Are Rumors of Jeb!’s Death Greatly Exaggerated?

It long ago became an article of faith among most political pundits that Jeb Bush – once the purported front-runner for the Republican nomination – has seen his chances almost completely evaporate. Conservatives never really warmed to his candidacy, but a series of less-than-stellar debate performances led the chattering class to desert him in droves. As one critic put it after Jeb’s low-energy, anything-but-smooth debate performance in the third Republican debate last October, “Yeah, Jeb Bush is probably toast.” But is he?

To get a better handle on the state of Jeb’s campaign, your intrepid blogger attended a recent Bush event in Bow, New Hampshire. I came away thinking that if this is the Jeb! that New Hampshire voters are seeing at every event, it might be time to move him from the intensive-care ward and into the candidate rehabilitation room. Of course, it is dangerous to generalize from a single case study, and there’s no guarantee the patient will fully recover from his early campaign wounds, but the Jeb! I saw seemed like anything but toast. Here is my report.

We arrived at the elementary school in Bow just in time to see Jeb! whiz by us in his black SUV, followed by a couple of other identical makes of vehicles. After grabbing the usual handful of campaign swag (my favorite item is a cool “#1 Jeb! Fan” hand fan) we hurried into the room (in contrast to the Donald’s events, there was no security search here) and moved to our preferred position in the back, near the media.  This was our view.

The room was full – I estimate about 200 people – and seemed to lean toward a slightly older crowd, although there was a healthy mix of ages. In a reminder that Jeb! has the backing of parts of the Republican Party establishment (he still leads all Republican candidates in endorsements), he was introduced by former New Hampshire Governor, and later Senator, Judd Gregg. Gregg noted that he supported Jeb! for three reasons: he can win the general election, he knows the issues, and he will be able to govern by working with the opposition. Jeb! then took the floor and, after thanking New Hampshire voters for taking this process so seriously he introduced his wife Columba. Although spouses and family often figure in candidates’ campaign speeches, this was the first event we attended in which the candidate spouse was there in person. Jeb! recounted how he felt like he had been struck by “a lightning bolt” when he first met Columba (presumably in a good way) and that he thereafter divided his life into BC (Before Columba) and AC (After). “I recommend love at first sight,” he gushed. (Note: all quotes are based on contemporaneous tweets and notes taken during the talk and may be slightly paraphrased.)

He then launched into his campaign spiel. “I admit it. I’m a policy wonk,” he began, before referencing his website.  Like many Republican candidates, but in contrast to the Democrats, the first policy issue he addressed was the war on terror. After noting that the country was on the wrong track, he referenced a recent speech he gave at the Citadel (the South Carolina military academy) in which he promised the cadets that, as President, he “would have their backs.” That meant rebuilding the military by increasing troops levels to 400,000, improving force readiness (“one half don’t reach that level now”), modernizing the air force (“many of our planes are older than the pilots”), reforming military procurement, but also caring for our returning veterans (a theme he returned to later in the talk). The world, he argued, needs the U.S. to take a leadership role, but “our current president is leading from behind.” Jeb! noted that disagreeing with the President’s military policy did not make him a “war monger” or an advocate for “occupation” in the Mideast. Instead, he was following the Reagan-Bush principle of “peace through strength” which he contrasted with the “Obama-Clinton” foreign policy. He also took a shot at Clinton for her lack of transparency regarding Benghazi and her “What difference does it make?” comment designed to push back against congressional inquiries into what happened there.

Jeb then moved to domestic politics, arguing that the country needed someone who could “change the culture” in Washington, DC and “build consensus.” “I’ve stopped watching cable television,” he noted, to applause, “except for football.” (Here he made the obligatory positive reference to Tom Brady and the Patriots.) To change that culture, he advocated for term limits (“It works in Florida”), and the line-item veto (“In Florida, they called me ‘Veto Corleone’”). He cited his record as governor, noting a 30% increase in general revenues even though Florida “has no income tax”, and an increase in the state’s bond rating to AAA under his leadership. “We made government live within its mean,” he boasted. He went on to advocate fixing the federal tax code, pushing for regulatory reform and encouraging energy development. “We need to make government smaller and more accountable.”

