We are just days away from the Iowa caucuses, and it's time to start looking not just at which of these men and women running are going to win the Hawkeye State, but also who is going to win the nation just over ten months from now. This has been arguably the strangest primary season of my twenty-some years of watching politics. I've seen people like Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Howard Dean, and Pat Buchanan all rise to the top, but never would I have guessed that headed into the Iowa/New Hampshire first two races that we would be looking at a Socialist Vermont senator and a bombastic reality TV star and thinking "these men could be my president?"
But here's the dirty little secret of the election-even if you don't like any of these candidates, one of them is about to be elected your leader. We don't just call off an election when America doesn't like anyone running, and as a result I thought I'd try something new in the line today. Rather than exclusively rank either the Democratic or the Republican primary, I figured I'd go with a combined list, and simply rank based on who is most-likely to become president, with Number One being my current guess as to who is most probable to win the White House this November. We'll start with eight because, well, the limbo bar can only go so high before it's not fun any more.
Why He's a Threat: The former New York mayor has made a lot of rumblings recently about an independent bid for president, which should scare the crap out of both parties, but in this case I'm going to say even more so the Democrats. Bloomberg may have spent most of his political career as a Republican, but his recent moves to the left on health and gun control-related issues are extremely liberal. It's worth noting, however, that if one of the Chamber of Commerce-style candidates doesn't win the GOP primaries, Bloomberg is a viable alternative as he'll appeal to business-minded voters in a way that Trump or Cruz won't.
What He Needs to Win: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to win both their primaries, and for the middle of America to be so disgusted that a Ross Perot-style candidacy can take center stage. Bloomberg has the money (unlike Trump, he can throw a billion dollars into this race without feeling much heat), but it's hard to imagine if the Republicans nominated, say, Rubio, or if the Democrats went for Hillary Clinton that he'd be able to peel much support from either party. Still, it's at least feasible (there's a strong possibility that Trump and Sanders win the IA/NH one-two punch, which has been a foolproof path to the nomination since 1972) that Trump/Sanders is the race, so that keeps Bloomberg (and any number of other random billionaires) in the mix.
Why He's a Threat: Kasich has started to steal Chris Christie's thunder in New Hampshire, and is looking more and more likely to throw off Marco Rubio's 3-2-1 plan even before the more difficult position of winning South Carolina rears its head. Kasich isn't the flashiest of candidates, and is probably the most moderate Republican, but if he gets second place in New Hampshire, which is looking more and more feasible, he has a position of strength it's unlikely any other non-Trump/Cruz candidate will be able to attain out of the first four contests. The establishment isn't really in a position to be picky here.
What He Needs to Win: First, to not only take New Hampshire's second place, but to start scooping up establishment endorsements relatively quickly-if the likes of Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Carly Fiorina don't get out of the race and get behind the Ohio governor rather than Marco Rubio, this isn't happening. Secondly, he needs to have enough middle-of-the-road Republicans who are disgusted by Cruz/Trump to get out to secure his nomination as he doesn't have the superdelegate options that Clinton does if she starts to slip. It's a slim possibility, admittedly, but unlike Carson or Fiorina and the like, Kasich at least has a path.
Why He's a Threat: Money and organization haven't really been that beneficial so far this cycle, but Bush still has them and as long as he does it's impossible to completely dismiss the Florida governor. I said above that the establishment can't be too picky, and that applies to Bush as well. While the idea that he'll take second place in New Hampshire has long ago disappeared, Bush has been able to take on Trump before, and there's the possibility that Kasich is a one-trick pony that won't be able to translate a silver in the Granite State to anywhere else.
What He Needs to Win: First off, he needs Marco Rubio to lose, badly. Getting a fourth place in Iowa and New Hampshire (not impossible, but unlikely particularly in NH) could badly damage his credibility (it also wouldn't hurt if Bush would outperform in one of these states). Second, he needs to be able to seem like the only establishment candidate who could actually stay in the race long enough to rack up delegates (this is more likely if Rubio and Kasich fall). And third, he has to be able to rebound on Super Tuesday and hope that Trump/Cruz split the race enough that that will matter. He needs the race to stay three-person in order to have an outsider's chance. That's a lot of qualifiers, but no one really goes into this race without a severe debit on their chances, and the Bushes have staged primary comebacks in the past.
