With the Iowa caucuses less than a month away, the nomination races in both parties are finally getting serious.
The Republican race is almost impossible to predict. Donald Trump leads in the polls, but his support comes from low-information voters who may not turn out.
Meanwhile, the Democratic race offers potential for a major upset, with socialist Bernie Sanders gathering enthusiasm from millennials “feeling the Bern.” Suddenly, Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination appears obstructed.
As a spectator, I believe it’s the most interesting pair of nominating battles in decades.
To the Right
Donald Trump has a big lead on the Republican side, but his lead is vulnerable.
First, a recent study has shown that many of Trump’s biggest supporters are still registered as Democrats. They’re non-college voters who have drifted to the right in recent years. But being registered as Democrats means they’re not eligible to vote in Republican primaries and caucuses in most states.
Meanwhile, Trump draws support almost evenly from all factions of Republicans (including those registered as Democrats), but his support is less widespread among college-educated voters and those with a strong interest in politics.
Thus, the potential for a Trump collapse is strong, though it shouldn’t be assumed.
Away from Trump, the “establishment” wing of the Republican Party is engaged in a bitter, internal struggle. Typically, the establishment coalesces around one suitably squishy, moderate hawk who then defeats the struggling anti-establishment candidates.
But this time, it seems to be the other way around.
Rick Perry, Scott Walker, and Bobby Jindal all dropped out early, leaving Ted Cruz as the strongest “movement” conservative by far. He has a good shot at taking the Iowa caucuses.
On the establishment side, Jeb Bush is far too well-funded to admit that his family name is a fatal handicap and drop out, while John Kasich and Chris Christie both have strong hopes of a good finish in New Hampshire.
Marco Rubio, who perhaps visualized himself as straddling the establishment and movement wings, finds himself condemned for his sin in immigration policy, when he supported the “Gang of Eight” amnesty bill in 2013. And as a foreign policy “hawk,” he is anathema to the Rand Paul wing that forms such an important part of the conservative movement.
Paul himself is now a no-hoper. The establishment foreign policy hawks have marginalized him – though they now find themselves faced with the ghastly prospects of Trump and Cruz.
As for Ben Carson: lovely man, but now no longer a serious contender.
At this point, I’ll leave it up to you to tell me how this will turn out. I’ll only observe that Cruz so far has run a very clever campaign, advancing in Trump’s slipstream and thereby avoiding the wrath of the establishment he has opposed in Congress.
If Trump falters, my money would be on Cruz getting the nomination, while the establishment slinks back to its lair, grinding its teeth and proving its impotence by sitting on its hands in the general election, only to find that nobody cares.
To the Left
On the Democrat side, Hillary Clinton remains well ahead in the polls but is surprisingly vulnerable to attacks, not only on her record as Secretary of State and on her emails, but also from Donald Trump on her 1990’s aggressions against her husband’s groupies, which belie her claims to modern feminism.
Bernie Sanders has few arguments with her on foreign policy but has taken a heavily anti-Wall Street high-taxes stance on economic policy. His stance is finding support, especially among millennials disillusioned by the sluggish economy.
While Sanders’ economic populism appeals more to the young than Trump’s bombast, he also has a certain crossover appeal to blue-collar Trump supporters, many of whom, as observed above, are still registered as Democrats.
Thus, the possibility exists for an upset.
Sanders is ahead in New Hampshire and not that far behind in Iowa. If he pulls a little extra support from Democrat-registered Trump supporters who’ve been counted as Republicans, he could win both.
In which case, Hillary’s campaign would appear to be holed below the waterline. Sanders would then have a good shot at being the nominee, unless the party establishment conspires at the convention to bring in a new face like Kirsten Gillibrand or the faithful Joe Biden.
As for the general election, we’ll know more around March.
Rubio is the Republicans’ strongest candidate against either Clinton or Sanders. Trump is weak against Sanders but stronger against Clinton, as he’d lose suburban moderates but gain some of the blue-collar Sanders vote.
Cruz has an uphill struggle against either, especially as the Republican establishment will give him little help. But as the cleverest campaigner, he may find an approach that works. He may also get helped by the economy; if a financial crash occurs before November, Hillary is toast.
Economically, only Cruz and Sanders promise much change from current policies.
Cruz would replace Janet Yellen as Fed chair, along with as many of the Fed governors as possible, returning to a traditional monetary policy with higher interest rates. He would also take an axe to government spending – though how effective he’d be isn’t clear, given the current composition of Congress.
Finally, Trump, Rubio, and Hillary, assuming the Republicans hold the House, will pursue much of the present unpleasant mix of policies. Sanders will make things worse, spending too much, taxing too much, and starting a trade war.
Bottom line: Hold on tight. It’s going to be an interesting ride.