Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Groundhog Day and the Iowa caucus

America is on tenterhooks as it watches an event with little to no predictive power unfold within its borders: the Iowa caucus, one of several hurdles that nominee-wannabes must jump in order eventually to secure the nominations of their respective political parties.

We've been here before. As a bent-backed part of the mid-forties demographic, as a part of the crowd that has seen its share of election cycles, I can say with assurance that polls mean little, and pundit commentary means shit. What will be will be. Granted, Iowa might have a certain amount of psychological impact—especially on a fool like Donald Trump, who seems positively obsessed with poll data. (He used poll data in a rambling answer to a question about how Republican/conservative he really was.) But even if Trump's nose is bloodied in Iowa, there are other caucuses and primaries for him to look forward to (see the 2016 schedule here), and a man with that much ego isn't about to let one setback, well, set him back.

My poor luck at predicting Oscar winners doubtless translates to an inability to predict caucus results. With that in mind—and knowing full well that I may, in fact, be jinxing certain candidates—I'm going to call Iowa for Trump by a less-than-comfortable margin because, at the last moment, people are going to pussy out and vote for Ted Cruz as a more "realistic" choice. As for the Democrats, I'm calling Iowa for Hillary by a very slim margin: the Bern will continue as grass-roots momentum picks up over the course of the election year, and as Hillary's email scandal continues to have a (mildly, mildly!) corrosive effect on her perceived trustworthiness—not that the corrosion will affect her core supporters in any way.

One way or another, the American samsara rolls on, just like Bill Murray's experience in "Groundhog Day." But this is one wheel from which only death affords a possible release. We'd be wise to remember what HL Mencken wrote about political campaigns.



Kevin Kim said...

Trumpistas will respond by saying that a lot of people are privately "in the closet" for Trump, and they won't show their hand until it's voting time. By this reckoning, we're about to discover how startlingly vast and deep Trump's support really is in the heartland. I admit I'm morbidly curious as to how true this might be, but I have my doubts. Strong doubts.

Kevin Kim said...

Drudge seems to be bearing me out. As of this comment's time stamp, Cruz is ahead by a single percentage point. I expect Trump to carry the vote by the end, but it'll be close.

Kevin Kim said...

Okay, maybe not. As of right now, Cruz leads Trump, 28-25, with Rubio hanging in there at 22. Conservative Twitter is already talking about how Iowa isn't indicative of anything—how the lack of demographic diversity in both Iowa and New Hampshire (coming up in just a few days) saps these caucuses and primaries of any predictive power. Sort of a preemptive fox-and-the-grapes scenario.

Charles said...

You kind of just went with the latest polls, didn't you? The final Des Moines register poll had Trump leading Cruz and Hillary much closer to Bernie but still edging him out.

Me, I don't try to predict anything. I just sit back and hope for the best.

I was at a conference all day yesterday, and it wasn't until ten o'clock last night that I remembered about the caucuses and went online to check the results. I was pretty happy to see that Trump lost--more so to see that he "underperformed" (performance relative to expectations is more important than actually winning or losing, which is why Rubio's third-place speech sounded like a victory speech, and Trump's second-place speech sounded remarkably humble). I'm not too concerned about Cruz winning; even though he scares me more as a politician than Trump, he is a more conventional politician and will be easier for the party to shut down than Trump.

That being said, we've not seen the last of Trump. He is still a heavy favorite in New Hampshire, and a win there would catapult him back into the limelight. But this underperformance in Iowa is still a very telling reminder that those polls Trump loves so much are worth very little in the end.

Kevin Kim said...

"You kind of just went with the latest polls, didn't you?"

If you're talking about what I based my "predictions" on, I ask: what else was there to go on? I knew full well the polls would be untrustworthy, especially with Iowa's tradition of not reflecting the national temperament. But it would have been unwise to dismiss the nature of Trump's juggernaut-ish campaign. Might still be unwise to dismiss it, even taking the Iowa aftermath into consideration.

"That being said, we've not seen the last of Trump."

Alas, we have not.

"...those polls Trump loves so much are worth very little in the end."

No argument here. And even exit polls can be misleading.

Charles said...

"If you're talking about what I based my "predictions" on, I ask: what else was there to go on?"

