the deal Republicans just agreed to in unexpectedly large numbers. The jury is out as to whether they got a good deal.

If Republicans had passed this bill just to ease Ryan into the speakership — as a courtesy to him, as Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., put it — they would have been making a big mistake. But the fact is, they had other reasons as well. When judging Ryan’s performance as speaker, conservatives must keep an eye on how these areas develop. If he succeeds or fails, it will be based on these three main areas whether this deal ends up being a good one.

Thus ends the third year for The Briefing, which will next appear on Tuesday, Jan. 5. We wish a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and yours in the meantime. And get ready, 2016 is going to be wild.

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 42-

This week:

  • Trump’s big gamble.
  • Cruz’s rise is no fluke.
  • Gun control gimmick makes a surprising appearance in Obama security address


When a president decides to address the nation on national security, it is a solemn occasion. It is usually something that unites American’. Last Sunday’s address, occasioned by the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif, should have been that sort of speech. It made sense for the chief executive to address the citizenry after such a shaking and shocking example of Islamic State inspiration of a mass shooting.

What made a lot less sense — and what makes Obama seem a much smaller figure than history demands — was his willingness to insert plain political gimmicks into such an address.

In recent weeks, Democrats have adopted a rhetorical proposal about keeping people on the terrorist watch list (who face no charges and have not been convicted of anything) from buying guns. The policy is nothing more than a rhetorical gimmick — there is nothing more impossible in U.S. policy than to deny constitutional rights to people not even accused of a crime. Yet somehow, Obama chose to mention this as if it were a serious proposal in his national address.

If this is how he wants to roll, then it’s up to him. He is, after all, the president of the United States. But this is not the way to unify the country in the face of a threat. It signifies what many have believed about Obama’s presidency — that it is a prolonged campaign, filled with lots of blow-hard rhetoric, and little in the way of substance.

President 2016

Trump-CruzWe have reached peak Trump — not in the sense that Trump has peaked in the polls (although he has done that too), but in the sense that he has finally out-Trumped himself.

Trump’s proposal to bar all Muslims from the U.S., including all tourists and visitors (not to mention refugees), goes too far in at least one sense: Even people who might support it in principle as a security measure will likely recognize it coming from him as a political gimmick, much like Obama’s proposal to bar people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns. And a political gimmick it is, in both cases.

The idea of barring people from the U.S. based on their religion is simply too far afield. It would never pass congressional muster. And there’s no good way to sidestep this by simply barring immigration from predominantly Muslim nations — that would fly in the face of the fact that Muslims with European citizenship appear to be more likely to radicalize.

In short, the outrage over the proposal might be amusing, but the proposal remains ridiculous. To be sure, those who seem most outraged about the statement that Islam is incompatible with The American Way are also likely to believe Christianity is incompatible with it. Even so, it’s just not something that can be supported by anyone who consistently believes in the idea of religious freedom — and especially not the part Trump had to walk back, about barring Muslim U.S. citizens from returning. (Once again, his dabbling with that idea demonstrated that he has no idea what his policy people are doing, because he doesn’t know anything about policy and cannot be bothered to learn.)

If you were wondering at all why Trump chose this moment to make his Muslim-free proposal — well after the San Bernardino massacre — look no further than Ted Cruz. Cruz is rapidly overtaking Trump in Iowa, and multiple new polls of the state add legitimacy to Cruz’s new frontrunner status there. In this context, Trump rightly sees that he needs to put all his money on a long bet, before Cruz finally eclipses him for good. The question is whether it’s a winning bet or a desperate gamble. We sense that it’s the latter.

The most important indicator was this weekend’s Seltzer poll, universally accepted as the best poll of the Hawkeye State. (Recall, for example, that it was the only one to predict Joni Ernst’s comfortable victory for Senate in 2014.) The poll showed Cruz rising to 31 percent and a full 10 points ahead of Trump. What’s more, Ben Carson still had 13 percent support in third place — that will fall, and with it the non-Trump candidates are likely to rise.

This begins the trend we expected two weeks ago when we wrote that Trump had reached his ceiling, and that the collapse of Ben Carson’s support would likely propel others ahead of him. And remember, once Trump has lost Iowa, it will affect the results in all of the state races that follow.

