Requiem for a Lightweight

Republican leaders did everything they could to prop up Marco Rubio. After Scott Walker flamed out early; after Rick Perry found he needed more than smart glasses to stage a second presidential run; after Bobby Jindal couldn’t even excite members of his immediate family; after Chris Christie got out-bullied; after the great legacy candidate Jeb Bush found it takes more than punctuation to get people excited; after all this, in the end there was Rubio, sitting alone on the once deep Republican bench, the lone remaining hope of the party establishment.  They did everything they could to make it happen for him. Marco was surging, always surging, always always surging in polls that somehow showed him stalled at 15%. If you were honest about it, you knew the Rubio narrative never quite measured up to his long string of also-ran finishes, and that his promoters were feverishly trying to turn him into something more than the empty and brittle candidate he was proving to be. But they tried. They had no choice.

On paper, Rubio checked all the boxes: young, articulate, on message, great story, upbeat. If you assembled a nominee from a schematic he would look like Marco Rubio, someone who could package hardcore conservative ideas for consumption by moderate voters. There was a time when Rubio was on the verge of being formidable, when he was poised to take credit for resolving the impasse on immigration policy – if only reactionary House Republicans hadn’t been an insurmountable obstacle and forced Rubio to run away from his efforts as quickly as Mitt Romney ran away from his healthcare accomplishments. Imagine Rubio being able to claim credit, in English and Spanish, for resolving one of the most important and intractable issues of our day. It would have been a powerful campaign narrative and a far stronger rationale for his candidacy than his work on eminent domain.

Party leaders couldn’t have that candidate and simultaneously placate its vocal anti-immigrant constituency, so they went into battle with the Rubio they had, only to find that few voters were willing to rally around the story of his inevitability. Appropriately, Rubio won the Republican Washington, DC caucus – barely – but he has struggled in electorates with a lower density of lobbyists. He watched from behind as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz traded victories in Louisiana, Kentucky, Kansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Wyoming, Maine, Mississippi and Michigan, setting him up for a last stand in today’s winner-take-all primary in his native Florida, where his campaign played to embarrassingly small crowds. There was no place left for him to turn after his defeat there. So the process-of-elimination candidate was eliminated, along with the hopes of those who did everything they could to make him more than he was.

Ides of March

posted in: 2016 Election | 0

When the 2016 primary calendar was released, March 15 was a day you might have circled in red. It was designed to be the beginning of the end of the primary season, the day when the waning hopes of also-ran candidates would dissipate under the weight of electoral math. Iowa and New Hampshire would eliminate pretenders, South Carolina and Nevada would winnow the field to the very few with enough money and support to compete on Super Tuesday, and those who lingered would lack the money and momentum to win tomorrow’s big-state contests in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Florida and North Carolina. Six weeks of marathon campaigning would put an end to ungainly primary politics and provide the victors with a long, clear runway to the summer nominating conventions and the general election beyond.

So it didn’t quite work that way. Hillary Clinton has a comfortable delegate lead, which becomes commanding when you include pledged super delegates. She will likely expand it tomorrow. But Bernie Sanders has ignited a small-donor grassroots effort large enough to keep him in the contest regardless of what happens on Tuesday. Sanders can survive a weak showing in the Midwest and remain a presence in the race, but he will be a significant force if he follows his Michigan victory with strong performances in Illinois, Missouri and Ohio. On the Republican side, the primary process may have worked too well. Donald Trump’s dominant position would be strong enough to clear the field if the Read More

Can A Party Win Three Straight National Elections?

posted in: 2016 Election | 0

As the campaign season develops, we are likely to hear about how difficult it is for a political party to hold the White House for more than eight years and how this will give the eventual Republican nominee a tremendous advantage in the general election. Indeed, we are already hearing about predictive models that rely on assumptions about how voters develop a kind of partisan fatigue over time and reward the out party in an effort to quench their thirst for something new. Because any model is only as good as its assumptions, I thought this might be a good time to take a look back to see how well partisan fatigue describes the outcomes of prior elections in order to determine how much stock we should put in it this year. Be forewarned: this is a long post and it indulges in historical and social science analysis (although it is written in plain English).

