What to look for in January

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.