Bush then finished by describing his leadership ethos, and indirectly contrasting it with Trump’s. He has “a servant’s heart” which he said signified strength, not weakness. In contrast, he noted, it is not a position of strength to disparage “women, Hispanics” and a “war hero” like John McCain. Nor is “insulting the disabled.” He finished on an uplifting theme, arguing that “life is a gift from God…divinely inspired” and that we need to work together to create more prosperity, love and concern for others, and the freedom to pursue one’s dream. “Don’t believe the cable shows,” he urged his audience, noting that New Hampshire voters, who take their role seriously, can make a difference in this election. He concluded by “humbly asking for your support.”

In all, his opening remarks took maybe 15 minutes. The remaining 50 minute or so was spent answering questions, which covered issues ranging from early child care (Bush noted that in Florida pre-K attendance is the highest in the country, and he advocated shifting educational revenues from federal control to block grants to states); the role of nuclear weapons (Here Bush noted Trump’s evident ignorance regarding what the nuclear triad referred to and, while acknowledging that a nuclear-free world is a laudable aspiration, argued that “we can’t unilaterally disarm” in the face of nuclear dangers from North Korea, Pakistan and Iran); and income inequality.  To this last question Bush argued that, “It’s not income inequality that is the concern …the challenge is to encourage economic mobility” which can be done through policies designed to encourage marriage – “encouraging marriage is not politically incorrect” – increasing the reward for work – “median income is down $2,300 since Obama became president” – and improving opportunity by reforming education. To improve the economy, Bush would repeal Obamacare and replace it with a system that focuses on catastrophic coverage and empowers consumers to make cost-conscious health decisions, rather than imposing costs on employers as is now the case. He would also double the middle-income tax exemption as part of his simplification of the tax code.

Other questions dealt with how to make politics more inclusive (“We have to recognize changing demographics….I won with Hispanics in Florida…by campaigning with my arms wide open….”); saving Social Security (Bush would keep current eligibility requirements in place until 2022 and then gradually raise the eligibility age, but he would also encourage private savings by making it easier for small businesses to offer 401k’s – “We need to promote financial literacy”); college student debt (“Move to Florida!….we have the lowest tuition in the country!” he boasted, before advocating a new student loan repayment policy based on income); helping veterans readjust to civilian life (“We need to be more proactive” by working with veterans to develop job opportunities six months before they are scheduled to leave the service); and climate change and the declining moose population caused by a growth in ticks (“I believe climate change is happening and people play a role” but too often the media ignores the fact that carbon emissions have been going down because of a shift in energy sources to natural gas and greater reliance on more efficient cars). Bush would support more research into alternative energy sources, but opposes a carbon tax that would hurt the middle class. “We need to be good stewards of the environment” he summarized, but not at the cost of economic prosperity.

The final set of questions dealt with gun violence – this question came from what looked to be a nine- or ten-year old boy – here Bush distinguished between terrorist-based shootings like San Bernardino and civilian mass shootings like Sandy Hook, arguing that more local police and community vigilance was needed to prevent the former, and more research into mental health in order to promote earlier intervention to prevent the mentally ill from gaining access to guns rather than restricting gun rights to prevent the latter; another question on student loans; a question about negative campaigning – here the questioner praised Bush for not going negative, to which Bush responded, “Well, I’ll attack Donald Trump!”; and finally a question regarding how Bush’s proposal to raise the Social Security retirement age would affect Medicare eligibility. Bush replied, “I don’t know!” but promised to find out and to call the questioner personally with an answer later that day.

