6 takeaways from the beginning of the U.S. Presidential primaries

On Tuesday February 2nd, Iowa held its caucuses for both parties formally kicking off the US 2016 Presidential primary election season. First off a disclaimer: I am a Rubio supporter and decided to support him pretty much from the beginning of the GOP debates. With only one result in the bank, we have learned some key things about the race for each party’s nomination.

1 – New Hampshire is more important than Iowa.

This is particularly true on the side. There are two reasons for this. First is that Iowa (IA) holds caucuses and New Hampshire (NH) holds primaries. The significance of the difference is turnout. Caucuses are a gathering of party supporters in a given area (caucus locations mostly match party voting precincts and would have a concentration analogous to the concentration of NZ election polling booths). Organizers for each campaign stand in designated corners of a hall and ask those caucusing to come to their side to be counted. The tallies for each location are then called in to a central location for the final result. Caucuses are usually held in the evening and can be time consuming as you have to register for the party you nominate and that can take some hours before the actual caucusing begins. The time consuming nature of the voting method, the restricted time the vote is held (versus a primary where polls are usually open for 12 hours) and the public nature of your vote in that everyone in the hall can see who you support versus a private ballot in a primary, means the turnout in caucuses is significantly lower than in a primary. In 2012 a total of 121,500 Republicans voted in the Iowa caucus and that represented 19% of all IA registered Republicans. IA had a population of 3,074,000 in 2012 so that’s only 4% of the total population. By contrast in NH with a population of only 1,320,718, in 2012 the GOP turnout at the primary was 225,123 so at 17% it is four times higher than in IA. It’s a crude metric because NH allows Independents to vote in either primary and about 40% of registered voters in NH are independents but you get the drift – more voters vote in primaries than caucuses so in the case of the NH primary, from a statistical point of view, the result is pulling off a larger sample base.

The Iowa GOP caucuses are also much more dominated by evangelical Christians which explains the early victories of Huckabee (2008), Santorum (2012) and Cruz (2016). NH has a demographic breakdown more akin to the wider U.S. General Election population and that explains why, on the GOP side, winners of the GOP primary in NH are very much more indicative of who the eventual winning nominee will be than the winners in IA. Of the 9 elections since 1980, the GOP NH primary has successfully picked 8 out 9 GOP nominees whereas in IA, the figure is only 5 from 9. On the Democrat side, the IA caucus has picked the nominee 7 out of 9 times versus only 6 from 9 in NH so the IA caucus is more determinate for the Democrats whereas the NH primary is more so for the Republicans.

2 – Hillary is a lousy campaigner but, barring an indictment, will still win the Democratic nomination.

Clinton eked out the narrowest of victories over Sanders on Tuesday. In fact, she may have actually lost because reportedly 6 precincts had anecdotal reports of a tied vote that was decided by a coin toss and Clinton won 5 of the 6 coin tosses. Had the coin tosses been 50/50 then Sanders may have won by a whisker. It was of course not meant to be like this. Clinton has all the advantages on paper: a massive donor edge, endorsements of most major party leaders, the support of the DNC (the national party organisation), name recognition beyond any prior candidate for President, a crack campaign team who had supposedly learned key lessons from her 2008 defeat to Obama and her still popular husband Bill (who remains a formidable retail politician) campaigning for her. These advantages were supposed to negate her wooden speaking style and her perpetual inauthenticity. However, her campaign has been beset by pratfalls: a disastrous book launch tour in the summer of 2015, her tone deaf comment about being broke after leaving the White House and, as the summer wore on, the emerging evidence of her home brew email server through which she routed sensitive State department emails that has become a running and growing scandal. When played against the parallel but less publicized scandal of the cash for favours roundabout that Billary ran with their Foundation scoring tens of millions in speaking fees for both Bill and Hillary and mingling the supposed charity work of the Foundation and Hillary’s work as the 4th most powerful member of the U.S. government as Obama’s Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013. Hillary’s explanations for her non authorized email system, designed to shield her from Congressional scrutiny, have proven to be patently false particularly, as it has recently emerged in the gradual release of emails forced from the State Department by a lawsuit from Judicial Watch (a right wing lobby group), that a good number of emails were afforded a security classification so top secret that some on the Congressional committees tasked with oversight did not have sufficient clearance to be advised of their content and that even redacted copies cannot be released. When you have the FBI investigating you for causing serious breaches of extremely sensitive classified material and you told the families of the four State Department employees were killed in the 12 September 2012 raid on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya because of uprisings fueled by an obscure anti Muslin video and not the security lapses that she knew about from the outset, you have major credibility issues. This is why an awkward nerdy aging socialist Senator from one of America’s smallest states is getting huge crowds, a wave of on line donors and has not been easy for her to beat.

