Mind Blown

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 9-

To: Our readers

This week

  • Clinton crushes Sanders amid weak Dem turnout in S.C.
  • The Passion of the Christie
  • Setting expectations for Super Tuesday states

President 2016

Democrats: The Democratic primary probably ended on Saturday, as Hillary Clinton destroyed Bernie Sanders by an unexpectedly large 48-point margin. On the backs of unusually low overall turnout and high black turnout as a share of the whole, Clinton got 74 percent of the vote.

Her campaign had done well to set expectations very low. It’s actually astounding to see Sanders, for all his effort, rejected so badly by black voters.

There is a coda to this, however. Democratic turnout continues to be lackluster. Black turnout was higher in South Carolina as a share of the vote than it had been in 2008. But as Michael Barone notes, that’s only because black turnout was down only 18 percent from 2008, whereas white turnout was down a staggering 44 percent.

The primary turnout gap was a sign of trouble for Republicans in 2008. Is it a sign of anything for Democrats in 2016?

Meanwhile, the GOP primary rages on.

The Passion of the Christie: On Friday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took a step that shocked nearly everyone — he endorsed Donald Trump at a rally in Texas. He was quickly followed by Maine Gov. Paul LePage and former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.

This raises the question: Is Trump becoming respectable? Will we reach a tipping point where politicians’ endorsements of him bring them anything but lasting ridicule? Will we soon see more and more establishment Republicans do this?

Trump may have settled the question on Sunday when Jake Tapper of CNN gave him the opportunity to publicly repudiate the endorsement of him by former KKK leader David Duke. This was supposed to be a softball question. After all, two days earlier, Trump had been told of this endorsement during a press conference, and simply said, “I disavow.”

But leading up to the Super Tuesday primaries, many of which are in the South, Trump just wouldn’t disavow him. Asked repeatedly, he played dumb instead of answering, acting like he’d never heard of Duke or the KKK.

This is hugely damaging. It probably makes Trump sufficiently toxic that there will be no further endorsements from elected officials for a while — or ever. Even if Trump can get away with this (and he’s gotten away with an awful lot, so who’s to say he can’t?), your garden variety Republican politician doesn’t want to touch this hot mess with a hundred-foot pole. Expect instead to hear comments like the one about Christie from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in her Sunday ABC interview: “Chris is a dear friend. But none of us understands why he did this.” Christie’s national finance chair, Meg Whitman, trashed him for it. And his own appearance on Sunday did not go well at all.

The real question is whether any of these politicians will back him if he becomes the nominee. The price of doing so might be very high, and the price of having no voter turnout backup in the form of a presidential campaign might be high as well.

Online, conservative writers and activists began a small push to derail Trump. Obviously, the ideal thing is to stop him in the Super Tuesday states. Tomorrow’s contests are shaping up for a mixed result, but neither the debate Thursday nor Trump’s KKK comments have been factored into most of the polls conducted in them.

There is even a push among some conservative donors — anonymous at this point — for a third-party run that would stop Republican turnout from cratering in order to protect Republicans in Congress.

And indeed, we are aware that at least one prominent Republican pollster has already reached out to Capitol Hill looking for a Republican who could run as a credible third-party alternative, because the polling looks very bleak for saving Congress if Trump is the nominee.

A Trump nomination, the logic goes, effectively cedes the White House to Democrats anyway, so there’s nothing to lose, and a third candidate might be needed to drive regular Republicans to vote.

Another thing about the KKK interview: Although many within the party establishment seemed resigned to supporting Trump if necessary, that becomes a lot more difficult for most of them now. Jeff Sessions, Alabama’s junior senator, did not let it stop him from endorsing, but it he had pretty much committed already.

On Saturday, the New York Times published an incredible piece on the GOP effort to stop Trump, or perhaps more properly on what little there has been of an effort until now.

The article revealed that less than a week before endorsing Trump on Friday, Maine Gov. Paul LePage had proposed radical measures to stop him, including an unprecedented letter from all of the nation’s Republican governors denouncing him and putting distance between himself and them. This all helps illustrate the problem Republicans face. If Trump is the nominee, they will be forced either to campaign with him, to repudiate him, or to endorse someone else. For many of them — especially vulnerable incumbent senators — none of these options is especially attractive.

The New York Times piece also revealed a few facts that illustrate how much of a basketcase the Republican firmament really is right now.

Christie, for example, whose candidacy was labeled early on as an establishment-friendly candidacy, issued his endorsement of Trump after being offended by the way Rubio had reached out to him to mend fences after he left the GOP race. It isn’t exactly clear what Rubio said, but Christie must not have liked it — he became an attack dog at Trump’s side over the weekend, reprising his role in the New Hampshire debate as a foil to Rubio. It is also quite possible, though, that he had planned and negotiated a Trump endorsement before he quit the race.

This detail about Christie’s motives has little bearing on the current situation, except in demonstrating the magnitude of Rubio’s problem. Ted Cruz is supposed to be the unlikable one in the Senate. Rubio is supposed to be the last hope of the party regulars. Yet Rubio has been unsuccessful in reaching out to potential endorsers. He has been unable to get Jeb Bush to support or endorse him.