After the Q&A Bush waded into the crowd to field more questions while I looked for crowd reactions. I asked a woman next to me, who looked to be in her 70’s, what she thought. She replied, almost giddily, “He was fantastic!” And, in fact, he was quite good, particularly when compared to his debate performances. At this event Jeb’s presentation was animated, clear and concise even while discussing policy at a deeper level of detail that Trump does not come close to matching. At the same time, he was witty – he told a funny story about his mother donning football gear in preparation for responding to Trump’s personal attack on her family – and responded to questions with a laid-back, conversational yet clearly articulated style that stood in sharp contrast to his halting, sometimes incoherent debate responses. I felt like I was finally getting a glimpse of the politician who proved so successful in Florida.

But will the transformation – if that’s what it is – be enough to save his candidacy, or are the pundits’ pronouncements of his obituary already baked into public opinion? For what it is worth – and I always caution readers not to rely on a single data point – the latest poll out of New Hampshire has Bush “surging”* into second place, trailing only Trump by 35%-18%. Of course, it’s impossible to know whether this is a trend or an outlier – the HuffingtonPost aggregate polling chart still has him back in the pack in 5th place in the Granite State with only 8.2% of the aggregate vote.

I have long argued to my students and readers that Bush is playing a long game, hoping that his resources – he leads all candidates not named Trump in combined direct and Super Pac contributions – and party backing – he also leads in endorsements – will allow him to survive while his main rivals – Christie, Kasich and Rubio – are winnowed from the field in New Hampshire, South Carolina and in the southern-dominated March 1 Super Tuesday primaries. That would stand him in good stead to consolidate their support as the nominating campaign then moves north to what is presumably more favorable political terrain for a moderate candidate. There’s no guarantee that this is a viable strategy, however. Instead, it may be Bush that will be winnowed, and that one of the other three emerges as the party favorite in the next month. Certainly that is the prevailing wisdom among most pundits.

One thing is almost certain: Bush likely will not do well in Iowa; current polls there, which admittedly are not always reliable, have him buried in single digits. But that won’t matter if he emerges in second place in New Hampshire. For Jeb! supporters, and for his opponents too, all eyes are on the Granite state.

*Try as I might, I cannot get the link to the actual polling internal data to open, which makes me even less willing to put much stock in the results.

Addendum: 8:00 – The Emerson poll internals are now available on line.  It is worth noting that it is an automated poll.

Addendum 1:11 p.m.  As I was uploading this post, a second NH poll of likely Republican primary voters came online.  In it, Bush is bunched in a virtual tie for second place with Christie and Kasich at about 12%.  That trails the Donald by 15%, and is about two points ahead of Rubio.

Is Hillary Pulling Away In Iowa?

Is Hillary Clinton pulling away in Iowa?

On twitter, the online political journal The Hill is touting its story headlined “Iowa polls shows Clinton up 29 over Sanders”.  The article refers to a survey conducted by Loras College of 500 likely Democratic caucus goers that shows Clinton leading Sanders 59% to 30%. Not surprisingly, more than one of my students (and strong Bernie supporters) has emailed me asking whether this poll can be “trusted”. Their questions give me an opportunity to remind readers again about the difference between political punditry, as exemplified by The Hill article, and political science. As a political scientist who writes about elections, the Loras poll gives me an additional data point, but one that is noteworthy only because it is more recent – not because the results seem to be an outlier. Indeed, there is no reason to accord a poll any additional weight just because of the results – instead it must be judged in the context of all the polling results. As my students have often heard me say, “Never rely on a single poll to gauge how a race is going.” Nor do I pay much attention to “house” effects in an effort to control for the quality of a poll. I know some data sites make a big deal about this, but Drew Linzer was able to forecast the Electoral College results in 2012 using state-level polls without regard for house effects, on the assumption that they would tend to cancel out on average (as long as you controlled for the frequency of the polls). In short, I tend to treat all polls as equals (assuming they meet standard criteria for conducting a truly random sample of a targeted population), and rely on the polling averages rather than the results of any single poll.

