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Tales From the Campaign Trail: Can Christie Come Back In New Hampshire?

It is hard to remember, but four years ago many Republicans (and pundits), concerned about what they viewed as Mitt Romney’s lackluster candidacy and a generally weak Republican field, were imploring New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to enter their party’s presidential race.  Christie demurred, claiming that he was not yet ready for a presidential run.  As late as November, 2013, however, polls still showed him leading the field of prospective 2016 Republican candidates. Now that Christie has thrown his hat in the ring, however, it’s not clear that voters are ready for him. Despite what many observers saw as a strong performance in the last Republican debate, Christie continues to lag in national polls, and last week Fox News announced that he had been relegated to the kiddie debate table, along with Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee, for the next Republican debate night.

Like many struggling candidates, including John Kasich, Lindsey Graham and Jeb!, Christie appears to have staked his candidacy on a strong showing in New Hampshire, a state he has visited 31 times, more than any other candidate to date.  There is some evidence that his persistence is paying off – although he continues to draw single-digit support in Granite State polling, the most recent poll there shows Christie climbing into 5th place, with 8% support, the highest he has been there for some time.

Is this the sign of a Christie comeback? As part of our continuing campaign coverage, your intrepid blogger attended Christie’s campaign event held yesterday at the Salt Hill Pub in Hanover, New Hampshire, part of Christie’s #TellingItLikeItIs campaign tour. It was a standing room only audience, which I estimated at about 200 people, many of them college students, who crammed into the pub. The cramped quarters lent an air of intimacy to the event that stood in stark contrast to the more rock star feel that characterized the Sanders’ event I attended last week in nearby Lebanon. Fortunately, by luck of the draw, I was positioned about 10 feet from the candidate throughout the event. (Unfortunately, the student next to me appeared to be suffering from monstrous nasal congestion and a deep-rooted lung condition. But this is what I endure to bring you the story.)

Christie arrived wearing a dark jacket with matching tie over his white dress shirt, but he shed the jacket during the Q&A session which took up most of the nearly hour-and-a-half long event. Before answering questions, however, he opened with a brief but heartfelt vignette about a former drug addict who went through rehab, rather than being jailed for drug possession, and who as a result recovered to reclaim his life. “Everybody makes bad choices,” he noted. “My mother was addicted to cigarettes…but when she was diagnosed with lung cancer, no one came and said ‘Don’t treat her, she got what she deserved!’” Christie’s point is that more resources should be expended targeting treatment and recovery of addicts rather than putting them in jail.

The issue of drug addiction has become a familiar talking point for Christie on the campaign trail, and this video based on Christie’s approach regarding how to treat drug addiction have received more than a million seven million online views.  It is evident he cares deeply about the issue, but it’s not entirely clear to me why he has opted to make it the centerpiece of his New Hampshire campaign. It is true that New Hampshire, like my home state of Vermont, is suffering from a rise in opiate addiction, fueled by an influx of cheap heroin. But polls suggest New Hampshire voters view national security and the economy as more important issues.  Nonetheless it may be that Christie sees an opening to position himself as the party’s “compassionate conservative”, in contrast to the more conservative social views espoused by some of his party rivals.

After this brief opening statement, Christie took about a dozen questions from what appeared to be a generally friendly crowd, albeit one that showed less dyed-in-the-wool partisanship than, say, a Sanders crowd. The topics ranged from how to deal with the Chinese island-building effort in the South China sea – “I’d fly Air Force One over the islands” – to Obamacare – (Repeal it and turn health care over to the states) – to Dodd-Frank (repeal it for small community banks and allow states to regulate them). On the environment, in contrast to many of his Republican rivals, Christie believes that global climate change is driven in part by human activity, and he supports efforts to reduce global carbon emissions using alternative energy sources – but not through cap-and-trade policies. In this vein, he touted New Jersey’s heavy reliance on nuclear power (“Fifty-three percent of our electricity is produced by nuclear power”) and solar energy (“New Jersey is in the top three solar states, behind California and Arizona”) while trying to phase out coal-powered plants. Christie says each state must adopt the mix of energy sources that works best for them in combating climate change (“Iowa should emphasize wind turbines.”) But he acknowledged that reducing carbon emissions is a global problem and emphasized the need to work with the Chinese on this issue, although he was notably short on specifics regarding how he might do so. When asked about increasing funding for space exploration, Christie used the question as an opportunity to cite the need for reforming entitlement programs which he said consumes more than 70% of the federal budget. “I’m sorry, but until we tackle this issue, I’m not going to be increasing money on the space program.” On campaign finance, Christie says he would allow unlimited direct contributions to candidates, but make sure they were posted for full transparency online within 24 hours.