Trump has not yet fallen behind on the national level, but there are good reasons to think it will happen even before he loses in Iowa. The new NBC/WSJ poll showed Trump in the lead over Cruz nationally 27 to 22 percent, with Marco Rubio behind them at 15 — a result that is in line with our previously stated beliefs about Trump’s ceiling.

When combining voters’ first and second choices, Cruz topped Trump, 40 to 39 percent, with Rubio close behind at 33. That’s obviously not a precise measure of anything because it’s more than 100 percent –remember, it’s combining first and second choices. But what this shows is that Trump is the second choice of far fewer voters than either of the two Cuban-American candidates. (Jeb Bush, by the way, receives fewer first or second-choice voters than any of these.)

The poll then asked voters whom they would support in a field with only five candidates — a field that looks more like what we’re likely to have after Iowa — and here’s what they got:

Screenshot 2015-12-13 at 11.13.50 PM

The upshot here is that although Trump leads, he clings to an increasingly narrow lead. And that 13 percent remaining support for Ben Carson — and frankly, the 9 percent for Bush, whose overall operation has spent over $50 million with nothing to show for it — will have to migrate somewhere else in the next seven to ten weeks, by the time Iowa and New Hampshire are over. Put together, that’s enough even now for Cruz and Rubio both to finish ahead of Trump. And the Carson  support will most likely not go to Trump, who as we recently noted has been extremely petty toward the still-well-liked (but less-supported) Carson.

Trump has responded to Cruz’s rise by attacking him, as one would expect. The criticisms are curious in that they reflect precisely the sort of thing that critics say today about Trump: “The way he’s dealt with the Senate — where he goes in frankly like a bit of a maniac — you never get things done that way,” Trump said Sunday. “You can’t walk into the Senate and scream and call people liars and not be able to cajole and get along with people. He’ll never get anything done. That’s the problem with Ted.” Well, perhaps that is the problem with Ted, but he’s not making a very good argument here that anyone willing to vote for Donald will accept.

Cruz has very wisely remained unwilling to attack Trump directly. This is smart politics of the sort Trump didn’t get when he was the nominal frontrunner. When you’re really winning, you don’t want to hurt your chances by personally going negative on another candidate.

Cruz may or may not end up being the final flavor of the month in Iowa. Our belief is that he can definitely win the caucuses, whereas Trump would have a much better chance if the New Hampshire primary came first. Cruz is more than hype — he has a strong operation in Iowa and has garnered the most important endorsements from the social-conservative and immigration-hawk wings of the state party. That’s what matters in Iowa. Efforts by the ethanol lobby to stop Cruz in his tracks will either backfire completely (remember, the Iowa caucus is dominated by conservatives) or they will help other candidates besides Trump, since Trump voters don’t really care about such issues.

The important question in Iowa is always who exactly comes out to caucus. Remember, caucus-going requires giving up an entire evening. It is not at all like showing up to vote in a primary. As a result, the fields of Iowa are littered with the remains of candidates who, like Trump is doing now, base their hopes on bringing out large numbers of first-time caucus-goers. Think of Howard Dean and Ron Paul, both of whom promised to bring out tens of thousands more caucus-goers than they ultimately got.

The candidates who have succeeded in Iowa (think Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and others) have usually been the ones who made the best inroads with established caucus-goers. On the Republican side, that is precisely where Cruz is making inroads.


The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 41-

December 7, 2015
This week:

  • The end of Obamacare?
  • Trump still on top, but Trumpy as ever
  • Early look at 2016 Senate races


Reconciliation: Congress will send President Obama a reconciliation bill that repeals Obamacare. Obama will veto it. But this serves as a dry run for what can be done next year if there’s a Republican president.

Because the Senate works in part by precedent, a ruling by the parliamentarian that such a bill fits the rules of reconciliation will be complicated to override next year in the event that it happens again.

The more important consideration, however, might be that Obamacare is doing quite badly and repeal — or at least a major overhaul — is looking much less unlikely than it was six months ago. The expected exit of United Health from the Obamacare exchanges is a real milestone — an indication of panic over the law. The company projected losses on the exchanges of $450 million in 2015 and 2016 combined. This astounding figure is the result of structural problems with the law. As its critics predicted, it has given birth to a dysfunctional exchange marketplace that attracts the sick and repels the healthy.

President 2016

Trump: Donald Trump delivered a strange speech last Thursday to the Republican Jewish Coalition in which he invoked multiple stereotypes about Jews and money.