Well, there are the endorsements, for one. And also national polls. Not to mention all the pundit pontification floating around.

But mainly I was just wondering why you would make predictions at all unless you had something that went against the CW going in.

Kevin Kim said...

"But mainly I was just wondering why you would make predictions at all unless you had something that went against the CW going in."

Why do I bother making Oscar predictions?

Charles said...

I dunno... why do you? Gits and shiggles, as my brother would say?

Let's up the stakes: Who's your pick for the eventual Republican nominee? I'm bullish on Rubio. I was before Iowa, but I'm even more so now. I think it's just a matter of when the other "establishment" candidates throw in the towel.

No point in calling the Dems. I think it's pretty obvious that it is going to be Hillary.

Kevin Kim said...

"I dunno... why do you? Gits and shiggles, as my brother would say?"

Of course! Because it's a fun thing to talk about even though we all know it's bullshit, anyway.

As for the eventual GOP nominee...

You mentioned endorsements, national polls, and punditry, and a lot of that has been swinging cautiously toward Trump. The idea that he should have lost steam and puttered out by now is going by the wayside. The conviction that he's just a flash in the pan has been eroding, and more pundits are saying he's responding to an unmet need in the public (esp. conservative) psyche. He's blunt, direct, rude... he said just the other day that, under a Trump presidency, America would "beat the shit out of" anyone who messed with it. I suspect he's going to rock and roll in New Hampshire.

Personally, I can't listen to Trump for even sixty seconds before I have to switch him off. He's no more articulate than Sarah Palin or Dubya or any of the other anti-intellectual morons currently dominating Republican discourse. Long gone are the Buckley conservatives (although, granted, Buckley did have that moment when he publicly threatened to knock Gore Vidal on his ass). But Trump, as an executive, would likely surround himself with better minds, so who knows what sort of policies he and his team would come up with, and how he'd lead?

So let's rate Trump's chances with the litote of "not improbable."

That said, I suspect that Cruz is the more solid choice for traditional Republicans. He's got to shake off the Birther nonsense (and seems to be doing so, as legal support for his "natural-born" claim continues to build), but he's got the religious bona fides that flyover-state Christians like, and he's been far more ideologically consistent on the issues than Trump can claim to be. (This is, in fact, what I consider to be Trump's Achilles heel, and the reason why he's constantly dogged by accusations that "he's not a real Republican.")

I'd rate Cruz as "more probable for traditional Republicans."

Rubio did surprisingly well in Iowa, but we have to keep in mind that Iowa doesn't mean much, if anything, in the bigger picture. How will he fare in New Hampshire? How will he fare come Super Tuesday, when tons of caucuses and primaries happen at the same time? I'd have to wait and see.

Rubio's smart and telegenic, but a good portion of the GOP base hates him for his conciliatory stance on immigration—an issue that Trump has dominated, for good or ill. Several critics also say Rubio sounds wooden, scripted, and clichéd when he speaks, which detracts from the telegenic looks. I wouldn't rate his chances all that high.

Rubio gets an "improbable."

So in my non-expert opinion, I think it comes down to Trump or Cruz. Trump is a loose cannon and ideologically all over the place. I think a Trump presidency would amount to four years of loud, ridiculous flailing. Cruz would be more focused and consistent; he proved his stubbornness years back with his news-making filibuster, but his problem is that he doesn't get along with many of his fellow Republicans, which doesn't bode well for President Cruz's ability to work with a GOP-dominated Congress.

Conclusion: no matter who ends up winning the GOP nomination, the nominee probably isn't going to make for a very good president should he win the general election. That said, neither is Hillary, who already let one ambassador die under her watch and who, given Servergate, is disturbingly cavalier about our national security. She has both the tendency to exaggerate and a reflexive tendency to be secretive, neither trait of which inspires trust.

So, America: your choices are Crazy or Evil!

Charles said...

I think you're overestimating Cruz and underestimating Rubio, but we'll find out soon enough--sooner on Rubio, probably, since I think his chances will depend heavily on how he performs in the next few primaries. If the low-running establishment candidates start dropping out, he will be able to consolidate the vote. The longer that Bush, Christie, and Kasich stay in, though, the greater the chance that a Cruz or Trump steamroller picks up speed.

