Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Top 10 Political Questions of 2016

After nearly a month off from the subject (a much needed break of sorts in the height of Oscar and Christmas season), I am finally returning to the world of political writing.  If you're here exclusively for the politics, know that we'll be back to our Tuesday/Thursday/occasional Friday routine in the next two weeks or so as I begin to assess where exactly we're going to go once Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina cast their incredibly important ballots (if you aren't interested in US politics, we'll still be doing tons of Oscar coverage in the coming weeks as well so please stick around!).  Before that happens, however, I think it's time to pose what I view as ten of the most important questions of the political year, the ten questions that will decide who will succeed President Barack Obama in the White House and what kind of Congress he or she has to deal with as a result.  Let's take a look (in no particular order) at the questions that will decide the next four years for the USA:

1. What Happens to Donald Trump Past New Hampshire?

The biggest political question of them all is what happens if Donald Trump, as he is largely expected to do, wins New Hampshire.  Trump's national numbers are very strong, strong enough that if we had the National Primary Day I've long espoused he would almost certainly be headed to the convention with a plurality, if not an outright majority, of the delegates necessary to make him the nominee.  The problem for Trump is that we don't live in that world but instead one that values who can win a few select states and then how you can build on that momentum.  Trump has largely given Iowa over to Ted Cruz, and has set most of his intentions on a strong second in the Hawkeye State, coupled with a win in New Hampshire.  If this happens, we're in unprecedented territory as the victor of one of those two states has won every single nomination since 1976 except one (Bill Clinton in 1992, and he had to go against favorite sons in both states), and the establishment doesn't quite seem ready for either Trump or Cruz.  Even if they're not, this is something that's been brewing in the GOP for years now, and if Trump comes out of New Hampshire with a "W" he's a viable candidate for the nomination and therefore the Oval Office.
Canary in the Coal Mine: I'll be doing a "what to watch for" with each of these predictions as a sort of harbinger of what might come of this question and how best to answer it.  Here I think the question falls not to South Carolina, which I think will favor Cruz, but instead to Nevada, where Trump's casino empire and level of bombast might find its next home.  Trump has been leading here for months but Cruz is gaining.  If Trump can take NH and NV, he'll have an insanely large amount of momentum headed into Super Tuesday.

2. Chris Christie & New Hampshire

No one has been trying harder to claim the "John McCain Man-from-Behind" mantle than Gov. Chris Christie (well, Jeb Bush and John Kasich are trying, but with limited success).  With Trump, Carson, and Cruz all jockeying in Iowa for position, the establishment is betting almost all of its money on the second place position in New Hampshire as their guy.  For a long time there it seemed like Rubio or perhaps Cruz would take the silver, but Christie has the Big Mo and also comes the closest to favorite son status (New Jersey having a general proximity to New Hampshire).  Christie's frankness in the Granite State makes a lot of sense, of course, considering their famous "Live Free or Die" mentality, and though at the moment Rubio has the technical second place position, Christie could well slide into his spot and as a result become the Chamber of Commerce candidate.  In a three-legged race against Trump and Cruz the New Jersey governor would have a big advantage, but the Clinton camp has to be salivating over taking on the scandal-plagued and famously short-tempered former US Attorney on while the young-and-more-tactful Marco Rubio waits in the wings.  If Christie manages to take some oxygen in New Hampshire, it leaves little room for Bush, Kasich, or Rubio to gain some sort of spark down-the-road.
Canary in the Coal Mine: Look to see if Marco Rubio makes a gambit play at either South Carolina or Nevada in the coming weeks, as that would be a sign that his second place in New Hampshire strategy is taking a hit from Christie and he needs a dent somewhere else.

3. Ted Cruz's Southern Swing

Ted Cruz is in a very strong position.  He's doing well in Iowa, well enough that he might emerge with the first "W" of the GOP primaries, and has gained in position in every major early primary state in a move that mirrors Ben Carson a few months ago, except Cruz is doing it when voters actually are about to cast crucial ballots.  The question for Cruz isn't whether or not he'll emerge as a serious candidate for the nomination-he's already done that-but where does he go next on the map to build on his momentum.  While Trump currently leads in South Carolina and Florida, I suspect Cruz will combine his Midwestern state appeal with huge pockets of voters in the delegate-rich South.  Cruz is going to have a harder time in certain places like New York or Pennsylvania, where a Christie or Rubio candidacy may have a better shot, but if he can take enough Southern voters from Trump while taking on rural voters in places like Idaho and Colorado, that could be a recipe for the nomination.
Canary in the Coal Mine: Look to see where Cruz goes after an Iowa victory.  If he skips out entirely on New Hampshire, assuming that he can afford a Trump/Christie victory there, and goes to South Carolina trying to cut off Trump, he thinks he doesn't need to worry about Rubio and can start to tackle the South right away, getting Trump's supporters in the same way he did Ben Carson's.