The main evidence for partisan fatigue is rooted in the pattern of elections from 1952 through 2004, a long stretch of time that includes the most recent election cycles. During that 56-year period, only once did a party hold the White House for more than two consecutive terms, during the twelve-year run of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Jimmy Carter’s single term is also an outlier. Otherwise, the pattern during this period is clear: two Republican terms followed by two Democratic terms. If you want add the 2008 and 2012 elections to the mix, you can extend the pattern through the Obama years and be fairly confident that the Republicans are on deck for the next eight. Read More

Connecting the Dots

Wolves and Sheep is approaching its one month birthday, and I doubt it could have launched during a more unstable moment in American politics. Much has happened since we started this project on Valentine’s Day, so let’s see if we can connect a few dots to make sense of the national political picture as of Saturday March 12: Read More


I generally prefer to leave the horserace analysis to CNN, especially because it’s easy to overhype the significance of an event only to find that no one remembers it a week later. However, I think it is worth acknowledging that Bernie Sanders’ victory in Michigan yesterday snuck up on just about everyone and was one of those events that can alter the direction of a campaign. The widely accepted build-up to the primary had Sanders far behind in the polls and on the defensive against Hillary Clinton’s charge that he had opposed the auto bailout. Yet Sanders was able to pull out a victory, largely on the strength of independent voters who in Michigan were free to cast ballots as either Democrats or Republicans. Exit polls show Sanders lost Democrats by 16 points but won independents by 43 – and independents constituted 28% of the electorate.  Sanders also lost the African American vote by a narrower margin than he had across the South, and in keeping with what we said yesterday about coalition-building, the percentage of African American voters in Michigan is very close to the national average, placing it in range of other states where Sanders performed well.

Before Michigan, the Clinton campaign was prepared to pivot to a general election footing and begin running full time against the likely Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Although Sanders had the means to stay in the race regardless, Clinton would have stopped engaging him. She can’t do that now. Sanders’ victory in a large, diverse industrial state has to be taken seriously, as does the prospect that he can reassemble his Michigan coalition in other Rust Belt states with open primaries, starting with Ohio and Illinois next week.

This does not move Bernie any closer to the Democratic nomination. In fact, when coupled with his blowout loss in yesterday’s Mississippi primary, Sanders suffered a net loss in the delegate count. But Michigan maintains Sanders’ relevance in the campaign narrative, revives the long shot possibility of a dramatic upward turn in his electoral fortunes and, short of that, boosts the odds that his campaign will endure well into the spring. The longer Bernie is a presence in the Democratic contest, the more he fashions the party in his image.  Hillary’s campaign should be giving serious thought to what it will take to win the support and enthusiasm of Bernie’s voters should the delegate trajectory remain unchanged. After Michigan, it looks like it will take more than a symbolic act on Hillary’s part to get it done.

Bernie’s Coalition Challenge

You may hear commentators talk about today’s Michigan primary as an ideal opportunity for Bernie Sanders to demonstrate strength against Hillary Clinton in a major industrial state where his message of economic fairness should resonate with voters hit perhaps harder than anyone by the changing economy. Analysis like this makes perfect sense from a messaging perspective but misses the mark because it ignores a more fundamental problem at the heart of both the Sanders campaign and the larger progressive movement: the inability thus far to build a broad coalition in the electorate. Lest you think this is a criticism of Sanders, it is not. It can take years for a movement to take hold in enough communities to pose an electoral threat to the status quo.  It took movement conservatives more than two decades to assemble the coalition that would elect Ronald Reagan and keep Republicans in power for almost two generations. The progressive movement, which dates back to the dawn of the Internet era, has matured tremendously over the past decade.  It has been a driving force behind significant policy and process victories in recent years – like convincing the FCC to support Internet neutrality and convincing Senate Democrats to modify filibuster rules – precisely because it has started building winning coalitions with other Democratic Party constituencies in government. But accomplishing similar results in the electorate is a much bigger lift.

The most talked-about aspect of Bernie’s coalition challenge has been his difficulty attracting African American voters. The figure below tracks his percent of the vote in the first 18 primaries and caucuses against the share of African American voters in the electorate (mouse over the dots for details). The percentage of African Americans in eleven of those states is below the national average of 12.7%. Sanders’ share of the vote was near or above 50% in ten of them. But he was non-competitive in the seven states where the share of the African American vote was above the national average, and the greater the share of African American voters in the population the worse he did.

Graphics: Sharon Machlis

Sanders’ situation is complicated because he is a senator from a small, mostly white New England state who began the race with little recognition in the African American community. He is running against a candidate who is universally Read More

Can the Republican Party Secede From Itself?

Mitt Romney took to the airwaves last Thursday and reamed into Donald Trump, urging Republican voters to oppose his nomination in a tone-deaf plea to return the party to its rightful owners. He called Trump a phony, fraud and bully, and urged the Republican electorate to vote strategically – Rubio in Florida, Kasich in Ohio, Cruz anywhere he’s strong enough – to deny Trump a first-ballot convention victory.  His strategy dangles from the tenuous twin assumptions that Rubio and Kasich have enough strength to win their home states after going a combined 1-19 to open the primary season (Minnesota!), and that Republican voters are ready to listen to Mitt Romney.