For a political pundits, however, the Loras poll, which suggests a huge lead for Clinton, has a “man bites dog” quality that makes it newsworthy precisely because it does seem to be an outlier. Pundits had the same reaction to a recent CNN/WMUR poll that showed Sanders up big in New Hampshire – it was newsworthy enough to generate headline coverage and much pundit speculation about what the numbers meant for her campaign.  Of course, it is standard practice in such stories to note – typically way down in the story – that readers should be aware that it is possible the poll being discussed is an outlier, that other polls suggest a different interpretation, etc., etc. The fact that there may be countervailing evidence that should give us pause regarding how to interpret single poll results, however, is not going to stop political pundits from focusing on those polls that they view as more newsworthy. And frankly, if I was in their position – particularly those working in the print media, an industry that is shedding readers at an alarming rate – I would probably make my choice of which poll to highlight based on what is most likely to generate an audience and ad revenues. From the pundits’ perspective, then, all polls are decidedly NOT equal – some are more likely to attract readers than are others, particularly if the results suggest a change in the prevailing narrative.

My point here is not to suggest one approach is superior to the other. It is to remind readers that we have different objectives.  Pundits traffic in informed opinion.  Their goal is to enlighten and entertain (not necessarily in that order).  Political scientists, in contrast, are interested in developing explanations for (generally recurring) events and in testing those explanations with data.  If we also entertain, that is an additional benefit.  To be sure, there is often overlap between the two, particularly in sites like mine.  I have been known to write the occasional post, such as this edited interview with Sarah Palin, that surely cannot be characterized as political science!

So, where does that leave our understanding of Iowa?  As it turns out, three subsequent surveys of potential Iowa Democratic caucus goers have come out since the Loras poll. Two show Clinton up by an average of nine over Sanders, but a third CNN poll has Sanders leading Clinton 51-43. What’s a reader to do? Here’s my advice. First, per my discussion above, rely on the averages. In Iowa, the Huffington Post aggregate pollster still has Clinton with a slight lead.

Second, remember that polling in Iowa is notoriously difficult, in part because it is difficult to figure out who is actually going to show up to caucus. As I have discussed previously (and also in a post coming out at U.S. News on Monday), Sanders is polling quite well among younger voters and those who have never attended a caucus before. Pollsters have to make assumptions regarding how many of these younger Sander supporters are actually going to show up. Because pollsters use different methods for predicting who will vote they generate different turnout predictions, different polling samples and different results.

This should also remind us that pollsters can’t account for differences in candidates’ ground game.  This is particularly important in a low-turnout event like a caucus.  Pollsters don’t know beforehand whether one side will prove significantly more effective than the other in getting its people to show. But these differences can have a discernible impact on the actual results.

There is a final caveat to keep in mind when judging Iowa caucus polls – they don’t always do a good job forecasting results because initial support going into a caucus may not translate into final numbers. Consider the Iowa Democratic caucus. According to the Iowa Democratic Party caucus rules: “For precinct caucuses, preference groups shall be required to have a minimum number of members within their group in order to be considered viable for the purposes of electing delegates to the county convention. The minimum number of members, or viability threshold, a group must have will be determined by the following factors: the total number of eligible caucus attendees at the particular caucus and the total number of delegates the particular caucus is to elect.”

Translated, this means if a candidate does not attract enough initial support at a precinct caucus – a minimum of 15% of caucus goers for precincts selecting four or more delegates, and higher if fewer delegates are chosen – his or her supporters are given time to reallocate themselves to one of the candidates who did clear the minimum threshold of support. So, initial support may be accurately captured by a poll, but by the time the caucusing is done a candidate whose initial support is low may find his or her backing falling well short of what the polls suggest, while frontrunners may see the support grow beyond the initial polling projections. Remember, when the caucusing is over, what gets reported is the number of delegates awarded in each precinct to each candidate – not the share of the vote each candidate initially received by those attending the caucuses, which is what the polls are measuring.

All this is a long way of saying that polling in Iowa is very much an imprecise science. Moreover, history suggests that there can be considerable movement in candidate support in the last 10 days before the caucus, as both Howard Dean in 2004 and Rick Santorum in 2012 found out. Dean saw his polling lead collapse, while Santorum moved from back-in-the-pack to eke out a narrow victory.

