Saturday, February 20, 2016

South Carolina (R) and Nevada (D)

Things are beginning to clarify, it seems. I just got an email from the Bernie campaign touting his close finish as a good sign for the rest of the race. In a way, that's right--a five point win looks mighty anemic for one of Hillary's "firewall" states. And yet as much of a moral victory as it was for Bernie, it was a state he needed to win if he was going to actually get the nomination. The math gets very tough going forward. SC is great Hillary country, and then we go to Super Tuesday, with lots of southern (read: diverse) states. She will likely have a pretty hefty delegate lead on March 2. Bernie's path was always very narrow. It gets narrower now.

The GOP side is getting interesting. In his worst case, it looks like Trump has about 35% of the vote. It's not clear he can build much on that--it's certainly not clear he has a majority of the GOP. So how does a guy with a minority of the party win the nomination? He depends on a splintered field. As Sean Balkwill noted, Trump is going to get most of the delegates out of SC. So long as there continue to be four or five candidates in the field, he can continue to win states with 35%.

Fascinatingly, the fact that Trump may not have majority support is exactly why the other candidates may stay in the race. They'll all calculate that in a two-man race, they could beat Trump. They will probably all see enough good news in the SC results to stick with it until Super Tuesday on March 1, hoping to poach a state or two and revive their campaigns. By that time, Trump may well have a substantial delegate lead. (It might even be better for him to lose a few states on March 1 if they go to different challengers.)

If Cruz finishes 3rd, I don't see how he wins the nomination--though he'll definitely stick around until Super Tuesday, when Texas votes.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Politics of Supreme Court Nominations in 2016

Random things I've been thinking about in the five days since Antonin Scalia died.

1. It's going to be a challenge for Obama to find a justice willing to be a pawn in a historical/constitutional drama--rather than the next Supreme Court justice.

2. The GOP base seems more sensitive to the Supreme Court, and Scalia's death seems more likely to benefit Republicans. It won't move the needle much, but one or two percent here and one or two percent there and pretty soon you're talking real margins.

3. The politics, both in the Senate and on the Court, are likely to be unexpected. The Court is not going to want to deadlock, and I think people overestimate the 4-4 votes ahead. (The Court doesn't think like legislators do, and counting votes is always dicey.)

In the Senate, I think a few members are bigger institutionalists than we may expect. The Senate functions only because of behavioral norms--strictly followed unwritten rules--and once those are transgressed, government fails to work. We assume the entire GOP consists of bomb-throwers happy to tear down the structure of government. That may be wrong.

4. Everyone is also starting to realize that Scalia's death is only the first in what will be substantial turnover in the next two presidential terms. It's hard to imagine Ginsberg (almost 83), Kennedy (79), and Breyer (77) will all be on the Court when Chelsea Clinton is sworn in in January 2025. This isn't the last fight.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Obama's Third Supreme Court Nomnation

I am relishing the politics of this supreme court vacancy. Republicans have gotten out in front and tried to put pressure on Obama not to even make a nomination, framing it as a matter for the electorate (Mitch McConnell: "The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice"). That would of course be ideal for the GOP because the Dems could not therefore charge them with naked partisanship and abdicating their constitutional responsibility--which they would surely do if Obama makes a nomination.

Of course, Obama will make a nomination (and has said so).

If we take it as a given that Obama will make a nomination and the GOP will never allow that selection to join the court, what then is the game of play? The GOP have already committed part of their strategy by declaring they plan to block any nominee. They might have played it differently--being solicitous of the president, claiming to be willing to approve the "right" nominee, but then assaulting any selection as egregiously liberal and partisan.

Obama's best move, therefore, would be in selecting not only a candidate with spectacular qualifications, but one with no hint of a partisan past and also one who is near the center judicially. He could drive home this point home by selecting a judge the Senate has already approved--someone like Paul Watford (whom Tom Goldstein at SCOTUSblog thinks is a likely pick). He could further complicate the GOP obstruction by selecting a black or Latino judge. Given the GOP primaries, this would draw further stark distinctions between the two parties.

Obviously, the GOP realizes how bad the PR on this issue can get, which is why they're really trying to make the very constitutionally-mandated act of nominating Scalia's replacement look itself like a nakedly partisan act. (As with so many things, I expect the base will find that persuasive but probably not too many other folks.) And once Obama makes the nomination, the Senate's obstruction will then become a separate political issue, and Dems will spend the final months of the campaign using the obstruction both to win the presidency as well as a number of open Senate seats along the way.

Fun time!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Antonin Scalia, 1936-2016

I have to give Antonin Scalia credit: he loved injecting himself into politics, and he could hardly have had a bigger impact than dying right before an election. (No way the Senate lets Obama appoint a third liberal.) He must be chuckling now.

This is going to quickly become one of the key issues at stake--for many people, THE key issue. My first thought is that this is not going to be good for Trump. If the GOP loses this election, they lose control of the Supreme Court. Are they willing to leave that decision to a loose cannon like Trump? Are they going to risk the campaign on someone as unpopular as Trump is nationally? (His favorability nationwide is -18 to 24%, depending on the poll average.)