It was truly bizarre — the sort of thing politicians know not to do. This particular goof comes at an especially bad time, after discussions in the media (fair or unfair) about whether Trump is a fascist.

Like all other Trump incidents so far, this one is unlikely to kill Trump’s candidacy. But it does raise questions about how he would behave as a general election candidate. Mitt Romney was pilloried for his gaffe-after-gaffe campaign in 2012. He repeatedly stepped on his own primary victories by saying something stupid the following day. Trump seems even more like a potential gaffe machine — or more properly, an offense machine.

The general electorate is sure to be far less forgiving of Trump’s Trumpy antics than Republican primary voters have been so far.

Senate 2016

With calendar 2015 drawing to a close, here’s a quick look at a few of the races that will determine control of the U.S. Senate. Republicans are on the defensive in 2016, forced to defend their many victories from the 2010 cycle.

Florida: Here’s an open-seat race that hasn’t really shaped up much at all — nor does it have to, given Florida’s late primary.

Republicans will have at least three candidates to choose from — including the Club for Growth-backed Rep. Ron DeSantis, establishment-favored Rep. David Jolly, and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.

Democrats are currently looking at a primary between the more electable Rep. Patrick Murphy and the likely unelectable Rep. Alan Grayson, which could be further complicated if redistricting pushes Rep. Gwen Graham to run for her father’s old seat. If Graham gets in, she might shoot to the top, or it could end up splitting the sane vote and helping Grayson.

Illinois: Sen. Mark Kirk, R, used to win tough races for breakfast back when he held his old Democratic-leaning suburban Chicago House district. And he narrowly upset a close Obama friend to win his Senate seat in 2012. But the Navy veteran and recent stroke survivor is likely going to face a much tougher opponent for his statewide re-election this year — Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D, an Iraq War vet and double amputee who has experience both winning and losing in high-stakes elections.

Before entering Congress and before serving in the Obama administration, Duckworth lost a close race against Rep. Peter Roskam, R, in what was then another competitive suburban district west of Chicago. She is considered the favorite in a Democratic primary that also includes state Sen. Napoleon Harris and Andrea Zopp, former president of the Urban League, as those two will likely split the black vote. In a general election in a presidential year, she has to be considered the favorite against the incumbent Kirk.

However, don’t make the mistake of assuming that Illinois will vote as heavily Democratic in 2016 as it did when Barack Obama was on the ballot. The current to-do over the Chicago police shooting could also test the loyalty of many reliable Democratic voters in black neighborhoods of the city.

Indiana: The Hoosier State naturally favors the GOP, even with an open seat. But as the 2012 victory of Sen. Joe Donnelly, D, demonstrates, that isn’t necessarily a sure thing. Democrats are likely to nominate former Rep. Baron Hill. The Republican race is shaping up to be a classic grassroots conservative-versus-moneyed establishment battle between Reps. Marlin Stutzman of Fort Wayne and Todd Young of the state’s Cincinnati corner. Young is probably the easier one to elect, but conservatives might be willing to take a chance.

Nevada: This open-seat race to replace retiring Sen. Harry Reid, D, is a must-win for Republicans, who have precious few pickup opportunities this cycle. It could also be considered a bellwether, because it pits two strong candidates against each other in a competitive state.

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Photo by Gage Skidmore

The GOP put their best foot forward by recruiting suburban Vegas-area U.S. Rep. Joe Heck to run. He seems to have cleared the primary field, despite some chatter about Sharron Angle, the 2010 loser, making a go at it again. Heck can win against the near-certain Democratic Nominee, former Attorney General Catherine Cortez-Masto. He has held down an important swingy district now since 2010.

Republicans have not had great success in Nevada lately, but it is worth remembering that Sen. Dean Heller, R, managed to win a tight race in 2012, despite Obama’s success higher up on the ticket. As the party showed again in 2014 (thanks mostly to low Democratic turnout), the Republican Party in this state is only mostly dead, not all dead.

New Hampshire: The race between Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R, and Gov. Maggie Hassan, D, promises to be another bellwether, and it’s likely that more will be spent on this race per voter than anywhere else. Two of the state’s most popular politicians will face off in the expensive Boston media market. Ayotte begins with a slight edge in the polls.

