Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Primary, A Caucus, Oh My: South Carolina and Nevada Predictions

The American primary election schedule is a strange and mysterious beast with nearly no rationale and plenty of hubris.  Though various presidential primaries have been in existence since the early 20th century, they didn’t carry a great deal of influence until the 1960s, when both the Democratic and Republican party began to flirt with selecting their presidential candidates via primary elections instead of nominating conventions.

When that transition developed, New Hampshire’s primary was first on the calendar and became important.  The state held onto its first-in-the-nation status by making it a state constitutional requirement and strong-arming the national parties to agree to the arrangement.  Iowa had a caucus scheduled just before the New Hampshire primary but because it was a caucus (and, let’s face it, in Iowa), it was rather an also-ran until 1976 when a candidate named Jimmy Carter used his showing in the Iowa Caucus to demonstrate electoral viability that might translate to the national stage.  

Since then, the rest of us have been forced to believe that Iowa and New Hampshire are somehow worthy of getting a first crack at the candidates.  Though neither of these contests is famous for actually picking the eventual nominee, they typically serve to winnow the list of potential nominees.  This kind of influence is sought by other states, of course.

Enter South Carolina and Nevada, states that also lay claim to being useful for early contests.

In the case of South Carolina, a southern state, an early primary here does give us a glimpse about how candidates will fare in Dixie, which can still be called the solid South.  That’s more important for Republicans than Democrats, and South Carolina has thus wedged its way into the early primary calendar.

Nevada is a relatively new addition to the early voting race and the state’s contest is a caucus.  As a Western state, Nevada technically might show candidate viability in this region of the country.  In 2008, candidate Barack Obama’s strong showing in the Nevada contest gave the contest greater credibility and thus visibility.  Nevada is a state with a population whose demographics shift significantly from year to year, including a large and growing assortment of Latino and African-American voters, demographic groups that are important to the national viability of the Democratic party.  For the Republicans, Nevada is not expected to be a state that is part of whatever national victory the party pieces together in November, but its relative diversity is interesting for the national GOP, as they contemplate their future in an increasingly diverse nation.

In 2016, the national party’s primary calendars are not fully coordinated so today’s contests include a Republican primary vote in South Carolina and a Democratic Caucus vote in Nevada.  It’s peculiar and will rather divide our attention today.

Still reading?  It’s time for the heart of the matter: predictions.

Let’s start with Nevada’s Democratic caucus contest.  Even on a Saturday, a caucus is still a low turn-out event, especially for the party most attractive to working class Nevadans, as the Democratic party is.  Here, organizational groundwork is essential and that means the advantage goes to Hillary Clinton, who should win the contest by 4-5 percentage points.

The Republican contest in South Carolina will feature a truckload of evangelical voters and, like New Hampshire, should winnow the number of contestants.  In theory, evangelical voters should be looking to Ted Cruz as their savior but Donald Trump is funneling a lot of evangelical voters his way, perhaps a sign that Trump’s brand of discontentment populism is more salient to these voters than religion.  That possibility is worth exploring down the line, especially if Trump’s appeal in Southern contests holds firm.  Marco Rubio has the support of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley; Rubio is increasingly the establishment’s candidate, a designation that has been important in previous years but doesn’t seem to hold the same weight in 2016 Republican circles.

So…how does this messy contest unfold?

Let’s dispense with the easy calls first.  John Kasich’s number two showing in New Hampshire won’t matter in the Palmetto state and he’ll finish fifth.  Fourth place will go to Jeb Bush.  Both of them will probably stay alive for the March 1st Super Tuesday contest, with high single digit-low double digit showings.  Former voter darling Ben Carson is going to come in sixth, with numbers in the low single digits.  His campaign is done.  

That leaves the top three finishers.

God save us, but it’s looking like Donald Trump will win in South Carolina.  If he’s north of 35%, then we need to start believing that Trump is going to be around for a while and might actually score himself the Republican nomination or foster a battle royale brokered convention.  I believe Trump will be north of 30% but just below 35% in South Carolina; still a cause for concern if you are the national Republican party.

I am not in that party; moreover I do not think that Trump can win a general election.  I do think he is actively bad for the Republican party; not to mention the republic.  I no longer find him the least bit amusing.  But this post is already way too long, so we’ll explore that rich vein later.

I will call second place for Marco Rubio by just a smidge over the persistently unlikeable Ted Cruz, with the two of them in the mid-20s.  The unpleasant trio of Trump, Rubio, and Cruz will then head into super-Tuesday with the gloves off.


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