First Blood in the Primaries

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After New Hampshire and Iowa, there’s much to digest.

Republicans

It seems like a lifetime ago: this time last year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was leading the polls in Iowa. He was fresh off of a strong performance at Congressman Steve King’s Iowa Freedom Summit, where he regaled Republican activists with war stories from the time he took on and defeated Wisconsin’s public sector unions.

How things have changed.

Walker would continue to lead in Iowa polls until one Donald J. Trump announced his candidacy for President, immediately becoming the frontrunner on account of his comments regarding Mexican illegal immigrants. In a wild rollercoaster of a race, Trump would hold onto his polling lead until the fall, when Ben Carson briefly overtook Trump. Then, after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the Republican electorate spurned the sedate Carson, giving Trump the lead once more.

All the while, Texas Senator Ted Cruz was consolidating the conservative factions in the state, including libertarians, Tea Party supporters, and evangelical Christians. In doing so, he neutered the campaigns of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. His three primary opponents—one of whom was declared “the most interesting man in politics” and two of whom were previous Iowa caucus winners—tanked in the polls and had little chance of recovering. Cruz culminated his victory lap with endorsements from respected social conservative Bob Vander Plaats and King, who represents the most conservative district in the state.

Previously, Trump and Cruz had a sort of uneasy alliance, refusing to attack each other and appearing at a rally against the Iranian nuclear deal. However, Trump was not going to go down easy as Cruz surged. Trump went on the attack, going so far as to call Cruz an anchor baby on account of his Canadian birth. Cruz fought back by calling into question Trump’s already questionable conservative record, but it seemed like Trump’s aggressive attacks and courting of evangelicals had turned the tables; polls once again showed Trump leading. Trump also started spending more time in the state and spending serious money on advertising.

Cruz purposefully raised expectations for his campaign in Iowa in order to generate momentum. This worked well when he was surging, but this risky strategy seemed questionable as Trump managed to halt is rise. Anything less than first place would be perceived as a loss for Cruz, and it looked like he was in trouble going into the primary. Trump pulled out of the final debate before the caucuses, resulting in Cruz taking large amounts of incoming fire from the other candidates. Furthermore, The Des Moines Register poll, considered the best poll in the state on account of the expertise of pollster Ann Selzer, showed Trump leading.

To make the entire situation worse, the Republican establishment seemed to favor Trump over Cruz. Trump, at the very least, was flexible enough to negotiate and make deals while expanding the party’s appeal with working class whites. Cruz, allegedly, was too ideologically rigid and would be a bigger drag down the ballot. Popular and longtime Governor Terry Branstad anti-endorsed Cruz, while Senator Chuck Grassley appeared at events with Trump and threw Paul a last minute endorsement. One of his campaign’s mailers, which attempted to shame voters for failing to turn out in the past, was also repudiated by Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate. Concurrently, Cruz was getting hammered over his refusal to support the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) ethanol mandate and his undisclosed Goldman Sachs and Citibank loans. Things were not looking good for him.

On February 1, 2016, Cruz delivered an upset victory in the Iowa caucuses. He won 28 percent of the vote to Trump’s 24 percent and Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s 23 percent. Rubio, on account of his strong debate performance, experienced a last minute surge and nearly overtook Trump. Meanwhile, Trump’s decision to pull out of the debate seemed to have hurt him, resulting in a late shift of momentum toward Cruz and Rubio that was not captured in the polls.

As we now all know, the conventional wisdom was completely wrong; Cruz’s exceptionally well-run campaign won the day. His dedication in courting Iowans, as exemplified by his completion of the “full Grassley” (visiting every county in the state), was rewarded. He set stratospheric expectations in Iowa, and he met them against the odds, capping off a turbulent cycle in Iowa.

Despite Cruz’s resounding win, one incident overshadowed the whole affair. Many in his campaign, including King, who also serves as his national co-chairman, suggested that Carson was dropping out, hoping that Carson’s supporters would then switch to Cruz. Carson and his team, understandably, were outraged, while Cruz and his team somewhat disingenuously blamed a CNN report that was quickly clarified. While it is impossible as to confirm who was behind this misdirection, Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe is certainly known for his hardball tactics.

Trump, who was previously accumulating an aura of inevitability on account of his ‘YUGE’ polling leads, was brought back to Earth. With Rubio significantly outperforming expectations, he was declared the Great Establishment Hope and surged in New Hampshire and the rest of the country.

While Iowa experienced turbulent polling in the months before the caucuses, New Hampshire polling was maddeningly consistent. Trump led as soon as he announced he was running, and he never even came close to losing that lead. Meanwhile, there were a series of candidates fighting for second place, never breaking away from the pack. At one point this was Carly Fiorina, and at another it was Carson. By January, however, the viable contenders for second place were consistently Ohio Governor John Kasich, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Rubio, and Cruz.

In the days before the primary, it seemed that Rubio was best positioned, riding the momentum from his strong Iowa finish. However, he unexpectedly tanked at the last debate before the primary in a now-infamous incident. With Rubio rising, the three governors—Kasich, Christie, Bush—considered his direct opposition for the establishment lane resolved to put up a strong showing. Christie was particularly aggressive, going after Rubio for his lack of executive experience. In response, Rubio repeated almost verbatim the same canned line, one that he had previously given, about how Obama was intentionally diminishing America. Christie called him out on it. Rubio repeated the same line yet again.