4. Marco Rubio & the No Early State Strategy

The fourth candidate that has a real shot at the GOP nomination (and it should be read, the last), is Marco Rubio who is still on that list primarily because everyone knows he's the most electable candidate of the four (Christie will play the electability card down hard, but only because he thinks his rivals are Trump and Cruz, where he does have a decided advantage in that column).  The problem for Rubio is that in an age of social media and instantly branding someone a winner or a loser, he hasn't actually been able to find an early state to stake a claim in: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, and even his home state of Florida have all come up short for the first-term senator.  Rubio was banking on getting a number of second or third places in these states, and coming in ahead of Bush/Christie/Kasich, which was probably a smart strategy and one that still could work, but if Christie takes the second place in New Hampshire it's questionable where Rubio could even find a second place in the remaining states.  Without an early state, it's hard to bill him as the most electable candidate as the candidates push into Super Tuesday, and he could miss out in terms of organization and money, particularly to the better-prepared Ted Cruz.
Canary in the Coal Mine: The obvious canary here is New Hampshire and the second place crown.  If Rubio manages to hold Bush back to second (or even third, depending on Ted Cruz), he can probably handle himself as a Trump v. Cruz race will assuredly have a third leg.  If Christie wins, though, you'll be able to tell that Rubio is trying for a Hail Mary by running to Florida.  The home state advantage would be his last shot at upending the field and stealing Christie's thunder.

5. The Brokered Convention

The political nerd's dream, a brokered GOP convention could well happen if Trump, Cruz, and an establishment candidate (either Rubio or Christie) come out of Super Tuesday with enough wins to be formidable but not enough to actually seal the deal for the nomination.  Now a brokered convention could take many forms-something like, say, the 1984 Democratic Convention where Walter Mondale was clearly going to win but was technically considered "brokered" (Mondale was forty delegates shy thanks to Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson having enough supporters) wouldn't be nearly as exciting as something from the late 19th Century, when candidates who hadn't even run somehow popped up as contenders.  How a brokered convention might work would depend a lot on who the frontrunner was-if Cruz, Rubio, or Christie were leading, considering their positions as elected officials, they might have an easier time than a Donald Trump who would surely come across as poison for the general election.  In this case we would expect a potential Trump/Cruz nomination or a Rubio/Christie pull to try and pool enough delegates together to win the nomination (and we'd get loads of political analysts pretending to be knowledgeable about Parliamentary Procedure when in reality they're reading Wikipedia just like the rest of us).  If the convention went on long enough without a nominee, we could have a situation where the nominee doesn't get to pick their running mate (this was close to happening in 1988, where Michael Dukakis nominated Lloyd Bentsen by voice vote rather than a roll call to preclude Jesse Jackson voters from potentially putting him onto the ticket) or a candidate like Paul Ryan who would be a coalition candidate that might satisfy both wings of the party should no one seem like a viable alternative.
Canary in the Coal Mine: If at least three candidates emerge out of Super Tuesday with a serious shot at the nomination, this could happen.

6. The Compensation Running Mates

While occasionally you get a running mate like Al Gore who seems to be doubling-down on your demographic/geographic/ideological strategy, more times than not a veep selection is trying to shore up a deficit in your candidacy.  While it's conventional wisdom that the VP candidate doesn't matter, that's not always the case.  Particularly in an era of Sarah Palin, where a running mate can be considered a disaster, people will pay attention if you pick a particularly compelling (one way or the other) second-in-command.  For Hillary Clinton, she may want to shore up Hispanic voters if she's facing a Rubio or a Cruz by picking Julian Castro, while she may be more inclined to go for a strategic state or a longtime stalwart if she's facing off against a Donald Trump and has a larger lead.  For the Republicans, I suspect that, unless they are hemorrhaging female voters (in which case a Nikki Haley might be an option), they'll probably try and take a swing state, with Ohioans Rob Portman & John Kasich, along with Floridians Marco Rubio & Jeb Bush and Wisconsinite Scott Walker (depending on who the eventual nominee is) going to the front of the line in terms of who the veep candidate is.
Canary in the Coal Mine: Around June, start looking to see who is A) in the lead and B) where the pitfalls are.  Unless the nominee is Trump I suspect that the presidential nominees are going to compensate rather than try to pick a mini-me, so their actual numbers compared to where they need to win will be where they target their running mate choice.