When it came to foreign policy, Christie generally took a much more hardline approach than on domestic affairs. When asked how he would deal with the Syrian war, he recommended imposing a no-fly zone. “Someone asked me what I would do if the Russians violated it. I would shoot them down.” They would have been warned, he noted. Later, when asked about how to deal with the Syrian refugee problem he argued that it was caused in part by Obama’s failure to keep his word. “He drew a red line against the use of chemical weapons, then did nothing when Assad crossed it.” Christie called for greater international support, including from the U.S., to help settle refugees, but at the same time he opposed allowing them into the U.S. due to security concerns. When pressed by a college student why we would expect U.S. military involvement in Syria to turn out any better than when the U.S. intervened in Iraq, some of the famous Christie bluster appeared. “What would you do?” he shot back. “Would you let Assad stay in power to murder a quarter million of his people?” The U.S.’s responsibility, he insisted, was to empower the Syrian people to prevent genocide as well as the imposition of an Islamic state. In a line that received perhaps the greatest applause of the event, Christie noted somewhat acidly that, “We can talk about American imperialism which is a nice college word…but reality is more nuanced.”

At only one point during the event did Christie’s reputation for bullying critics appear to come close to being validated. A woman asked him to reconcile his views on abortion – Christie is pro-life, but with exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother – with his support of capital punishment. In an interesting response, he answered that he views capital punishment as a means of defending the state which is the same justification for his pro-life stance which is designed to defend the unborn child. When the woman pressed him by asking what a woman who was impregnated through rape was supposed to do during the many months it might require getting a rape conviction, Christie bristled. “Let’s not get cute here,” he chided the questioner, arguing that forensic evidence would immediately establish evidence for rape and discounting the likelihood that women will falsely claim rape to justify an abortion. “What I’m basically saying here is that we need to take the woman’s word.” To be clear, Christie softened his tone near the end of the exchange, and the woman thanked him for his response.

When asked about dealing with Congress as president, Christie again used the question to take several shots at Obama. While characterizing Congress as a “den of vipers”, Christie pointed out that dealing with the New Jersey legislature wasn’t “an Easter egg hunt.” He cited three keys to working with an opposition legislature. First, he stressed the need to speak clearly in emphasizing priorities. “You can’t be everything to everyone.” Second, he cited the importance of developing a good personal working relationship with legislative leaders. Here he chided Obama for waiting almost seven years to invite House Republican leader and later Speaker John Boehner on Air Force One: “If I was president and Nancy Pelosi was Speaker, I’d have her on the plane whenever she wanted.” Finally, he noted the importance of acting decisively when tackling problems, again contrasting his position with Obama’s actions: “I wouldn’t have taken seven years to make a decision on the Keystone Pipeline.”

Near the end of the session he had a chance to show his softer side when he was asked by an 11-year old girl how he would improve education. He stressed the need for parental involvement and a greater incorporation of technology: “Every student should have an IPad.” He would eliminate tenure for public school teachers in grade K-12 – “No one ever got fired for their views on algebra!” – and work to get rid of underperforming teachers. Here he blamed teachers unions for blocking educational reform. He finished by telling the girl how important it was for her to do her best, even on days when she might not feel like doing her homework, noting that “I have those days too!”

It is clear that Christie is trying to stake out a position as a social moderate in an attempt to differentiate himself from many of his more conservative Republican rivals. But he is not averse to taking a hardline policy stance on many issues, particularly in foreign policy. It remains to be seen how this will play out in New Hampshire. In this vein his biggest rivals may be Jeb! and Kasich, two other big-state governors who have relatively moderate positions among Republicans on social issues, but who are also adopting a “get tough” foreign policy. But in contrast to both of their more laid back demeanors, Christie exudes a brashness and edge that many in yesterday’s audience seemed to appreciate, although one person did question whether that temperament was most conducive to dealing with foreign leaders. Christie’s response was classic: “I have a lot of clubs in my bag. When the media covers me they usually focus on when I use my driver. But when I get close to a policy objective, I can use the pitching wedge.”

