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Kasich Winning? Mitt Drafted? Be Still My Beating Heart!

The talking heads on Fox News and on other media  outlets were busy spinning yesterday’s election results, in which Ted Cruz and Donald Trump split four contests, as evidence that this has become a two-person race for the Republican nomination. Some pundits went further, arguing that the results indicate the first signs of a backlash against Trump’s candidacy. It’s not clear, however, whether the results were as good for Cruz as the Republican Party establishment would have one believe. Even as another 150 delegates came off the board, by my unofficial count Cruz won 69 compared to Trump’s 53 – a net gain of only 16 delegates which still leaves Cruz trailing The Donald by 82 delegates, and with most of Cruz’ best states behind him. The fact is that Cruz lost to Trump in two states – Kentucky and Louisiana – that contained significant numbers of the social conservatives that Cruz has relied on to carry his campaign so far. Moreover, his victories came in caucus states, not primaries, which does not build confidence that he can broaden his coalition. Trump (bombastic yes, but no fool) surely understands this, which is why during his “victory” press conference last night he openly called for a two-candidate contest between him and Cruz. Trump understands that as the race moves to the industrial Midwest, Cruz’ support is likely to tail off.

At this point, then, and at the risk of being an outlier (not for the first time, of course)  I am not persuaded that yesterday’s results demonstrates that the Stop Trump movement that I described in my last post is having an effect. We saw a similar media reaction after Cruz won in Iowa, if you’ll recall.  When the Donald finished second there after polls showed him leading, it was was viewed by most pundits as a stinging setback. The reality, however, is that given the political terrain in Iowa, a second-place finish by The Donald was, in my view, the first evidence that he was a candidate to be reckoned with. In any case, the pundits have predicted that Trump was losing momentum before. Eventually they may be right. Of course, I’m not a strong believer in electoral momentum, unless one defines it as a winnowing of the field, in which case election results can appear to bolster some candidates at the expense of others.

Setback or not, the Republican Party leaders aren’t taking any chances. Mitt was back on the airwaves today, making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to renew his attack on Trump, which inevitably led all the talking heads to ask the Mittster whether he would take the Sherman pledge not to run if nominated. For the record, Mitt refused to say he would reject a party draft, even while making it clear that he had no intention of running on his own and fully expected to endorse a Republican candidate not named Trump. The thought of the Mittster charging forth on his white horse to rescue the GOP from the evil clutches of Trumpism makes even the most sober-minded pundits swoon.  Please, please, let it happen they must be thinking!

Meanwhile poor Marco Rubio had a disastrous day, finishing no higher than third in any of the four contests (he finished 4th, behind John Kasich, in the Maine caucuses) and garnering only 20 delegates. On the plus side, however, he picked up key endorsements from party stalwarts like Bob Dole and Sam Brownback, which again shows that endorsements are very powerful predictors of electoral success, unless they aren’t. Rubio appears determined to stay in the race until his home state of Florida votes on March 15, even though Cruz has now targeted Florida as a must-win state as well. It is not inconceivable that they will split the non-Trump vote there. (As I write this, I received a breathless email from Team Marco saying: “The new survey by one of the nation’s most-respected pollsters has Marco trailing Trump by just a few points — and closing fast!” It’s just a flesh wound, folks.)  Even the betting markets seem to have written him off, with Kasich now considered more likely to win the nomination than is Marco.

And what of Kasich?  As regular readers know, I thought he won (as much as anyone can “win” these things) the two most recent Republican debates through a combination of his policy knowledge, adult persona and references to his ability to work across party lines. Tellingly, not a single media pundit that I know of agreed with that assessment, and in fact most post-debate write-ups failed to mention his name. And perhaps with good reason. Yesterday he slouched his way through another unimpressive set of election results, finishing last in three of the four contests and winning only 10 delegates and, not for the first time, was an afterthought (if that!) in most media election wrap-up stories. And yet hope for the perpetually optimistic candidate springs eternal. The latest poll out of Michigan, which votes on Tuesday, has him leading – yes, leading! – in that state, 33%-31% over The Donald (what did I say about relying on one poll to gauge the state of a race?) If he wins Michigan, and follows that up with a victory in his home state of Ohio (a winner-take- all contest) a week later, he will undoubtedly proclaim himself as the heir to the not-Donald vote. And he could very well be correct.