7. The Political Giant Factor

Much has been made in the past few days about President Bill Clinton's entrance into the presidential race as he starts to campaign for his wife in early primary states, but Hillary Clinton has what could be a major liability in that her campaign could frequently be overshadowed by her husband and her former boss, still-President Obama.  Both presidents, along with First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, will demand huge crowds and headlines, and while that could be a huge plus for Clinton (she'll be able to cover more ground on the regular if she has six people, including her running mate, out on the campaign trail for her rather than just the typical two), it also risks her being overshadowed.  The spouse of a presidential candidate is always out on the trail for them, but it's likely that Republicans will attack Clinton and say she's riding the coattails of her popular husband and President Obama, and that she's the "runner-up" candidate.  Republicans aren't totally out of the woods in that regard (Speaker Paul Ryan is likely the establishment's first choice if they could have anyone as their presidential nominee in 2016 and may overshadow the eventual nominee on the campaign trail), but Democrats are far more of a focus in this query.
Canary in the Coal Mine: It'll be interesting to see how the consistently candid President Clinton does in his early days, and whether he sticks to the script or avoids gaffes.  He served as a particularly compelling surrogate to President Obama in 2012, so he knows how it's done, but Hillary Clinton, much like Al Gore before her, has been reluctant to give him too much to do on the campaign trail to risk comparison.

8. Can Hillary Clinton Recreate the Obama Coalition?

It's a fact that Hillary Clinton will be able to win the majority of women, African-Americans, Latino voters, GLBT voters, and Millennials; anyone who thinks otherwise has been drinking too much Kool-Aid.  However, the question isn't whether she'll win with them, but by how much.  President Obama cobbled together an impressive demographic coalition in these voting groups, but none of them seem (at this point) as enthused for Sec. Clinton as they were for the current president.  Hillary Clinton will likely do slightly better amongst senior citizens and white voters than the incumbent which should help, but she'll need this voting group to get out, hard, in order to actually win an historic third term for the Democrats.  Whether or not she does this is the true question for the 2016 election-Republicans can't beat the percentages and voter turnout numbers that President Obama pulled together four years ago, especially as the country has become more diverse in that time, so if Clinton manages to hold these groups, she'll win.
Canary in the Coal Mine: Look to see which demographics abandon Clinton in early primary states in favor of Bernie Sanders-I suspect that will be where her campaign spends a good chunk of its time in May to stave off any defectors to the GOP or (more likely) not voting.  Also watch throughout the next few months how much money Clinton and the DNC put into GOTV efforts in places like Georgia and Arizona-this will show how bullish they are about converting lay voters into people who get to the polls.

Gov. Ted Strickland (D-OH)
9. Senate and the Coattails

The past few presidential cycles have shown that people are increasingly unwilling to split their ballot, which could be anathema for Republicans this cycle if Hillary Clinton does well in the states that President Obama won in 2012.  Seven states (plus North Carolina and Indiana if you want to count 2008) went for Obama in both of his national elections but currently have sitting Republican senators, and the Democrats are hoping that if Hillary Clinton can hold most of those states, they will end up ousting a large number of these Republicans, all but two of which are either open seats or first-termers from the 2010 wave.  The DSCC had a very strong recruiting cycle (missing everyone but Kay Hagan), and even have insurance policies in Missouri and Arizona in case the Republicans nominate Trump or Cruz and Clinton might have a wave on her hands.  If the Democrats can transform down-ballot voters, this could be a huge victory and swing the Senate.
Canary in the Coal Mine: Polls this far out mean nothing, but once we hit the summer look to see how candidates like Ted Strickland, Maggie Hassan, and the eventual Democratic primary winner in Pennsylvania are running in comparison to Hillary Clinton.  If the numbers are about equal, expect this to be a coattails election and the Republican senators' fates to be tied to their nominee, for the good or the bad.

10. The DCCC Recruiting Problem

While the DSCC has had a stupendous recruitment season, the DCCC has struggled consistently to nab major talent, frequently relying on congressional aides and millionaires rather than the traditional mayors and state legislators as their candidates for major office, with plum potential seats such as Barbara Comstock's still without a challenger only months before the primaries.  The question here isn't whether or not the DCCC has lost the battle (they have), but whether it will make the difference in them making big gains.  Candidates matter, but less so than they did say a decade ago before down-ballot party-switching went out of vogue.  If Hillary Clinton is taking on Donald Trump, will the Republicans be able to stave off losses down-ballot because the Democrats brought out the C-Team, or will having a 'D' behind your name be all that matters in swing or left-leaning districts currently held by the GOP?
Canary in the Coal Mine: Look at places like NY-24, NV-3, and IA-3, where the Democrats have feasible candidates but certainly not their top choices.  If they are winning here, it's likely because the electorate simply doesn't want to vote Republican.  If they struggle to gain traction despite a stronger national headwind for their party, it's due to recruitment failures.

Those are the ten major questions I have for the 2016 election cycle-what are the questions you want answered or are most curious about?  Share your thoughts below in the comments!

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