Pennsylvania: When Republican former Rep. and former Club for Growth president Pat Toomey won his Senate seat narrowly in 2010 over a strong opponent, a lot of people wrote him off as a one-termer. But the consensus view at this point remains that Toomey is a favorite for re-election, as surprising as that might seem. What some see as his apostasy on gun control in the emotional aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting — he co-sponsored a measure on requiring background checks on a few more purchases — others will chalk up to clever positioning. Toomey has already won the backing of a few soft Democratic fundraisers as a direct result of that, and he leads the early polls.

Pat Toomey CPAC
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Even so, if he wins, it will be a close race, not a blowout. Toomey will not have an easy or comfortable victory — the recent Democratic sweep in the state Supreme Court races underscores the grassroots power of the state’s unions. Think of Rick Santorum’s successful re-election in 2000 as a model.

One major reason Toomey is looking strong is that Democrats lost their strongest potential candidate — Attorney General Kathleen Kane — to a major scandal that has resulted in her disbarment and could soon see her turned out of office.

As a result, they have a competitive primary that pits Toomey’s 2010 opponent, former Rep. Joe Sestak, D, against Katie McGinty, who ran for governor in 2014 and got less than 8 percent in the Democratic primary. Having gone on to become chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf, McGinty now has the backing of the party establishment. Many Democrats never forgave Sestak for challenging and defeating the party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter in 2010.

Wisconsin: In 2010, Ron Johnson came out of nowhere to defeat Sen. Russ Feingold, D, a hero of progressives. Feingold ultimately became the victim of Johnson’s personal funding of his race and a national mood very hostile toward Obama and Obamacare.

This year’s race features a rematch. And this time around, the national mood that put Johnson over the top in 2010 hasn’t developed — at least not yet. Johnson trails by large margins in every recent poll. Given presidential turnout, it may not be enough to spend and organize well once again — Johnson might be unable to win without some major national problem for Democrats. Examples: A massive breakdown in Obamacare, continued Obama failure against ISIS combined with more terrorist attacks; or perhaps something that cannot be foreseen at this point.

Johnson remains the most vulnerable incumbent senator of either party. Feingold is the early favorite to reclaim the seat.

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 40-

This week:

  • Trump is still the talk of the town, but Cruz is on the rise
  • Historical context regarding frontrunners at this point
  • Trumpism as a rival to Reaganism in the GOP

We hope you had a happy Thanksgiving.

President 2016

The primaries are rapidly approaching, and Donald Trump continues to defy gravity, holding a substantial lead in national polling. Although his grip on media attention is not quite as solid as it was before, it has not died off, nor have his leads in the various polls. 

But don’t panic.

There is a good reason why people are still discussing Trump — whether he is a fascist, for example, and what exactly he meant by his wild, extremely Trumpy comments about this and that and the other thing. This all comes with the territory of being the frontrunner. Trump has a hard core of support that will not be deterred by day-to-day controversies or by whether anything he asserts is true. What he has yet to prove is whether he can attract additional support.

Then again, national primary polls at this point in a cycle have not been good predictors of the winner in the past. Part of the reason for this is that there is no national primary — just ask President (or nominee) Rudy Giuliani.

There will be caucuses in Iowa in February, followed by a primary in New Hampshire. The outcomes of those two contests will likely do a lot more to determine what follows than any event ongoing or any poll being taken now.

And early polling in those early states, history shows, is also not necessarily a good indicator even of what will happen in those early states.

Iowa: The fall of Ben Carson has returned Trump to the lead in Iowa, but note that he hasn’t exactly shot up in the polls as a result. It is apparent that Carson’s support is not shifting to Trump, but rather to Ted Cruz, who has quite suddenly risen into the low 20s. At last, a true contender is challenging Trump for the lead.

Why has this happened? There’s one obvious reason, and one less obvious reason.

The more obvious reason has to do with an endorsement that is quite rare in that it actually matters. If you’re a staunch conservative living in Iowa who is especially concerned about illegal immigration, you’re probably a big fan of Rep. Steve King, a Republican (first elected in 2002) who represents a safe U.S. House seat in the state’s heavily Republican west. King is the top-dog immigration-hawk in the U.S. House — the new Tom Tancredo. (He even looks a bit like Tancredo). No one in the House is more hard-core on the issue of immigration, and King’s support for a candidate is a clear signal that this guy is okay.

King recently announced his endorsement of Cruz, who represents a more traditionally acceptable libertarian version of conservatism. This is bad news for Trump, whose chief attraction to date — really his only attraction — has been the issue of immigration.