At this point, about 100 days before the New Hampshire primary, the race for the Republican nomination is still on the front nine. New Hampshire voters are notoriously slow in making up their minds, and there is some evidence that the process is even more glacial this electoral cycle due to the large number of candidates camped out in the Granite State. It remains to be seen whether Christie can pull off the political equivalent of a hole-in-one. But I, for one, hope he stays in the race for the duration, if for no other reason than to watch him take that uniquely Christie golf swing. Cue the driver!

Is New Hampshire #FeelingTheBern? Notes from the Campaign Trail

Bernie Sanders’ biggest obstacle to securing the 2016 Democratic nomination is no secret. As I noted last July in an interview with WCAX’s Alex Apple, Sanders started his campaign with a built-in progressive constituency comprising roughly 30% of likely Democratic voters. To expand that coalition, however, Sanders needed to accomplish two related objectives. First, he had to demonstrate why his single-minded focus on addressing economic inequality should appeal to minority voters who make up a significant portion of the Democratic electorate. Second, he needed to attract more moderate Democrats who were initially inclined to back Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner heading into the presidential campaign. Toward that end, Sanders has worked assiduously to broaden his appeal to minority voters, in part by addressing concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. He has also worked hard to show how his economic policies will help the middle class.

It has always been clear what Sanders’ electoral strategy will be: he hopes that a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary will both give his campaign credibility with the Democratic party establishment while casting doubt on the perception of electoral inevitability that Clinton, the purported front-runner, has tried to create. Toward this end, New Hampshire is perhaps the linchpin to Sanders’ electoral fortunes. After several months in which Sanders gradually pulled ahead of Clinton in Granite State polling, more recent state surveys suggest that Clinton has begun to regain some support among New Hampshire Democrats.

Three of the last six NH polls have Clinton ahead of Sanders by margins ranging from 2% to 8%, although the one poll among this group that does not include Vice President Joe Biden’s name has Sanders leading Clinton by 15%, 54%-39%. Nonetheless, in an indication of how important New Hampshire is to Sanders, media reports indicate that he is about to run his first television ad there and in Iowa. Among other issues, the ad will highlight Sanders’ civil rights record and his vote against the Iraq War. Clinton, in contrast, has been running television ads in New Hampshire for several months now.

Given New Hampshire’s strategic importance, your intrepid blogger decided to attend Bernie’s rally yesterday in Lebanon, New Hampshire, a small middle-class, largely white suburb (population about 13,500) just across the Connecticut River from Vermont. My goal was to see if Bernie’s message was catching on, and if so, with whom. We arrived at Lebanon High School forty minutes before the scheduled start of the event, only to see a substantial line of people stretching 100 yards waiting to get into the high school gym. Our timing was fortuitous, as we were among the last allowed inside the gym – those behind us, numbering about 300, were shunted to an overflow location where they watched Bernie on a televised feed. Event organizers indicated that some 2,400 people made it inside the gym – a far cry from some of Bernie’s larger outdoor audiences, but still bigger than the crowds attending the Kasich and O’Malley New Hampshire events I blogged about earlier.

It soon became apparent that in contrast to the Kasich and O’Malley events, in which audience members seemed eager to learn about the respective candidates, the Sanders’ crowd was already #Feeling the Bern. Rather than the traditional Yankee flinty skepticism for which New Hampshire voters are renowned, this turned out to be a giant pep rally, in which almost everything Bernie said drew sustained applause. Not surprisingly, given the demographics of Bernie’s core supporters, most of the audience seemed composed of college-age or younger students, although there was a healthy mix of age groups. The event began with a couple of speeches from local high school students talking about why they support Bernie, followed by a rousing set piece from a Sanders campaign aide designed to stoke the fires. And then Bernie entered, to a standing, sustained ovation.