While Dinesh D’Souza would be proud of Rubio driving home his point, New Hampshire voters were seriously weirded out. The gaffe was not as bad as Governor Rick Perry’s infamous “oops” moment in 2012, but it did material damage.

On February 9, 2016, Trump won a resounding 35 percent in the New Hampshire primary. Kasich followed with 16 percent, followed by Cruz with 12 percent, Bush with 11 percent, Rubio with just less than 11 percent, and Christie with 7 percent. Rubio, rather than placing a strong second as he had hoped, came in fifth in a major disappointment. In a strange twist of fate, Christie managed to wound Rubio while doing nothing for his own candidacy.

From New Hampshire emerged two winners: Trump and Cruz. Trump had not only won, but he actually exceeded expectations in beating his polling average. The Trump phenomenon was confirmed as real, and it delivered a ‘YUGE’ victory. A confident and reinvigorated Trump now swaggers into South Carolina, where he is expected to win.

Cruz also had a fantastic night. First of all, he placed third, which was better than expected. New Hampshire, of all states, is one of the poorest ideological fits for the Texas firebrand. Approximately 40 percent of voters in the Republican primary are independents, and many of them are famously moderate. Furthermore, New Hampshire is the least religious state in the country, a serious barrier for a candidate who declares that the next president must begin each day on his knees. Without evangelicals, Cruz had to rely on libertarians, who are abundant in the Live Free or Die State. Though they are part of his coalition, they were never a perfect fit with his platform. Look for Cruz’s 12 percent to be an absolute floor going forward.

Cruz should also be smarting over Kasich’s strong finish. Out of the four establishment contenders, Kasich is the least viable and is a direct threat to neither Cruz nor Trump. Not only does he lack the resources and infrastructure Bush and Rubio have to compete beyond New Hampshire, and not only does he have the wrong ideological profile for the Republican nomination like Christie, but he has actively promoted the fact that he has the wrong ideological profile. At least Christie pretends to be a conservative; Kasich embraces Obamacare Medicaid expansion, which he enacted through executive order. To make matters worse, Kasich’s cheerful, uplifting tone is a terrible fit for a Republican electorate that can best be described as “mad as hell.”

The strategy that Kasich is pursuing has clear precedent. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman pursued a similar strategy in 2012 and performed about as well in New Hampshire. For those unconvinced, Kasich’s chief strategist, John Weaver, was Huntsman’s chief strategist as well. Needless to say, Huntsman did not win the nomination, and it is likely that Kasich will follow in his footsteps. Consider one huge red flag: our dear Hanover was Kasich’s best precinct in the state. According to the Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI), Hanover is as liberal as most inner cities and is more liberal than the inner Houston district represented by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee.

Long story short, Kasich’s victory does not help himself so much as it hurts Rubio.

Adding insult to injury, not only did Rubio fail to best Kasich and Cruz, he also fell behind Bush, who had been written off as a dead man walking. A fifth place finish for Rubio is certainly embarrassing, but he remains the establishment candidate best positioned to take on Cruz and Trump. Complicating the picture, however, is the fact that Bush and Kasich now have no reason to drop out. After all, they have every reason to hold onto the sliver of hope that they will win the nomination given that the conventional wisdom about Rubio was wrong in New Hampshire. The result is three candidates continuing to splinter the electorate to the benefit of Trump and Cruz, especially with Trump-friendly South Carolina and the Cruz-friendly Super Tuesday (SEC Primary) states coming up.

Traditionally, New Hampshire’s one job has been to winnow the field. This year, it failed.

Democrats

A year ago, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the 74 year-old self-avowed socialist, was hardly considered a serious challenging to overwhelming frontrunner Hillary Clinton, a former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State. As with the Republican primary, things have changed.

Sanders, driven by a sincere message focused relentlessly on economic inequality, rose almost continuously in the polls, especially as Clinton dealt with perceived character flaws on account of her email scandal. Clinton gave a strong performance at the first Democratic debate, seemingly halting Sanders’ momentum, but Sanders continued to rise in the long run. Clinton lacked a cohesive message, preferring instead to attack Sanders where he was vulnerable with the Democratic electorate, such as on his insufficient commitment to gun control. That strategy has clearly failed.

On February 1, 2016, Clinton won a squeaker of a victory against Sanders in the Iowa caucuses, 49.9 percent to 49.6 percent. Clinton, with full Democratic establishment support, then attempted to limit Sanders’ margin of victory in the New Hampshire, but clearly failed. On February 9, 2016, Sanders won 60 percent to 38 percent in the New Hampshire primary.

While Sanders did very well in Iowa and New Hampshire, he is less likely to do well in future nominating contests. Despite some echoes of 2008, he is not nearly as well positioned as then-Senator Barack Obama was at this point in that cycle. Sanders did well in Iowa and New Hampshire on account of the fact that these two states are incredibly white. (Sanders was also boosted in New Hampshire by the fact that he is from neighboring Vermont, which shares a media market with part of New Hampshire.) Future states in the Democratic nominating process are far less white, and there is little evidence that Sanders’ appeal extends to minorities, who very strongly favor Clinton. Furthermore, the party establishment has consolidated to an overwhelming degree behind Clinton, even more so than in 2008.

Nevertheless, the Democrats now have a real race on their hands. Clinton remains the favorite, but Sanders has a chance if he builds up support among minority voters.

On both sides of the aisle, it is going to be an interesting race going forward.