Is Hillary Clinton really pulling away in Iowa? I don’t know. And I suspect no one else does either.

Rubio on the Rise in New Hampshire? Notes from the Campaign Trail

Fresh off what most observers saw as a strong debate performance last Thursday, Marco Rubio returned to New Hampshire the following Friday to a packed house (based on posted room capacity, I estimate a bit under 400 in attendance) at the Common Man Inn in Claremont. Your intrepid blogger was there, and here’s what I saw.

As is customary for us when we rely on Google maps, our directions to the Rubio event seemed more like suggestions. When we finally pulled in front of the Inn, frantic staff members began screaming at us that Mario’s bus was pulling in “literally this second.” Sure enough, I turned the car around in time to just miss getting crushed by Rubio’s campaign bus, adorned with a smiling Marco.

We managed to park the car without mishap and hurried back to the event in time to catch the start. After taking our vital information (name, email, residence), we were finally directed into the event by some very young, polite and smartly-dressed Rubio staffers. The room was filled to capacity, and we went to the back where the media was lined up. This was our view. As you can see, it was a far more intimate setting than the Trump rally I attended in Claremont.

This was Rubio’s 5th New Hampshire campaign appearance of the day, but he was animated at the start and appeared to gain energy as the event went on. He started by asking for a show of hands for people from Vermont. About a dozen or so went up. I’m not sure why he asked, unless it was to ferret out Bernie supporters who might launch a protest, but after seeing the hands go up he asked, “What’s up with your Senator?” which elicited laughs from the crowd. My sense, looking around, was that this was a more economically diverse crowd than what I saw at Kasich’s talk, and a younger one too. But it was still dominated by older voters.  On the whole, it was an energetic crowd who seemed eager to hear what Rubio had to say.

After poking fun at Bernie, Rubio then launched into what I assume is his standard stump speech, beginning with an overview of his upbringing as the son of immigrants. Here he took pains to contrast his life experience with Hillary Clinton’s, noting, “I understand what it means to live paycheck-to-paycheck.” (Note: all my quotes are based on notes taken at the event and are as close to verbatim as memory and the scribbled comments allow.) Interestingly, except for Trump, I’ve not heard a single Republican candidate boast that they can beat Sanders – they all seem to assume Clinton will be the Democratic nominee and they target her.  Bernie is largely an afterthought in their minds.

After extolling the values that allowed his parents to succeed in this country, Rubio noted that the country was now in decline – a decline he blamed on Obama and failed leadership. His goal is to turn American off this road, and to restore the American miracle. He asserted that America is still the greatest country in the world – something that is best appreciated by people who came here from another country. Obama, he charged, wants to make America more like other countries. (At the mention of Obama’s name the crowd booed.)

He then addressed his age, indirectly, by noting that when deciding to run for the Senate in Florida in 2010, many party leaders advised him to wait his turn, and that he couldn’t win. He’s hearing those same warnings now, but he argues that the urgency of the situation facing the country requires him to act, not wait. This was followed by an exposition of his stances on key issues, beginning with gun control (he will protect the Second Amendment, and lambasted Obama’s recent executive action on this topic.) Rubio noted that best way to stop gun-related crime was not to penalize law abiding citizens (“Criminals always get guns no matter what the law. That’s why we call them criminals!”) but instead to enforce current laws and to deal with mental health issues.