Even as Republican Party talking heads wring their hands regarding the impending breakup of the GOP and plot to stop Trump, voters continue to turn out in record numbers and, I think, in large part due to Trump’s candidacy. Once again turnout was up, and by a lot, in all four Republican contests yesterday compared to the turnout numbers from four and eight years ago. With the exception of Vermont, Republicans have seen turnout increase in every nominating contest so far. The Democrats must wish they were the party on the ropes like this! In yesterday’s three Democratic contests, turnout was down again from 2008, even as Hillary Clinton continued her methodical march toward clinching the nomination. Although Bernie Sanders won two of the three contests, she won 55 delegates to his 49. That won’t stop the FeelTheBern crowd from proclaiming victory, of course, but at this point it appears nothing short of criminal charges are going to prevent her from winning the delegate race.

And so the road show continues. Republicans vote in Puerto Rico’s primary today, and then on Tuesday both parties head to Michigan and Mississippi and for Republicans, Idaho and Hawaii too. On the Republican side there are 150 delegates at stake. If Kasich pulls off the improbable and wins Michigan, thus further fracturing the non-Trump vote, I expect the drumbeats for Mitt to grow only louder. Oh, be still my beating heart!

Is The Party Inadvertently Deciding For Trump?

The last 72 hours have seen a visible, concerted effort by the Republican Party leadership to stop Donald Trump from clinching their party’s presidential nomination. (By party, I’m using the broader definition advanced by The Party Decides crowd that includes interest groups and the media). It began with 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s blistering broadside against Trump last Thursday, in which he called The Donald “a phony, a fraud” whose “promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” Echoing Marco Rubio’s recent characterization of Trump as a “con man”, Romney continued: “He’s playing members of the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.”

That night during the Republican debate Fox News set a thinly-veiled trap designed to ensnare Trump in his own lack of policy details. When Trump responded to moderator Chris Wallace’s question asking for specifics regarding how he planned to cut the budget deficit by saying he would eliminate the “Department” of EPA (it’s an agency, but never mind) and of Education, Wallace pounced by showing a graphic indicating that this would do little to close the budget gap. When Trump then said he would also make pharmaceutical companies bid properly to save money, Wallace showed another graphic indicating Trump was still exaggerating the amount of money that would provide based on Medicare payments. Trump then defensively claimed that proper negotiating across all government contracts would save billions of dollars. Later in the debate, Fox showed another graphic – this one from a John Kasich ad that suggested Trump might name Vladimir Putin as his running mate. When asked what the ad revealed about Trump’s foreign policy expertise, Kasich refused to bite, and instead moved on to discuss how he would handle Russia and Putin.

Without getting into the specifics of these exchanges, the effort by Fox to use graphics to hoist The Donald on his own lack-of-policy-specifics petard seems unusual by traditional debate coverage standards. But the effort to take down the Donald did not stop there. As I noted during my running debate commentary, while no one stunk up the joint on the debate stage that night, I thought Cruz had done little to expand his coalition beyond his conservative base. (For what it is worth, I thought Kasich easily “won” the debate – an assessment apparently shared by none of the talking heads in their debate post-mortems. But I digress.) Nonetheless, at the debate’s conclusion, the twitterverse was alive with comments from Republican Party stalwarts regarding how Cruz was the clear debate winner.  It seemed to be another orchestrated effort by the party establishment to shift the election narrative.

Other party leaders, such as South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, have publicly joined the Stop The Donald movement in recent days by (reluctantly in Graham’s case) saying they would support Cruz as the alternative. For his part, Cruz has made it clear that he is the only viable option on the table for those seeking to derail Trump’s candidacy. Other Republicans, meanwhile, are talking openly about a third-party run by a Republican, or how to orchestrate a coup against Trump at a brokered convention. Rubio’s supporters have pretty much acknowledged that their best hope is to prevent Trump from clinching the nomination before the convention, at which point their man might emerge as the most viable alternative.  As a sign of how desperate the Party is, some leading members are even saying that in a contest between Clinton and Trump – they would consider voting for Clinton!

Today will provide the first evidence whether any of these Stop Trump efforts are bearing fruit. Republicans are holding nominating contests in four states today – Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine, and in a fifth, Puerto Rico, tomorrow. All told some 178 delegates are up for grabs. If current polling is predictive (and polling in most of these state is sparse and highly speculative, given the nature of the contests) Trump could come out with close to half the delegates, based on my back-of-the-envelope calculations. That would ensconce him even more firmly in the driver’s seat heading in Tuesday’s contests in Michigan, Mississippi and Idaho, where another 131 delegates are at stake. Current polling has Trump leading in Mississippi and Michigan. Unfortunately for Rubio and Cruz’s arguments that they are the only Trump alternative, polling indicates that Kasich is gaining ground in Michigan and he may very well finish second there.  That would further fracture the Not-Trump field.