It’s true that Trump had a weak showing in Saturday’s contests in Louisiana, Kentucky, Kansas and Maine, winning the first two by narrow margins and losing to Cruz in the others, but that may have had less to do with Romney’s pronouncement than with Trump’s pattern of underperforming in caucus states and closed primaries, or his jarring comments in last Thursday’s middle school locker room presidential debate. Notwithstanding Saturday’s results, Trump continues to be in a commanding position going into what will be tipping point primaries in Florida and Ohio in ten days, and Republican elites, including Romney, have no idea what to do about it.

Whatever positive response Romney may have expected from more conventional corners of the Republican rank-and-file, he should have known his words would embolden Trump-friendly voters who wouldn’t appreciate a lecture from one of the most prominent members of the Republican establishment. It may not have occurred to Romney that it Read More

This May Not End Well

Yesterday, I raised the possibility that the Republican Party has split into two incompatible parties living inside a single body. One Republican Party is traditionally conservative and has been unable to settle on a nominee from among Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Jeb Bush and a host of governors who long ago left the scene. The other Republican Party is reactionary, obstructionist and supports Donald Trump for president. Because these two parties share a common organizational structure and therefore can only nominate one candidate, at some point the preferences of their two groups of voters are going to clash. Let’s take a minute to consider how this may play out.

After Super Tuesday, Donald Trump is the prohibitive frontrunner for the Republication nomination.  The primary contest would be over had any of the candidates on the conservative side won New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, then followed up with a dominating Super Tuesday performance. Likewise, the historic turnout figures we’re seeing in almost every Republican primary would be an early indicator of success in November if Republicans were a single party and could coalesce around their candidate. But Donald Trump is an unacceptable choice for party elites who fear he will cost Republicans the Senate and possibly the House in addition to the White House, or who doubt his loyalty to conservative economic or social principles, or who fear he will do lasting damage to the party because of his nativist appeal, or all of the above. Some of these individuals are on the ballot and fear being pulled down by Trump if he faces a backlash from the general electorate. But the failure of the conservative side to produce a nominee with sufficient appeal to match Trump has left these party leaders with no viable options.

With a growing delegate lead and nationwide appeal to an energized reactionary base, Trump is in a favorable position to win the nomination outright. At this moment, no other candidate can say that. Ted Cruz is entrenched in second Read More

Radio Times

posted in: General | 0

For those of you who live in Philadelphia, I will be on Radio Times on WHYY/91FM this morning at 10 am as part of a panel discussing yesterday’s Super Tuesday results.

UPDATE: You can listen to the broadcast here.

Are Republicans Already Two Parties?

Initial thoughts on Super Tuesday: Republicans.  Major American parties are alliances of disparate interests. They work effectively when their coalition partners can find enough common ground to put aside their differences, and they fail when differences stand in the way of compromise.  With the radicalization of a significant element of the Republican Party during the Obama years, it’s reasonable to ask whether Republicans have become two incompatible groups sharing one label: a traditional party that seeks to govern by conservative principles and a reactionary party determined to shut everything down. Evidence of this split has been apparent for several years in the inability of the Republican party-in-government to come to terms with itself. It is why Marco Rubio’s compromise immigration plan was blocked by House Republicans and why former Speaker John Boehner had to rely on a grand coalition of Democrats and non-reactionary Republicans whenever he was faced with must-pass legislation opposed by his reactionary caucus.

No place was this division more apparent on Tuesday than in Virginia, where Marco Rubio’s surprisingly strong showing was built in establishment-friendly areas of suburban Washington, while Trump dominated outside the Beltway. Now that Super Tuesday has reaffirmed Donald Trump’s dominant position in the Republican presidential contest, the reactionary/conservative division has finally been given full expression by the party in the electorate, with the reactionaries demonstrating the most fervor and unity. Conservative voters remained divided as Cruz showed strength in his home state of Texas and neighboring Oklahoma, Rubio won Minnesota and Kasich performed impressively in Vermont.  But Trump was competitive everywhere. The ramifications for this type of split are profound, and we are seeing them in the emerging division between Republican elites who are rallying around the frontrunner and those who want to run as far away as possible. As Trump marches closer to the nomination, the pressure on establishment Republicans to choose sides will become intense, forcing elites to side with either the conservatives or the reactionaries. It’s hard to see how this happens under one tent.  Much more on this in the days and weeks ahead.

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