Rubio then turned to the Supreme Court and lower-court judicial appointments – the first Republican I can remember tackling this issue during their NH swings. He promised to appoint more Scalias, and fewer Sotomayors. He then went on to take direct swipes at two of his closest rivals in the New Hampshire polls – Ted Cruz and Chris Christie – although he was careful to note that he liked them both and that his attacks were not personal. He criticized Cruz for supporting a Value Added Tax (VAT) which Rubio said would simply hike the cost of goods. In contrast, Rubio said he would simplify the tax code by reducing it to two brackets and establishing a separate business rate. (He would also roll back economic regulations and move to eliminate Obamacare.) He then went after Christie for the latter’s support of Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court – here Rubio offered to read directly from the statement released by Christie touting her appointment – as well as Christie’s liberal stances on other issues, like Common Core. This was the most direct attack on one’s Republican opponents that I’ve yet to see during the current election cycle, and may be a function of the dwindling number of days before the February 9 New Hampshire primary. In talking about court appointees, Rubio said he would support term limits for judges and for members of Congress too.

He then turned to immigration, linking border control to national security. He took pains to say he wasn’t anti-immigration, but it was imperative to know who was coming into the country and why. He advocated hiring 20,000 border agents – “not IRS agents” – and building better walls and fences. He scolded the Obama administration for what Rubio said was weakening our military at a time when China and Russia are getting stronger (he also referenced “that lunatic” in North Korea). “We are not a weak people,” Rubio proclaimed, “We have a weak president.” While he expressed concern for the state of American, he suggested that if this generation does it part, he is confident that the next generation will be the most free and most prosperous in American history.

At this point Rubio took questions from what appeared to be a largely sympathetic audience. The topics included his views on fully funding PEPFAR (the AIDS treatment program for Africa) – Rubio would fully fund it and he gave a shout-out to President Bush for starting the program; global climate change (“Didn’t they use to call it global warming?”) – he argued for more innovation and diversification in energy development, and warned against stricter regulation that could hurt the economy; gun control and the Second Amendment – Rubio argued that none of the recent gun tragedies would have been prevented by stronger background checks, which are sometimes wrong and we shouldn’t prevent families from protecting themselves; government entitlement programs – Rubio would protect existing beneficiaries, but made clear that some changes are needed, such as increasing the retirement age, to keep Social Security solvent; rising housing costs – here Rubio faulted the Fed for creating the housing bubble and warned that banks were now creating a stock market bubble that doesn’t benefit lower and middle-income workers. He talked more generally about reforming the Federal Reserve – “the Fed is not some Jedi council!” – by linking its decisions on interest rates and the money supply to some easily observable fixed guidelines. The last three questions dealt with the drug abuse problem, “privatizing” Medicare, and the separation of church and state. Regarding the regional drug problem, Rubio noted that Mexican and Latin American drug cartels have a business plan based on expanding their market by targeting New Hampshire and that to stem demand we have to start treating drug addiction as a medical problem which requires greater government spending on basic research. Rubio opposes the legalization of marijuana while acknowledging that alcohol abuse is a big issue too; however, “I’m not going to ban alcohol – I’m Catholic!” Rubio said he would reform Medicare – not by privatizing it – but by giving beneficiaries more options similar to buying Medicare Advantage coverage. Again, he stressed that he would make no changes that would affect current beneficiaries. When asked about his views regarding the separation of church and state, Rubio was quick to note that the Constitution speaks only about not establishing a state religion (the establishment clause) – not the separation of church and state. Here he went on an extended discussion regarding how the country was founded on fundamental Judeo-Christian values. “Laws tell us what is legal – not what is right or wrong,” he insisted. We need strong families to inculcate these values in our children to prevent the unraveling of society. “I am a follower of Jesus Christ” he proclaimed, and went on to discuss the biblical passage of Jesus healing the lepers. Rubio’s point is that the decision to heal came not from the law, but from faith. No government, he said, should force people to act against their conscience.