The bottom line is that heading into the crucial winner-take-all March 15 primaries in Florida, Ohio and Illinois (although they aren’t necessarily all winner-take-all), Trump may be less than 800 delegates away from clinching the nomination before the convention. If he does clinch the nomination outright, one need look no further than what has transpired these last few days to understand the cause. The Republican Party seems clueless regarding why Trump seems so resistant to efforts by leading party figures to bring him down. The short answer is that much of Trump’s support is premised on the idea that he is NOT part of the party establishment, and every time a Romney or a Kristol or a Fox News takes him on, Trump’s supporters are reminded of this. Beyond the economic populism and “racial resentment” that fuels much of Trump’s support, there is also a deep belief among his supporters that something needs to change in American politics, and that change is not going to come from within the existing party establishment. If I heard it once speaking to voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina, I heard a variation of it a hundred times, “We have to do something to shake things up – simply voting for existing party candidates is not going to do it.” In short, there’s distinct sense among Trump supporters that the path to change is not going to come from within the Party.

Of course, from the Party’s perspective, the purpose behind the Romney et al attacks is not necessarily to peel off Trump’s supporters – it’s to motivate the party faithful to rally behind a suitable alternative. But beyond the obvious coordination problem – neither Cruz, Rubio or Kasich is showing any signs of bowing out as yet – I have to believe that every time the media publicizes a Stop Trump moment from within the Party, broadly defined, it gives undecided voters another reason to consider supporting The Donald as well. And, if turnout is any indication, Trump is bringing disaffected voters back to the fold – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a party that seemed to lose downscale white voters in 2012.  (I’ll be up with a subsequent post indicating whether this increased primary turnout says anything about voting in the general election.)

So far Trump seems to be more than holding his own, despite – or because of – these Stop Donald efforts. Let’s see if anything changes today. My suspicion (says the man who told his students Donald would be out of the race in a matter of weeks) is that the Trump train will come out of this weekend and roll into Tuesday with a good deal of Trump-mentum.

As Vermont Goes, So Goes Kasich?

John Kasich took his long-shot campaign north to Vermont today in anticipation of this state’s Super Tuesday primary tomorrow, and your intrepid blogger battled moderate temperatures and fields of solar panels to give you this report:

We arrived at the Castleton University Campus Center about 15 minutes prior to Kasich’s scheduled 11:30 a.m. talk and already the crowd had spilled out of the auditorium and into the adjoining lobby area. By now we are veterans of these crowds, and we knew enough to push people out of the way until we got a proper vantage point from our usual slot near the media, who were lined up in the back of the room. All three of Vermont’s major television networks were covering the events.

This was easily the largest audience we’ve seen in the four Kasich Town Halls we’ve attended. Although I wasn’t able to do a good hand count, I’m estimating that there were between 750-1,000 people in the auditorium, including a couple rows of people on the stage behind him. Demographically, the crowd had a good mix of college students and older individuals. From the start, they seemed favorably disposed toward him, applauding as he walked on stage and generally seeming to react positively to his message.

For his part, it is clear what Kasich’s strategy is in coming to Vermont again (he was here on the day of the South Carolina Republican primary as well.) Kasich is trying to distinguish himself as the “grown up” in an increasingly infantile Republican race, and he trying to peel off moderates and independents to supplement his narrow support among the Republican base. To this end, he’s hoping to do well in Vermont and Massachusetts tomorrow, so that he’s at least in the conversation as the race moves to the Midwest with primaries in Michigan on March 8 and in his home state of Ohio on March 15. Michigan is a winner-take-most delegates state with 55 delegates up for grabs, and Ohio is winner-take-all with 66 delegates to be awarded. Currently, he trails in the polls in every state tomorrow, and it is unclear how much support, and money, he will retain if he is shut out. So he is banking on a victory in Vermont. There has not been much polling of the Republican race here, but a recent VPR/Castleton poll has him tied for third with Cruz with about 10%, trailing both Rubio (17%) and Trump (32%). My sense, however, is that both Rubio and Cruz have likely dropped off since that poll was taken.  In any case, I think Kasich senses that Vermont is his best chance to claim a victory tomorrow.