Why He's a Threat: First off, I had to double check but yes, there is no longer an 'I' next to Bernie Sanders name, so that's weird to start writing after all of these years. Sanders is a threat because he's got the momentum. Many people quibble over whether or not Sanders is tough enough to take on Hillary Clinton in the same way President Obama did eight years ago, but the reality is that he's now leading by a sizable margin in New Hampshire, and most recent polls show him in a position-of-strength in Iowa. The last person to win both of these states and still lose the nomination was Ed Muskie in 1972, so it's been over 40 years. That's a long history, and between the email scandals and personality deficits, it does appear that Hillary Clinton has hit a road in her candidacy where a challenger could take over.
What He Needs to Win: First off, he needs to win the nomination, which is going to be hard when he can't run as grounded of a retail campaign, which is what he has going for him and it's worth noting that outside Iowa and New Hampshire the Democratic primaries get decidedly less liberal/progressive and more moderate, which will hurt Sanders' campaign. Secondly, he needs for Trump (and to a lesser extent, Cruz) to win to scare the middle ground in America to get out behind him. It's worth noting that moderate Republicans and middle-ground candidates (and not just independents-in-name-only types who actually always vote for the same party) may be willing to vote for Clinton with relative ease knowing that she'll be in-line with Bill in the 90's (and they'll get a chance to throw her out four years later if they want), but Sanders position as a socialist may be too much for crucial voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Vermont senator almost has to be facing Trump in order for people to get over that stigma.
Why He's a Threat: Rubio is a threat because out of all of the candidates in the race, he's arguably the one who would have the easiest time in the general election. Having the hardest time in the primary is, well, what most people have to deal with (it's rare that you have a non-incumbent candidate like Al Gore or Bob Dole where the general election was a more difficult and disproportionate odds game than the primary) but Rubio's great in debates, the youngest candidate, and is the one man who can bridge the conservative and moderate wings of the Republican Party, which will matter in an election that, statistically based on history, should favor the GOP (Democrats are notoriously bad at winning third terms when they aren't named Franklin Delano Roosevelt).
What He Needs to Win: He has to find a way to permeate the Republican Primary. That's the issue here-Rubio would be formidable against Clinton and clobber Sanders, but there's no really great pathway to the nomination for the Florida senator, and time is ticking. If he can't score a surprise second place in New Hampshire, he'll have to hope that he's the establishment candidate who comes out the best after the first four primaries, and that the likes of Jeb Bush and John Kasich get behind him in a big way...and that Cruz/Trump is even enough that someone else can still come in for a piece of the pie on Super Tuesday.
Why He's a Threat: Cruz may wish the primaries were two weeks ago (he's started to lose steam in Iowa and doesn't appear likely to oust Trump in either of the first two states), but he's still well-positioned if the race ends up knocking most of the candidates as expected out after the first four states. Establishment Republicans, at least those who aren't sharing a Senate chamber with him, will favor the Texas senator to Donald Trump, and while they may do so with lukewarm support, if he's their only option I suspect that the powers-that-be will give him a mild endorsement, which could help as the race progresses. As I stated above, the Republicans do have a somewhat tepid historical advantage this cycle (it's questionable whether that's also true for the electoral college), but regardless any person who wins the nomination has a 50/50 shot at the White House so far this century.
What He Needs to Win: To make this a two-man race against Trump as quickly as possible. Trump's support in the primary is starting to get to insanely high levels, and Cruz can only continue to make inroads against the Republican billionaire if he can shadow him closely until Super Tuesday. Secondly, he needs either for the aura around Hillary Clinton to be too toxic for Middle America to get behind her, or for President Obama's approval ratings to slip enough for him to gain advantage in states like Colorado, Ohio, and Florida in the electoral college.