BUT, for all of Clinton’s manifest failings, she has advantages that should carry her through to the nomination. She is highly likely to lose the NH Democrat primary to Sanders next week but that is mostly due to Sanders’ high profile in New England (Vermont adjoins New Hampshire). The next primary (aside from the obscure Nevada caucuses that produce few delegates) is the South Carolina primary. That is dominated on the Democrats side by black voters who are more inclined to support Clinton over Sanders. After SC is Super Tuesday comprising 14 States and the single largest group of states voting on the same day. Clinton has a natural advantage on Super Tuesday due to her vastly superior ground game and the larger amount of cash on hand to contest in so many states simultaneously. The delegate lead that Clinton should build by the second week in March could be insurmountable for Sanders whose grassroots funding will wither if it looks like he cannot prevail. BUT – if Clinton is indicted for the various breaches of intelligence confidentiality laws by the Department of Justice as a consequence of the FBI’s investigation into her exclusive use of her non-secure email server (and subsequent unauthorized sending of highly classified material via this unsecure network) then all bets are off. Her campaign would be finished.

3 – Trump is not done

Trump has been the most unconventional candidate to run for President since Ross Perot ran as an Independent in 1992 and 1996 (his campaign split the conservative vote allowing Clinton to win with only 42% and 47% of the popular vote respectively). He has broken all the rules and conventions of U.S. politics and got away with it. He engaged in blatant mysogony by insulting popular Fox TV presenter Megyn Kelly by accusing her of erratic ‘time of the month’ behaviour, he mocked a disabled reporter, he insulted Senator John McCain’s widely admired time as a tortured prisoner of the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War, he routinely abuses the press and verbally beats up on reporters who follow MSM standard gotcha questioning tactics, he proposes extreme sounding policies that appear to be right wing dog whistles (mass deportation of illegals or banning all Muslim migration for a period of time), he ignores and mocks PC conventions, he routinely accuses his opponents of things that aren’t factual (Cruz being ineligible because he was born in Canada), he largely self-funds and eschews and then taunts the entire GOP donor class, he gets into several fights with Fox News culminating in his boycotting the last Fox moderated GOP before Iowa (because Kelly was presenting) and he summed up his seeming invincibility in the polls by saying his supporters would stick with him even if he shot someone on 5th Avenue in New York! Despite Trump’s bombast, his abuse of reporters and opponents, his flip flopping on so many key issues (was all for single payer health system now opposes Obamacare that is less government intrusive than single payer and is now against abortion when he was for it), his being a Democrat for so long, being so close to the Clintons and his seemingly flakey policies and inability to grasp important foreign policy issues waved away with a “trust me – I’m a great deal maker and will hire the right people who will advise me”, Trump has defied political gravity for month after month. Most of the talking heads and commentators even on the right predicted a Trump implosion that not only never happened but with each seeming career ending move, he would go UP in the polls.

Kiwis, even those on the centre right, look on with shocked bemusement wondering how Trump could survive. To understand Trump’s rise, you must understand the intense frustration felt by many voters. They watched their party’s mainstream leaders mock, marginalize and block the Tea Party movement and they’ve seen House and then Senate Republicans, once they assumed control of first the House (2010) and the Senate (2014), then cave to Obama and the Democrats on issue after issue of concern to the Republican base (the debt ceiling, sequestration and funding the military, repealing or at least constraining Obamacare, the Corker-Cardin deal on the Iranian sanctions, defunding Planned Parenthood – especially after the damning undercover videos, Islamic refugees and general lack of fiscal rectitude). The anger is palpable and Trump’s ‘take no prisoners’, say it how it is, politically incorrect truth to Republican power is music to the ears of a base that feels ignored and spurned by former Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Some of this group had dropped out of the political process as witnessed by the numbers of GOP voters who stayed home rather than vote for Romney in 2012. Trump also draws from blue collar workers who were Reagan Democrats who find the modern Democratic Party too left wing and captured by special interest groups to ever represent them. Add in his flamboyance, his mystique and perceived success as a billionaire and his name brand recognition from his popular reality TV show “The Apprentice” and you have the makings of a resurgent candidate. All Trump needed was a willing media to report his every outburst and comment and the U.S. media duly obliged. Like a real life soap opera going on in real time, half in disgust and half in morbid fascination, the MSM have enabled and fueled Trump’s rise and rise. By reporting his every move and comment, Trump has sucked the political oxygen out of the room for his opponents.