King’s will likely be the most important endorsement by a politician in the state this cycle. No one really expected King to endorse Trump, but the fact that he endorsed another candidate instead is a signal for all immigration hawks to resist Trump’s allure for now and give this other guy a closer look. Based on Cruz’s sudden rise in the polls in Iowa, it appears that many potential caucus-goers are doing just that.

The less obvious reason Cruz is rising instead of Trump is what we hinted at last week — Trump probably has a low ceiling of support. His hard core of support remains — as it probably will until the caucuses — but when all is said and done he will likely have little potential beyond that. Those who are going to get behind him have most have done so already. 

Keep in mind that caucus-going requires a level of dedication that goes beyond usual voting — you can’t just show up and do your thing, you have to show up at a specific time, listen to speeches on behalf of all of the candidates, and then cast your ballot. This is a formula that works heavily against non-traditional caucus-goers and causes poorly organized candidates to fall apart at the last moment.

For some historical perspective, here is what Iowa looked like in previous years, courtesy of RealClearPolitics:

Screenshot 2015-12-01 at 1.17.05 AM

Note that the frontrunner in each case did not end up winning. Not to say that the Iowa caucuses tend to pick the eventual winner, either, but they do have a way of weakening or eliminating eventual losers who used to be frontrunners.

New Hampshire: The story here remains more open-ended at this point. Trump holds a clear lead, and it isn’t clear yet who can top him. Even so, note that Trump scores much closer to the final percentage of the candidates who finished in second place in previous years than he does to the eventual winners.

Screenshot 2015-12-01 at 12.30.00 AM

At this point in time, Marco Rubio is the closest thing to a true challenger to Trump’s frontrunner status in the Granite State, yet he remains a small-fry — Trump has more than twice as much support at the moment. New Hampshire is probably Rubio’s best chance of catching fire and winning the nomination, just as Iowa is for Cruz. Then again, Rubio isn’t too far ahead of Cruz or the rest of the pack at this point.

At the moment, Rubio’s highest-probability potential supporters are probably being split with Jeb Bush, whose candidacy could well suffer due to revelations about the early rumors he tried to spread about Rubio. Bush’s miserable campaign has failed to get traction in this state so far, the one on which he is now basing all of his hopes.

Ben Carson’s fade is evident here as it is in Iowa, and again his support lost up to now has not been migrating to Trump. But Carson’s fall is having much less of an effect than in Iowa, just because Carson was never as big in New Hampshire. Still, the eventual winner will likely inherit what he and others currently hold.

Again, and as noted previously, Trump has likely turned off enough of the GOP electorate than he will not go much higher than his current position in the polls in the mid-20s.

Outlook: The point here is that if Trump fails to win at least one of either Iowa or New Hampshire, he will likely fall off like many a Howard Dean ’04 or Mitt Romney ’08 has-been has fallen off before him. For example, Trump has been vying with Carson for the lead in South Carolina, but the rise of Rubio and Cruz in that state, still far below him in the polls, may presage the race that emerges after the first two states have cast their votes.

In a very hypocritical sort of way, all this talk of early polls is intended to illustrate that they really matter a lot less than might first appear. They have not historically proven a winner. But of course, Trump has a way of defying pundits’ expectations and the laws taught by experience in previous election cycles.

If Trump somehow pulls this off, the mainstream of the modern conservative movement will be homeless for at least one election cycle. A Trump nomination has been the nightmare scenario for both establishment and conservative Republicans, whose main hope is to reverse the damage of the Obama years. It would signify the emergence of a rival ideology to the Reagan-style libertarian-conservative fusionism that has characterized the Republican Party since the 1980s. It would signal that Republican voters are more interested in a European-style nationalism that has always existed at the fringes, without a serious political grip in America. The fear is that this alternative to Reaganism — hostile to foreigners and trade — embodied by a candidate who is unable to apologize and as a rule uncautious in what he says, is unlikely to perform well in a general election. A Trump nomination, the conventional thinking holds, would cause great losses for conservative candidates down-ticket, perhaps wiping out all the gains of 2010 and 2014.

The Beltway crowd, social conservative activists, and the libertarian-leaning Right have all been sweating over Trump’s rise, but not enough to unite them around a serious anti-Trump strategy of any kind. It is here that Trump’s greatest opportunity emerges. But can he take advantage of the disorganization among his rivals and maintain his early lead until next summer’s convention?