I also want to comment on your "traditional Republican" phrasing. What exactly do you mean by this? Because Cruz is ultra-conservative. He appeals to neo-cons and Tea Partiers, but what I would consider "traditional Republicans" hate him. I think the more important metric for Cruz's ultimate chances are whether he is popular with typical Republicans--that is, with the majority of the party. I don't think his base makes up a majority.

As for Trump, well, I'll freely admit that I am swayed heavily by my desire to see him as little as possible. I hate that man with a passion. Policy-wise, though, he actual scares me less than Cruz. Cruz is an ideologue. Trump is just an opportunist; he'll change his tune to play the hometown favorites wherever he goes. If I had to pick the lesser of two evils, it would be the latter.

I don't think either Trump or Cruz would win a general election, though. They may currently inspire the most fervent reactions from their respective bases (which no doubt overlap), but those bases are ultimately a minority of the electorate, and the hate they inspire is just as impassioned as the fervor.

Kevin Kim said...

I don't think I'm underestimating Rubio at all. The vitriol about him runs thicker and heavier and more acrid than Kali's menses—and I'm talking about Republican vitriol. No idea how Rubio might fare in New Hampshire, but I seriously doubt he's going to do well on Super Tuesday. Post-Iowa polls still show Trump way ahead of the pack. It wouldn't be insane to bet on him.

A traditional Republican is exactly what it sounds like. No need to overthink this: small federal government, local/individual solutions to local problems, fiscal conservatism (including lower taxes and fewer federal regulations), hawkish foreign policy (Hillary actually scores well on this metric—way better than Sanders, anyway), a good measure of social conservatism when it comes to marriage and reproductive rights, etc.

Cruz fits the above criteria far better than Trump does. According to OnTheIssues.org, Cruz wants to defund and prosecute Planned Parenthood, audit the Fed, refuse to bail out failing banks, draft and pass a balanced-budget amendment, limit federal spending, codify an official definition of marriage (man + woman), institute a 16% flat tax on businesses, support the death penalty, abolish the Dept. of Ed., give school choice to the poor, dismantle Common Core, keep energy prices low (by exploring "proven" resources), fight ISIS, stop nation-building in Afghanistan, promote US sovereignty on the world stage (i.e., minimize UN interference), sanction Putin, eliminate regs that hurt small business, limit IRS investigatory power, require voter ID, defend the 2nd Amendment, force congressmen to subscribe to Obamacare like the rest of the country, shred the Iran deal, defund amnesty and reject "path to citizenship" for illegals, build a US/Mex wall, pass a universal flat tax and abolish the IRS if possible.

The above litany—some of which I agree with and some of which I disagree with—looks like a boilerplate Republican position to me. I'm not sure what the left is so scared of, or why people see Cruz, in particular, as especially menacing. While I doubt I could vote for him, I don't think he's anything like the bugbear he's been made out to be.

As for whether Trump can win against Hillary... I haven't seen the most recent polls, but polls from further back suggested that Hillary would win. Has that changed much over the past couple months? I'd need to check. Hillary's studiously ignoring an email scandal that's piling up around her. It probably won't lead to an indictment—she's above the law, after all—but it could produce some electoral static.

Kevin Kim said...

FactCheck.org confirms that, as of right now, Trump probably wouldn't beat Hillary in a toe-to-toe fight. As for who would fare better against Hillary, FactCheck.org refers to RealClearPolitics.com's other polls, which seem to show both Rubio and Cruz beating Clinton (but within the margin of error), and there's a slight advantage for Rubio. I'll believe it when I see it.

Charles said...

Well, we obviously have very different opinions on Cruz. As far as the vitriol surrounding Rubio, it's nowhere near the vitriol surrounding Cruz.

I should clarify that I am not a fan of Rubio, I just think that he is the establishment's best bet in this current field. I also think that this is entirely because Trump has turned the Republican race into a circus, and because Cruz is hauling everyone to the right. Had we had a more moderate field, Rubio would have been the odd man out.

I guess the question is, as far as I'm concerned, whether the establishment will have the final--or any, for that matter--say in who gets the nomination.