Bernie Two
After beginning with a joke – “I’m really Larry David!” – Bernie launched into his familiar jeremiad against economic inequality and the billionaire class. Across the span of an hour he covered the usual topics: the vast scale of economic inequality (“the worst since the 1920’s”), Republican hypocrisy on “family values”, particularly their opposition to abortion, LGBT rights, and medical and paid family leave. Sanders pushed for increased federal spending on infrastructure, a federal jobs program, a higher minimum wage, more money to hire teachers and an end to trade agreements that cost domestic jobs. He railed against Citizens United and campaign finance laws that favored the wealthy, forcefully advocated for policies to address climate change, and pushed for expanded health care coverage. Near the end of his speech, in a line that drew perhaps the loudest applause of the rally, he called for an end to institutionalized racism, noting that this should not be a country where “I get dragged out of my car, thrown to the ground” and end up dying in jail in three days because of one’s skin color.

Several aspects of Sanders’ speech stood out, beginning with the concluding emphasis on ending institutionalized racism – a calculated effort to reach out to the BLM movement. Bernie, and his followers, understand that attracting minority support is critically important if he is to do well in the states immediately following New Hampshire, particularly South Carolina and Nevada. Second, he said absolutely nothing about foreign policy – nor did anyone ask him about it during the question and answer period (more on that below.) Third, Sanders’ delivered his hour-long talk with passion and energy, moving smoothly from topic to topic, understanding when to pause for applause, and modulating his tone as appropriate – all in all it was a well-delivered, polished stump speech. Noticeably, although this was at least his second town hall event of the day, he showed absolutely no sign of fatigue – impressive for a 73-year old man! Finally, Sanders never once mentioned Hillary Clinton by name, although she was clearly on his mind when he acknowledged early on that he lacked endorsements from the party establishment and had no Super Pac funding. “I’d rather have the people than the politicians,” Bernie railed, to thunderous applause. He also sought to push back against the perception that his campaign was “utopian”, several times noting that “it is not utopian to…..” followed by a list of goals, from providing health care to all to making corporations pay their “fair share” to expanding economic security. He ended by asking his audience to join in the “political revolution”, and most seemed quite willing to do so.

Bernie fielded eight questions after his talk, ranging on topics from transgender rights to how to break up banks to addressing sexual assault on campus. The most critical question came from a small-business owners who askied how small businesses were supposed to pay for an expanded family leave program. Sanders noted that it would require higher payroll taxes. A second questioner lauded Bernie for almost all his positions save one: “You are weak on gun control.” Bernie, however, pushed back, saying he was unfairly targeted on this issue, noting that he voted for expanded background checks and ending the so-called “gun show loophole.” But he also pleaded for compromise, arguing for the need to bring the 60%-70% of people who agree “on common sense gun control” together to pursue solutions, rather than demonizing gun owners.

It is hard not to be impressed with the enthusiasm of Bernie’s supporters. They are committed to the man, and his cause, and I have no doubt they will turn out to vote for him. They could even make the difference in low-turnout caucus states like Iowa where the intensity of support can matter more than its breadth. At the same time, it is not clear to me how many new converts Bernie is winning over with his message. At one point, a show of hands indicated that nearly half those in attendance at the Lebanon event were Vermont residents! On the one hand, this is not surprising given the location of the talk less than a mile from the Vermont border. On the other, it is a reminder that even in New Hampshire, a state bordering his own and one in which demographics would seem most favorable to him, Bernie is still in a dogfight with Hillary Clinton – a point reinforced by recent polling.

Are New Hampshire voters #FeelingtheBern? Some clearly are – but at this point it may not be enough to bring victory next February. As we contemplate what may happen, I leave you with the song that ushered Bernie supporters out at yesterday’s event, sung by a man who, ironically, isn’t much younger than Bernie! Rock on, America!

The Donald, Debates and Those Smug Political Scientists

It has become increasingly clear to me that beyond the uptick he has caused in their respective audiences, political pundits are enjoying Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the polls not least because they believe it exposes political scientists’ inability to explain the 2015-16 presidential electoral dynamics. As @JGreenDC recently tweeted, “[t]he most pleasurable part of this campaign cycle is that traditional insiders don’t have any idea what’s going on and they’re losing cachet.” By “traditional insiders” the pundits mean – as this Josh Barro tweet suggests – my arrogant political scientist colleagues! Barro tweets: “My favorite part is watching smug political scientists be dumbfounded.”  (Me?  Smug?  I’m sure Barro was referring to others in the profession. After all, only one pundit has blocked my twitter feed… far.)