The Republican leadership in Congress has prepared a contingency plan for a Trump nomination, understanding that he will be a disaster for vulnerable incumbents. Mitch McConnell has reassured senators that they won’t face any quibbles from him if they want to distance themselves and even run ads against Trump if necessary. This is probably a better indication of where things stand for GOP officialdom. They are under no illusions that the Trump coalition is something sustainable or potentially victorious in November. They are in a state of panic.

Debate: Before any of this, the debate on Thursday night restored some hope to the anti-Trump GOP. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio absolutely pummeled Trump in a way he hadn’t been pummeled before. Maybe it was enough to blunt his momentum, maybe it wasn’t, but they could hardly have done more in a single night.

Why do we think this debate was different? Because Trump didn’t just melt down or look bad, but rather the other two candidates hammered away at the basis for his campaign. Rubio threw in a few Trump-esque insults, pointing out that he was the only one on stage to be fined for hiring illegal immigrants. He brought up the Trump University fraud trial, which will likely make Trump an easy target for Hillary Clinton.

Cruz pursued a careful prosecutorial case, noting that for all his talk about the Gang of Eight, Trump had bankrolled the campaigns of five of the eight.

It was a tag-team effort. The true moment of victory came after the debate, when Trump went on CNN to defended his own practice of hiring foreign workers. There are some jobs, he said, that Americans won’t do.

Super Tuesday: Trump’s numbers are likely to have sunk since the last polls were taken, but here are some thoughts to set your expectations.

Remember, most of these states divide delegates proportionally, unless someone wins a majority (or in some states a supermajority) of the vote. This means that the Rubio-Cruz split of the vote is not too big a deal. That changes in two weeks, when the first true winner-take-all contests happen in Ohio and Florida.

Alabama (50 delegates): Trump’s lead here was 13 points last week, and he got the official the backing of the state’s junior senator, Jeff Sessions, on Sunday. Rubio appears to have the best chance of anyone of catching him, but Trump should be considered a heavy favorite. Ted Cruz cancelled his late events in the state, but Rubio was there over the weekend. (His joke about Auburn probably won’t cost him too many votes — will it?)

A loss for Trump  in Alabama would signal a terrible implosion. He should win.

Alaska (28): It was a single-digit race as of last month, with Trump leading, then Cruz then Rubio. This one could easily hang on what’s happened in the last few days.

Arkansas (40): In early February, Ted Cruz led here with 27 percent, and Rubio and Trump were tied for second at 23 percent. A Trump loss here is semi-expected, so don’t take it as a sign of trouble for him. A Trump win is a pleasant surprise for him.

Colorado (27): There hasn’t been a poll of the GOP field since November, and Ben Carson led at that point. It’s a bit of a mystery contest.

Georgia (76): This one could be interesting, because just before Thursday’s debate, Cruz and Rubio had closed the gap and were both within striking distance of Trump in the new Marist poll — each seven points back. Edge to Trump, but any of the three could win, and anyone could finish third. If Trump suffered from his recent setbacks, the victory in Georgia probably hangs in the balance.

Massachusetts (42): Trump should win the Bay State — in fact, the danger discussed here up to now was of Trump getting 50 percent and taking all of the delegates. The last poll had him at 40 percent, with Kasich and Rubio tied for second way back at 19 percent.

Minnesota (38): Rubio has a serious shot in the caucuses here — and he really needs to put a win on the board, because it’s going to look bad if he doesn’t. If it’s any indication, his campaign announced on Sunday he was headed there to campaign on caucus day (and in the evening to Florida to kick off his campaign there). The last poll had him at 23 percent, two points ahead of Cruz and five points ahead of Trump, but it’s an old poll and caucuses are hard to poll.

Oklahoma (43): As of last week, Trump was somewhere near 30 percent and Rubio was just catching up to Cruz about nine or ten points back. Cruz had led here earlier but had faded since the South Carolina result came in. If neither of them can catch Trump here after recent events, it’s a sign Trump is having a reasonably good night.

Tennessee (58):  Trump’s lead here last week was yuge in the Marist poll released over the weekend — around 20 points, with Cruz narrowly leading Rubio for second place. The collapse of such a large lead is hard to imagine — if Trump gets caught here, it’s a disaster for him. Rubio did benefit from the endorsement of the state’s popular governor, Bill Haslam.

Texas (155): Ted Cruz should win his home state without any issue. If not, it’s a disaster. On the other hand, if he gets to 50 percent of the vote, he gets all of the state’s delegates. That’s possible, but not likely. This would be bad for Rubio in one sense, but good in another. It shuts out Trump, and Rubio hopes to be more competitive against Cruz in later states.

Vermont (16): As in neighboring Massachusetts and New Hampshire, it is Trump’s to lose. He  was the clear leader earlier in February, at 33 percent, ahead of Rubio and Kasich at 14.

Virginia (49):  This might be, sadly for him, Rubio’s best shot at a win in a southern state, because it’s still quite a longshot. The latest CBS News poll had him trailing Trump, 40 to 27 percent. If the results show that Trump has blown this lead, he will have probably blown a lot of others.

There isn’t a lot of reliable conventional wisdom about Tuesday’s outcome. The overall delegate result will probably not be dramatic because of the proportional allocation of delegates. The nomination may be decided two weeks later, in the winner-take-all Ohio and Florida primaries.