Why He's a Threat: Because it's time to admit that Donald Trump is the frontrunner to win the Republican nomination. He's doing, in many ways, better than Hillary Clinton in nearly every early state and increasingly he's starting to match her prowess in the national numbers (and we still call her the frontrunner). Trump has the lead in all four early primary states, and it appears some Republicans are warming to the idea of him being their standard-bearer. He's led this race for months and months now, and it's getting harder and harder to make the argument that he won't translate that support into votes. Provided his GOTV is as good as the polls, Trump will win the nomination, and with that gain a 50/50 shot at the White House.
What He Needs to Win: For the polls to translate, as it's still not clear whether or not Trump's team can A) take his unconventional national media campaign and use that focus to drive a grassroots campaign amongst newer voters, particularly in Iowa where the caucus system can be confusing for someone unfamiliar and B) can sustain a loss in a state like Iowa or Nevada, as Trump's image is all about winning and it's hard to imagine how he spins it if someone like Ted Cruz upsets him in an early state. From there, he needs to be able to find a way to tear down Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders enough that he can make a play for the electoral college. It's feasible to see that America, fed up with traditional politicians, could go for Trump in the same way California went for Schwarzenengger or Minnesota went for Ventura, but that has never happened on a national scale, and let's remember it's the electoral college that matters, not the popular vote (which is going to be an easier bar for Trump to hit), and Trump will have to get moderate voters who didn't go for McCain or Romney in places like Ohio and Wisconsin, to go for someone far more outside their comfort zone. Still, this is very much a possibility and anyone who tells you otherwise isn't paying attention.
Why She's a Threat: Because she's still the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, and because her likeliest opponent is Donald Trump. Clinton is perhaps the only candidate in recent history who could get past a loss in Iowa and New Hampshire and still be viable for the rest of the competition. It says something that she not only leads Sanders nationally, but also that she's above 50% in most polling, showing a level-of-support that doesn't match the nail-biting pace of Iowa. Admittedly that's partially because Sanders hasn't been able to move into places like Michigan and California, but it's worth noting that Clinton will almost certainly win the states she won eight years ago outside of New Hampshire; it's hard to imagine her level of support will change anywhere else as geography is helping Sanders have his solid edge in the Granite State in a lot of ways. It's also worth noting that the electoral college already favors a Democrat based on recent history, and Donald Trump will have a harder time selling his brand to moderate Democrats and Independents that will be crucial for him to get to 270 electoral college votes.
What She Needs to Win: First off, a victory in Iowa, especially considering the way that the media is portraying it as a nail-biter, would be a huge weight off of Clinton's back as it would relieve her of the pressure of New Hampshire, and more importantly not make South Carolina and Nevada voters reconsider their support. Secondly, she needs to find a way to keep Sanders at bay long enough to win the nomination. It's rare that primary battles get so personal that voters sit at home (case in point: all of the Clinton voters that Obama easily translated in 2008), but the longer Sanders remains an option the harder it will be for Clinton to pivot back to the easier talking point of Trump. And thirdly, and this is said with a little bit of "Democrats are pessimists" she needs Trump or Cruz to be her opponent. Clinton has not proven herself to be a strong candidate as evidenced by both 2008 and 2016, and considering her position against Sanders is hauntingly similar to eight years ago, may be a better "on-paper" candidate than one in reality. That occasionally doesn't matter (the same can be said for George HW Bush and he won the White House), but it's starting to look like in order for Clinton to win, she needs her opponents to lose. Trump or Cruz, who may scare off a large chunk of the swing state's "gettable" voters, would give her that leg-up. Luckily for Clinton, one of them as her opponent in the general seems more and more likely. It's not the victory I suspect the Secretary of State planned on many years ago when she started her play for the White House, but a win is a win is a win, and it still looks likely that HIllary Clinton will win.