The Specter of … Normalcy

The wild ride in presidential politics will bring a general election between Hillary Clinton and… (Read on.)

Sorry, Bernie, the numbers aren't there.
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Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Nov. 16, 2015, 8 p.m.

Few would argue with the premise that, in the five months since June, presidential politics have behaved in extraordinary ways. The “Feel The Bern” surge of Bernie Sanders on the left and the rise of Donald Trump and, more recently, Ben Carson on the right—none of these were developments that anyone predicted a year or two ago.

But as bizarre as the past five months have been, my guess is that the next five months, from now until mid-April, will see both political parties behave much more like normal. This isn’t to suggest that everything will be, well, totally normal, as in conventional and hewing to historical norms. But they’ll be closer to what we’ve seen in the past than the insanity of the politics in 2015.

Unless the Justice Department shifts Hillary Clinton’s email problems as secretary of State from the political domain to the legal, her Democratic nomination isn’t in any real doubt. We should stop and note the irony that Clinton, who occupied the far left of her husband’s administration during the 1990s, is now scrambling to keep up with a party that has moved much further to her left.

But can Sanders, the furthest left, really beat her? I asked my Cook Political Report colleague David Wasserman, who is our quantitative expert besides the House editor, to come up with a delegate count for Sanders using the following scenario. For the sake of argument, and because caucuses benefit the candidate with the most passionate and committed supporters, let’s give Sanders not only all 44 of the Democratic delegates from the Iowa caucuses (understanding that they would actually be split) but also all of the 597 delegates from every other caucus state. That’s a total of 641.

Then, let’s award Sanders all 24 delegates from New Hampshire—and heck, all 186 delegates from every other New England state. The total now: 851 of the Democratic convention’s 4,764 delegates (including 713 so-called superdelegates, who are mostly elected and party officials). Even that would give Sanders a mere 36 percent of the 2,383 delegates needed to win the presidential nomination.

Obviously, this is overly simplistic. Sanders isn’t going to win all of the delegates from Iowa or the rest of the caucus states or from New Hampshire or all over New England. And he obviously can—and likely will—win delegates in presidential primaries outside of New England. But it does put in context the magnitude of the challenge that Sanders faces, even if he does well in passion-driven caucuses and in the most liberal region of the country. Another obstacle for Sanders is that the superdelegates, who overwhelmingly favor Clinton, can contribute 30 percent of the convention votes that a candidate needs.

In short, Clinton’s only real opposition resides in the Justice Department and whether the career lawyers in the Public Integrity Section choose to pursue a case, a recommendation that the political appointees upstairs would find hard to reject. This is unlikely, I think—but quite plausible.

There is no reason to believe that either Trump or Carson is going to collapse this month or next. But Republicans are showing signs that the outsiders’ novelty is wearing off and that their limitations are becoming more apparent. According to the national poll averages of Realclearpolitics.com and Pollster.com, both candidates’ support has hooked downward. At the very least, between Trump’s rants and Carson’s autobiographical hyperbole, neither is likely to expand the level of support he already has.

Both Carson’s and Trump’s supporters, it is true, are alienated from the GOP establishment and are hardly conventional in their political instincts. But they are far from interchangeable. Carson’s supporters, deeply religious and highly ideological, aren’t likely to see the retired neurosurgeon’s soft-spoken temperament in the vain and profane Trump, who has taken to using off-color language on the stump. Carson’s peeps aren’t Trump’s. Conversely, a voter who finds Trump’s personality attractive and compelling isn’t likely to feel drawn to Carson.

What then? Watch for Sen. Ted Cruz to emerge as the remainder man, consolidating the amalgam of tea-party supporters, libertarians, and faith-based and passionate conservatives that make up the unconventional half of the GOP.

Personally, I regard Jeb Bush as appealing, intelligent, and highly qualified. Yeah, so? His nomination clearly isn’t happening. Many of his problems are not his fault, or his campaign’s, but it doesn’t matter. His performance in the most recent Republican debate was far better than before. Yet it wasn’t enough to pull his campaign out of its spiral downward, and the next debate isn’t until Dec. 15. Marco Rubio seems to be the only candidate who can pull together the more conventional, establishment-friendly half of the Republican Party.

Consider this: The likelihood is quite high and getting higher that the race for the Republican nomination will come down to a face-off between two freshman senators, both 44-year-old Cuban-Americans—Cruz turns 45 on Dec. 22, Rubio on May 28. Who would win such a contest is anyone’s guess. I think it would be very close.

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