Rubio speaks in flowing paragraphs, unspooling extended, cogent talking points on every issue without using notes. He sprinkled his presentation with frequent humorous asides designed to play to his particular audience (‘I’m going to put Tom Brady in my cabinet so my Dolphins can finally win a playoff game”; “When did Sean Penn leave Madonna for El Chapo?”). As the night went on, he seemed to pick up energy and become more relaxed, so that near the end of his speech he had established an easy rapport with the crowd. After he finished taking question he spent another 15 minutes mingling as audience members crowded around for pictures.

rubio crowd2

On the whole, his talk was an engaging blend of criticism of the current state of affairs intermingled with an apparently strong belief in the nation’s capacity for greatness. In talking to audience members after the speech, several mentioned how impressed they were by Rubio’s optimism, which they contrasted with the more negative tone of other Republican candidates. This was an interesting reaction since a good deal of Rubio’s talk emphasized that we were a nation in decline. Somehow Rubio is able to project an innate optimism despite his dire warnings regarding the current state of the nation. And that optimism appears to be catching on. Coming of a series of generally strong debate performances, Rubio has seen his political stock rise. In New Hampshire he has climbed into second place, trailing only Donald Trump – no mean feat given his generally conservative social views.

One could easily anticipate how a strong showing in Iowa might cement his status as the establishment alternative to the Donald. To be sure, New Hampshire offers a potential test to Rubio’s particular brand of social conservatism. But if the anti-Donald vote remains split among several establishment Republicans, Rubio might use a second-place finish in New Hampshire to claim momentum heading into South Carolina, where his conservatism is likely to be looked on more favorably.  A lot can happen in almost three weeks.  But Rubio seems to peaking at the right moment.

Live Blogging the South Carolina Democratic Debate

Heading into tonight’s Democratic debate – the final one before the Iowa caucus – media pundits would have us believe that a surging Bernie Sanders has turned the race for the Democratic nomination into a dead heat, in no small part because Clinton is making the same strategic mistakes that doomed her in 2008.  But despite the understandable urge among pundits to hype the electoral horse race, the reality is a bit more complex than the prevailing media narrative would have one believe.

1. Is Bernie Sanders surging in the Iowa polls? In December, he averaged about 38% support in the Iowa polls. So far in January, he’s up to 42%. But in the three most recent polls in Iowa, he’s slipped back down to his December level, after averaging 47% in the three previous polls and leading Clinton in two of them. Note that the Des Moines Register poll that received so much media attention had 14% of Iowans likely caucus participants undecided – a relatively high number compared to other polls.  Compared to an earlier Des Moines poll, it seemed to indicate that Sanders wasn’t gaining support so much as Clinton supporters were reconsidering their options.  In contrast, the newest Gravitas Iowa poll that has Clinton up big 57%-36% apparently did not give respondents an undecided option.  In short, it may be that the race appears to have tightened because some previous Clinton supporters have moved into the undecided column, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to commit to Bernie.  The bottom line is that polling in the Iowa caucus is notoriously difficult, and that in previous years there has been significant movement in the last two weeks prior to the caucus.

2. There’s been a lot of stories on background in which unnamed sources argue that Clinton should have been more aggressive attacking Bernie from the beginning. This type of arm-chair strategic advice is to be expected whenever a front-running candidate appears to be performing below expectations. But there’s no evidence that I know of suggesting that a more aggressive strategy would have changed the electoral dynamics of the Democratic race.  In fact, Sanders is doing about as well as I expected when I was interviewed on this topic back in June.  He’s doing well among more progressive voters, but so far hasn’t shown an ability to expand his coalition much beyond that.

3. A related media theme that has gained traction in recent days is that we are seeing a reprise of 2008 when Hillary blew a big lead in the polls and lost the nomination to Barack Obama. As she did then, the argument goes, Clinton is once again gaining a reputation as a political opportunist who takes her “coronation” for granted, but who does not match up well with a more principled opponent. This time around, Bernie Sanders occupies Obama’s role. But the historical analogy does not stand upon closer scrutiny.  At this time in 2008, Obama had already pulled ahead of Clinton in the South Carolina polls by about 10%. In contrast, Sanders trails Clinton there now by more than 40%. More generally, Sanders hasn’t demonstrated nearly the support among minority voters that Obama did eight years ago.  This is 2016, not 2008, and Sanders is not Obama.

I understand the incentives driving political pundits to make the race for the Democratic nomination appear closer than it really is. But I haven’t seen anything in the last couple of week to suggest that anything has altered the fundamental dynamics driving this race from what I predicted this past summer, which is that Sanders’ two strongest states are likely to be Iowa and New Hampshire.