But in the end, there are SOME political niceties that must still be followed and one of these is a ground game and Iowa is a state where campaign boots on the ground is essential for success and Cruz and Rubio were head and shoulder above Trump in that regard. NH is more philosophically attuned to a Manhattan elite candidate so it would not surprise if Trump does win there but, we have learned from IA that he has underperformed from his polling average by some 5%. This could be because his supporters are happy to tell pollsters they love Trump but don’t actually show up because Trump’s campaign don’t even know who his supporters are or where they live.

Earned media will continue to give Trump a tail wind. But if Rubio’s surge continues and Cruz stays steady, Trump could face a length 3-way race even past Super Tuesday. Another reason why Trump will stay is because of a very important change to the nominating process that was instituted post 2012 and that is that all primary/caucus states pre-March 15th must award delegates on a proportional basis whereas all primaries (and caucuses) prior to 2016 were winner-take-all contests. In comparison, the Democrats have been gradually moving to a proportuional allocation culminating in a full slate of primaries and caucuses in 2008 chosen this way. It was this reform that enabled Obama to beat Clinton. He racked up proportional wins in caucus states where his ground game was superior to Clinton whilst she concentrated on the big primary States. By the time the Pennsylvania, Texas, California and New York primaries came around, Obama had amassed a near unsurmountable lead that could not be overtaken even when Clinton won a number of larger later states because she only won a proportion of the delegates on offer. A winner-take-all system favours an early front runner who can quickly amass delegates and drive his/her competitors out of the race.

Trump knows even if he slips from the No 1 slot that he will still amass delegates in all the voting that goes on prior to mid-March and leave him with enough delegates to soldier on. Trump is self-funded and so will be unaffected by the usual drop off in funding that occurs if a leading candidate funded by donors starts to slip in both the polls and actual primary votes. Even if Trump slips to 3rd later in the race but wins several key early states (say NH and SC), he could continue in the race to Super Tuesday and exert an influence on the eventual outcome denying a Cruz or Rubio campaign an outright plurality of delegates. This is why Trump is here to stay.

4 – Bush will not be the nominee

He didn’t make double digits in IA despite big. He’s spent even bigger in NH and is still polling just under 10% in the RCP average of all polls and is 5th behind Kasich. If the results in NH are similar to the polls (see point number 6), he’s toast. Bush has been the biggest victim of the Trump resurgency (along with a clutch of capable and articulate and mostly successful sitting Governors: Walker from Wisconsin, Perry from and Jindal from Louisiana). Trump starved all of them (but particularly Bush) of valuable media oxygen all through the summer and autumn and Bush’s big early war chest has been unable to claw him out of the hole. Bush declared early and jumped to a strong lead and was favoured by the donor and chattering beltway classes and it went to his head. He, like many, waited for Trump to implode and Trump cleaned his clock. Bush sat on $70 million+ for months and did virtually nothing to challenge Trump assuming his pratfalls would collapse his vote. Now he is millions attacking Rubio in NH – not the strategy of a rising star. His absence from the political stage for 9 years since he was Governor of Florida showed in his initially hesitant debating style. Negatives such as being seen as soft on illegals and for the controversial Common Core can not be counterbalanced by his story of considerable success as Florida Governor and then there’s the mostly negative legacy of the Iran and Afghanistan wars his older brother got America into. At the end of the day, who really wants to see a rerun of Bush v Clinton. He’ll be out by or just after Super Tuesday.

5- Rubio is the best GOP General Election candidate

That’s what the head to head polls say although such polls at this stage are premature. That said, in watching Rubio debate, it is hard not seeing him eat Hillary Clinton’s lunch. He is a formidable debater. Yes, so is Ted Cruz but in a much more technically pure way where it’s obvious he was the champion debater in high school and university. Rubio however is rawer, visceral and at the same time fluid. He possesses the rare talent that few politicians have (like Reagan, Clinton and Blair) to boil down complex hot button issues of the day into a pithy and emotive sound bite. His back story is superb (son of the impoverished Cuban immigrant), he speaks passionately about the American project, he is telegenic and boyish and yet exhibits an almost breathtaking depth of knowledge particularly on foreign affairs. He is a whole generation younger than Clinton and is a visionary forward thinker who dwells on sunny up lit plains territory whereas Clinton comes across as an old hack deeply mired into everything wrong with U.S. politics and the grab bag of identity and grievance politics that is the hallmark of the modern progressive left. Democrat operatives fear Rubio the most for these very reasons and it’s not hard to see why.