However, as I discovered in an interview last week on Ari Melber’s Let’s Talk radio show, a post I wrote for US News in mid-August headlined “Do the Rules Apply to Donald?” may have inadvertently contributed to the perception that political scientists are baffled by Trump’s staying power. In asking me to explain Trump’s position atop the polls, Melber pointed out that in the article I noted that the duration of Trump’s front-runner status already far exceeded that experienced by the four Republicans – Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Herman Cain – who spent a significant period leading the polls in the 2012 Republican race. On average, their period of discovery, scrutiny and, eventually, a polling decline lasted about two months. Trump, in contrast, has been leading polls going on four months, with no clear sign of a polling decline as yet.

As I conceded to Melber, when The Donald announced his candidacy last July, I did not anticipate that he would remain atop the polls for this long. (Nor, I suspect, did many of my colleagues). But this doesn’t mean we are clueless when it comes to understanding why he has remained the front-runner for so long. As I wrote in July soon after Trump began his meteoric rise in the polls, his candidacy was being fueled by a media that found his controversial, over-the-top rhetoric impossible to ignore.  I concluded that post by writing, “The sooner the media begins evaluating The Donald on the details of his policies and his governing expertise, rather than on his deliberately provocative comments designed to mobilize a disaffected public, the sooner The Donald’s political bubble is likely to burst. Alas, I have little confidence that most journalists, in this era of dwindling audiences and shrinking profit margins, will be able to resist taking the easy road by dismissing The Donald as a serious candidate. To date, it is a media strategy that has The Donald laughing all the way to the top of polls.”

In retrospect, where I miscalculated was in not fully believing my own prediction; clearly I underestimated the media’s willingness to resist The Donald’s ability to dictate his press coverage. It turns out that pundits have found it impossible not to report on Trump’s rhetorical excesses, even as they chide themselves for doing so. As John Sides demonstrates, The Donald’s standing in the polls closely tracks the amount of media coverage he has received; as coverage goes up, so does his standing in the polls.

Note that it hardly matters whether the coverage is negative or not – as Sides indicates, it is not as if the media has refrained from criticizing The Donald for his often intemperate remarks. But that simply provides him with more free publicity, which seems to boost his polling support.

So what, if anything, will cause Trump to drop out of the top polling spot? The simple answer is that it will require someone more newsworthy to begin to eat into his media coverage.  For what it is worth, for the first time in months someone other than Trump – in this case Ben Carson – landed atop a recent national poll, although it may be too early to read much into this. This one poll notwithstanding, Trump remains in the lead based on aggregate polling.

And it would not be surprising if Trump gets a temporary polling boost based on tonight’s Republican debate due to the renewed media focus on his candidacy. Of course, that depends in part on whether the media finds someone other than Trump’s performance even more newsworthy. In this respect, tonight offers one of the few remaining opportunities for underfunded candidates, such as John Kasich or Marco Rubio, who are currently trying to break out as the alternative to Trump, to take advantage of the free media and have their Carly Fiorina debate moment. Fiorina, you will recall, saw her polling numbers blip upward after each of the first two Republican debates in which she participated although she has found it difficult to maintain that momentum. For those like Jeb Bush who have the resources to play a long game based on winning delegates, on the other hand, tonight’s debate may be less crucial, at least in the short run. Still, he undoubtedly wants to perform well if for no other reason than to stem the spate of stories citing his recent staff cutbacks, and his consultation with “Mommy and Daddy” Bush, as evidence that his candidacy is in trouble.

I suspect the immediate media focus tonight, given recent polls, will be on Ben Carson. It will be interesting to see how much the CNBC moderators John Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla focus their critical questions on the Good Doctor, given some of his recent statements equating abortion with slavery and linking gun control to the Holocaust. You will recall that Jake Tapper spent much of his time moderating the first CNN Republican debate by trying to goad the candidates into personally attacking one another, while the Fox crew focused much more on substantive policy differences. Let’s hope we don’t see a repeat of Tapper’s strategy.

As always, I’ll be live blogging the main debate, beginning shortly before it gets started at 8 p.m. EDT on CNBC. (Alas, it is not showing on any over-the-air broadcast channels.) Ten candidates will participate in the grownup event, while the remaining four – Lindsey Graham, Bobbie Jindal, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum, hold their own “kiddie” discussion at 6 p.m. I hope you can join in by posting comments at this site – it is always more fun with some audience participation. Just post in the comment box, or hit the twitter follow button at the top of the page.

See you at 7:45!