So where does that leave us heading into tonight’s debate? Both Sanders and Clinton are likely to sharpen their respective attacks, with Clinton targeting Sanders’ plan for single-payer health and his past record on gun control. In an effort to preempt that attack, Sanders has said he will support current legislation designed to rescind portions of the 2005 law granting gun manufacturers and dealers broad immunity from lawsuits resulting from gun deaths. Sanders has also recently released a policy proposal to move toward a single-payer health care system. For his part, I expect Sanders to continue to attack Clinton for her ties to Wall St. And, in an effort to tout his electability, he will likely reference recent polls showing him doing better than Clinton in head-to-head matchups with different Republican candidates.

The debate begins at 9, and airs on NBC. Keep in mind that there’s a third Democrat still in the race: former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who is languishing in the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire. This represents his best remaining chance before Iowa to change those dynamics.

I’ll be back on shortly before 9.

Live Blogging the Republican South Carolina Debate

As we settle in for tonight’s critical Republican debate, here are the things I am looking for:

1. Donald Trump the Debater is a remarkably different animal than The Donald I see on the campaign trail. In debates, Donald has preferred to stay above the fray, avoiding the personal attacks that characterize his stump speeches unless he is attacked first. One of his harshest critics on the debate platform has been Rand Paul – but the Randy Man has left the building. So that leaves Jeb! to take The Donald on directly – a tactic that so far has not yielded positive results. I expect The Donald to stick with the laid-back, play-it-safe strategy and retaliate only if attacked.

2. Ted Cruz’s lead in Iowa is slipping, although he is still slightly ahead of The Donald in the aggregate polls in this crucial (for Cruz) caucus state. The question is whether to take the gloves off and come at The Donald directly. In recent campaign appearances Cruz has begun referring to The Donald’s “New York” values, a not-so-subtle effort to weaken Trump’s standing among social conservatives who are an important voting bloc in Iowa. Look for Cruz to hold back unless The Donald comes at him with the birther remarks, or questions regarding the Goldman Sachs loan, in which case I expect Ted to retaliate by questioning Trump’s social conservative bona fides.

3. Rather than attack Trump, it is far more likely that the Republican establishment foursome of Bush, Christie, Kasich and Rubio will train their fire on each other, in an effort to consolidate support behind one of them as the Donald alternative in New Hampshire. Already Cruz and Rubio have clashed over immigration and I expect that they will again go at it on stage tonight. The others, however, have largely avoided direct attacks on each other, although their respective Super Pacs have shown no such hesitation. Rubio’s Super Pac has unleashed an ad criticizing Christie’s record as NJ governor, while Bush’s has been targeting Rubio’s “no show” Senate voting record. With about three weeks to go before the New Hampshire primary, there’s a lot at stake here for all four candidates. At least one and possibly two face the prospect of getting winnowed in the Granite State.

4. In contrast to the CNBC debate debacle, the Fox moderators have done a good job in previous debates avoiding “gotcha” questions, sticking to issues, and generally not becoming part of the story. With only seven candidates on stage, there should be more time for substantive responses. However, much depends on what questions are asked. Certainly the Cruz loan issue will come up, although I will be surprised if he hasn’t prepared a response. But what other issues will drive the debate?

5. The debate is taking place in South Carolina, which will hold its Republican primary 11 days after New Hampshire. Carson is hoping to do well here among social conservatives if Cruz stumbles in Iowa, so a strong debate performance is probably a necessity. However, even that may not be enough to prevent him from getting winnowed if he finishes near the bottom in Iowa, which looks very probable based on the latest polling.

6. Jeb! is clearly playing a long game, hoping his money and organization will enable him to survive early defeats. But if his poll numbers drop too far, the big donors will begin moving their money to other candidates. So he’s also banking on a strong performance tonight.

I’ll be back on shortly before 9 p.m.