Rubio is still vulnerable most particularly for his support for the so-called Gang of 8 immigration amnesty proposal that came out of a bipartisan Senate effort but was killed by the GOP controlled House and for his relatively short time in the U.S. Senate. But despite this, and his support for corporate welfare canards such as sugar subsidies (a big industry in his native Florida) and the ethanol mandates so big in Iowa, he seems to be peaking just about the right time. He exceeded expectations in Iowa and entry polls (the caucus equivalent of exit polls) saw him pick up late deciding voters in IA 2:1 over Trump and Cruz. He came within 1% of pushing Trump into 3rd place and he seems to be enjoying a statistically measurable bounce coming into the NH primary. This against the backdrop of sustained attacks from Cruz, Bush and Christie.

Will GOP primary voters forgive Rubio for the ‘sin’ of the Gang of 8? Rubio has uttered many mea culpas and stronger more hawkish rhetoric on this subject as have all the candidates since Trump’s more extreme proposals gained traction. He is racking up high level endorsements: several of the former candidates who are sitting Governors have endorsed him (Walker and Jindal) as has recent drop-out Senator Rick Santorum. He scored the conservative wing’s new darling African-American freshman Senator from South Carolina Tim Scott. There are whisperings that Mitt Romney may endorse Rubio as early as this weekend if it looks like he gets within striking distance of Trump. Romney was Governor of neighbouring Massachusetts and many residents of NH are in the Boston TV station viewing range plus Romney has long owned a cabin the NH woods so he is well regarded in the Granite State. Romney’s endorsement, whilst an anathema to the more conservative followers of Cruz, would play very big amongst the more moderate centrist NH GOP primary voters many of whom are independents. An upset win in NH (or running a very close 2nd to a weakening Trump) would propel Rubio to the front of the race especially if Kasich and Christie drop out. Rubio has many electoral strengths and few damaging weaknesses especially when you factor in the more moderate centre that must be won to win the Presidency. His final trump card (pun intended) is he is Hispanic and he could improve on George W Bush’s high-water mark of winning 42% of Hispanics in 2004 (versus the low point of the 27% Romney got in 2012). Yes, Cruz is Hispanic too but his more abrasive combative style is going to be easier for the Clinton camp to exploit than Rubio’s breezy eloquence. Greater electability versus Clinton in the General is a potent argument and Rubio is exploiting it to the hilt.

Primary polls are notoriously unreliable and yet are still reported as if they are

Polling in general has become a more difficult business across the globe even in general elections. Pollsters missed the late surge to National in the NZ 2014 election, the Conservative win in the UK 2015 election, the scope of the GOP wave in the 2014 mid-term elections and the easy Likud victory in the 2015 Israeli elections. Polls for U.S. primary elections are even more fraught for a variety of reasons. The sample sizes tend to be smaller for most (but not all) polls so the margins of error are higher. Primary voters are fickler and a much higher percentage make up their mind at the last minute compared to general elections. Late breaking surges for a particular candidate are missed or more frequently, their extent is understated. This is because of the tighter time frames over which primary polls are often conducted (which is part of the reason why their sample sizes are smaller). Polls conducted in the next major primary/caucus state right after the previous state results are often tainted by the immediate euphoria and media reporting binge surrounding the victory or failure of specific candidates which has the effect sometimes for instance, of overstating the support of an Iowa winner over a candidate that will be more popular in New Hampshire. But if a pollster waits for the post primary vote reporting frenzy to dissipate, they may have too small a window in which to accurately poll before the next vote. And then add into the mix in New Hampshire the fact that over 40% of registered voters are Independents and that NH electoral law allows Independents to vote in either the Democrat OR primary (but not both), one of the hardest things to predict (because the ratio of Indies voting in Dem or GOP primaries swings from election to election based on how competitive the ballot is for each party) is not only WHO Independents will vote for but even which contest they will enter. In a small state like NH, these swings to GOP over Democrat (or vice versa) can bring a larger than expected number of voters into a specific party’s race and if there is a late surge to one candidate in that party’s race, it is much more difficult for pollsters to pick that up. Bottom line: treat the NH polls in the lead up to Tuesday February 9 primary in New Hampshire with a grain of salt.

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