Toward that end he retained his sunny optimism and trademark humorous asides that have characterized his demeanor in recent campaign events, refusing to criticize any of his opponents, although he clearly took a swipe at their policies, particularly on immigration, where he described promises to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, including breaking up families, as simply unrealistic. But in this particular speech he also made a concerted effort to emphasize his support for women’s rights, both in the context of defeating ISIS (“they treat women as property – did you know that?”) and in emphasizing job and educational opportunities for women. He also made a point of introducing his wife and his two daughters to the crowd, which I had not seen him do before.  Again, I wonder what his polling data is telling him regarding his support among women here, and in the race more generally.

After announcing that he intends to remain “the adult in the race”, Kasich launched into his familiar story about how he talked his way into a 25-minute one-on-one meeting with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office as an 18-year old. He also paid homage to Bernie Sanders, noting that they had worked together in the Senate. When the crowd booed Bernie’s name, Kasich shushed them, saying he wanted to adopt one of Bernie’s policies of giving things away for free: “How about Ben and Jerry’s ice cream free for a year?” (Throughout the speech, Kasich sprinkled in local references, noting, for instance, the abundance of solar panels through the state despite his never seeing any sun during his visits here.)

He then recited the usual biographical details, noting his maternal grandmother was an immigrant, at which point he took the opportunity to assail his opponents’ more draconian immigration policies. “There was a time when we invited people here….it made us a healthier nation.” He talked about his father working in the coal mines, and getting cheated by his employer, and his mother as a radio “pioneer” – she would yell at the radio while listening to programs he said, to much laughter. After acknowledging that Vermont is a “pretty secular” state, he discussed his spiritual beliefs, and the importance of having a purpose in life. He would return to this theme later when addressing why people become addicted to drugs, or join ISIS – “they are searching for something.” He then noted that although the presidency is an important job, it is “not going to help address the issues facing Castleton.” Instead, he emphasized the need to act locally by strengthening communities and education opportunities.  These are familiar themes for Kasich, ones I have seen him address in previous campaign stops, but he seemed a bit more relaxed, and also more energized, this time around, perhaps sensing that he was speaking, for the most part, to a receptive audience.

“Life is but a breathe,” Kasich said near the end of his speech, “you are here and then gone.” He noted, to much laughter, that when he his eulogy is read, he hopes that 80% of it is true. He concluded by noting that “if you liked what you heard here today, please vote for me tomorrow. If you didn’t like it, please don’t tell anyone!”  Again the crowd laughed.

Kasich took about a half-dozen questions, ranging from how to deal with climate change – “Some of it is man-made but I don’t know how much”, ISIS – “We need to destroy them”, the Russians and Putin –  “I will support the Ukrainians”, and making college more affordable (the latter question came from a 12-year old girl.) Kasich emphasized the role of community colleges and the need to hold down costs by cutting out non-academic expenses. Except for the very first audience question – “Can you get me Donald Trump’s autograph?” – the questioners seemed generally interested in Kasich’s responses. Perhaps the most interesting exchange took place when a man read a very lengthy and somewhat convoluted statement regarding a possible connection between spending for a U.S. State Department government program and shadowy groups that traffic in child pornography. Rather than respond in detail, Kasich asked the man to give him the sheet of statistics he was holding, and promised to follow up on the issue.

As I noted above, Kasich seemed more energized, and at the same time more relaxed, than in his previous campaign events. When I saw him in South Carolina a couple weeks ago, perhaps because he was cognizant that he was not going to do well there, he seemed more subdued. Vermont is an important state for him – if he can’t do well here tomorrow it is hard to make the case for why he should go on. (Some might argue it is already hard to make that case!) After getting an initial burst of publicity, and fund-raising, off of his second place finish in New Hampshire, he needs to show that he is still viable. His hope, of course, is that either Cruz or Rubio will drop out after tomorrow, and that he will then be positioned as the primary alternative to Trump, who he thinks he can beat in a one-on-one contest. Even if they don’t, he needs to beat them somewhere to remain credible. Vermont and Massachusetts probably offer this best hope to do so tomorrow. Win or lose, however, Kasich is publicly claiming he is in the race for the long haul. As he prepared to leave the auditorium today, he quoted Arnold (The Terminator) Schwarzenegger, promising “I’ll be back!” We’ll see if he has the opportunity to keep that promise.

For those of you in Vermont, I’ll be on WCAX (Channel 3) later today (at 5:30) on the :30 to preview tomorrow’s Super Tuesday events.