I wouldn't even be shocked if this helps Bush, whom party mandarins have always thought of as a capable if boring executive. Boring may look more appealing to the GOP now that the court's on the line.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

New Hampshire

I think the NH results speak for themselves, but in the interest of completism, my brief thoughts.

Dems. Bernie has always had a very narrow path to the nomination. It requires him to win big where he can, rack up delegates, and start to poach party support (and super delegates) from Hillary. He far out-performed polls in NH, so his path is a little wider this morning. Big, big win. We'll learn a lot about this campaign after Nevada and South Carolina.

GOP. The big question with Trump was whether his poll numbers were inflated by non-voters who wouldn't bother to cast a ballot. As one data point, New Hampshire's speaking pretty loudly. He out-performed the polls, which suggests his national numbers may be real. (He may continue to under-perform in caucus states.)

The worst news for Republicans is that voters aren't settling on a non-Trump candidate. Kasich is now in the mix, along with--amazingly--Bush. Cruz remains viable. It means Trump can continue to win states and rack up delegates while getting only 35-40% of the vote. I don't think anyone is taking Trump's chances lightly any more.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

On Trump's Appeal

Many folks are declaring his loss in Iowa as the beginning of the end, in part because his brand is "winning." The difficulty here is that we've never had a candidate like him, so guessing what his supporters will do is tough. My own view is that this "winning" thing is a distraction.

Trump's supporters are not society's winners. They're anxious and angry, and some are marginalized. They feel the political system has failed; whatever their individual fears (immigrants, loss of status, paycheck problems, etc), the GOP has been failing them for 20 years. They back Trump because he is NOT a typical Republican--he's not the latest in a series of standard-issue pols who will talk conservatism and then go to DC for business as usual.

It just doesn't make any sense to me that a second place finish in Iowa changes anything for these voters. Rubio and Cruz are very clearly creatures of government. Trump voters are going to jump on their bandwagon just because Trump didn't "win?" That would suggest a very shallow level of engagement.

Maybe so. I certainly don't hang out with folks who have been magnetized by Trump. But for seven months, pundits and the media have underestimated the true support Trump has had. This seems like yet another example of their failure to get Trump's appeal.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016


Whoa, Ted Cruz. Is there any here here? I guess it means Trump can't run the tables, which if you want chaos in the GOP nomination battle, is a pretty good outcome.

Cruz. Obviously a big win for him, but it only buys him time. Of the last six contested races in Iowa, the winner failed to go on and win the nomination four times. Very often for Republicans, the voters line up well for a particular kind of candidate--a candidate who is not received as well elsewhere.

Trump. A bump in the road, really. I imagine the media will go crazy the next week talking about how he face-planted and this "raises serious doubts" about his ability to win the nom. Nonsense. He is the opposite of the kind of candidate who normally does well here. (Giuliani, a one-time front-runner from NYC, blew off Iowa entirely.) He literally mocked Iowans and still finished second. If he wins handily in NH, those will be quickly-forgotten one-week stories.

Rubio. A pretty strong showing, but one tempered by the Cruz win. If Trump had beaten Cruz and Rubio finished this strongly, he might actually have emerged as the "winner." Iowa's delegates are irrelevant--Iowa's all about setting expectations. Rubio way out-performed the polls (23%), and if Cruz had tanked, he would have emerged as the plausible anti-Trump. Now he remains the third wheel. NH will be a very big test for him. He needs a second place finish. If Kasich or Christie sneak in front of him, it will be very, very bad for his campaign.

The upshot is that Trump is still the man to beat, performing respectably in a state he had no business contesting seriously. I think Cruz is too unlikable to be viable long-term, but his strong performance here may knock out Rubio, which will give Trump the nomination. Hard to see this changes the underlying dynamics much.


Dems. Bernie characterized the race, accurately, as a "virtual tie."  How does that affect things? I doubt there will be a lot of argument here (except, of course, from Bernie partisans): a tie is a win for Hillary. Bernie had the Red Sox primary locked up months ago and it will give his campaign a good week. But it doesn't change the basic calculus of the race, which hugely favors Hillary. For these reasons:

1. Iowa and NH are the 2nd and 6th whitest states in the US, and Bernie does best with whites. The next two states as S Carolina and Nevada, with huge nonwhite electorates. "Super Tuesday" follows, with several southern states. Exiting that date (March 1), Hillary will have a big delegate advantage.

2. Bernie has had months to speak directly to voters in NH and Iowa. This always benefits strong dark horse candidates. Following NH on Feb 9, there will be 14 contests and 1109 delegates at stake (NH and Iowa had 84). It's going to be impossible to spend the same level of time with voters in these states, so name recognition and familiarity will be an asset for Hillary.

3. Hillary has party support and will have many popular local pols on the trail for her in the 16 states following NH. Bernie will be on his own.

It doesn't seem like Bernie has a ton of good paths to victory here.