It’s Time to Back Trump

Within the political and chattering class, some conservatives, describing themselves as part of the “Never Trump” movement, have attacked Donald Trump as a threat to the republic and the conservative movement while attacking GOP leaders who support him, like Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, as sell-outs or charlatans. These attacks couldn’t be further from the truth. Most recently, Ohio Governor John Kasich has been generating headlines by distancing himself further from Trump, in an attempt to lay the groundwork for another run for the Presidency in 2020. Conservatives need to recognize that much, though not all, of what Trump has run on represents the future, not the demise, of the conservative movement. While he is an imperfect messenger, Hillary Clinton would likely do irreversible harm to this country, which is why conservatives must back Trump.

In April 1998, there were 17.64 million Americans working in the manufacturing sector; today that number is 12.28 million. Put another way, we’ve lost 800 jobs every day for 18 years. During this time, real median incomes have fallen, and the African-American poverty rate languishes over 25%.

The typical working American is worse off today than at the turn of the century; for this, both parties share blame. While economists focus on the lost decades nations like Japan have suffered, the simple fact is outside of Silicon Valley and the DC and NYC suburbs, much of America has suffered two lost decades as well, a symptom of a nation in decline.

Trump has refocused the debate around the plight of ordinary Americans, something conservatives have failed to do in recent years. Conservatism is an inherently populist ideology; we prefer giving power to everyday individuals than concentrate it in the hands of supposed experts. Conservatives have faith in the genius of every man and woman. Since 1988, that has been forgotten as the GOP became the Chamber of Commerce Party. Trump is rightly realigning the GOP around the working men and women of this country.

While Trump is imperfect, the general election is about who is the better candidate, making it a simple choice. Given his lack of a political record, there is some uncertainty about what he would do, but we can be certain of what Clinton will do. She will nominate liberals to the Supreme Court while he may nominate conservatives. Take even an area where Trump supposedly disagrees with orthodoxy: trade. Does anyone really believe the same government that has run VA hospitals so terribly negotiated perfect trade deals, particularly when we know China has amassed $3 trillion in reserves?

True, Trump lacks a foreign policy record and is something of a wildcard, but no record is better than a record littered with failure, from ISIS taking territory across the Middle East to China building militarized islands throughout the South China Sea. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton left a world on fire; no wonder global warming appears to be such a problem…

It is said every election, but in 2016, the stakes really could not be higher. Implicit in the Never Trump argument is the belief the damage of a Clinton Presidency is containable, which underappreciates the power of a party’s 3rd term in power. Controlling the White House for 12 years cements policies and structurally shifts the political center. The Roosevelt-Truman terms shifted the country left for two generations, making support for more entitlements and welfare the new political center as evidenced by Republicans eventual acceptance of Social Security. Similar, the three Reagan-Bush terms shifted the political center rightward for a generation on most economic issues with even Bill Clinton declaring the era of big government over.

Clinton will cement the leftward shift begun by Obama for a generation with Obamacare, political correctness, and new regulatory regimes across the economy becoming entrenched political facts, unlikely to be rolled back for years, if ever. For eight years, Obama has pushed our economy, society, and foreign policy footing into one that looks more like Europe. A Clinton Presidency makes a reversal from that path all but impossible. We see the results of Europe’s experiment, and they’re devastating: slow growth, high debt, chronic youth unemployment, and atrophying military power.

The race is tightening, and in the polling averages, Trump has taken the lead in Ohio and Iowa while other states like Florida, North Carolina, and Nevada are too close to call. With momentum at his back, now is the time for reluctant Republicans to get behind Trump. Whether Trump wins 85% or 90% of republican voters on November 8 could very well determine who wins the Presidency. Leaders like John Kasich must really ask themselves if they are willing to sow division and make it easier for Hillary Clinton to continue Obama’s disastrous policies as President.

Donald Trump is our last chance to turn back from the current path of decline and decay. Conservatives need to get behind the republican nominee or risk losing the country we all have fought so hard to build.

Trump Will Reinvigorate NATO

In many precincts, there is this misleading suggestion that Donald Trump is backing off of America’s traditional support for NATO, a claim undermined by a reading of his actual position. Joint security pacts are only sustainable when all participants have security capabilities; Trump gets this. That is why NATO calls for each nation to spend 2% of GDP on defense to avoid free-riders. Otherwise, nations can rely on the defense capabilities of other nations. That isn’t collective security; it is one country providing a free, outsourced military for others.

Sadly, many nations are not spending the 2%, instead benefiting from the U.S. security umbrella without pulling their weight. That is unsustainable; even President Obama has called for more defense spending from NATO allies. Alliances, like personal friendships, are two-way streets. States like Estonia and Poland are meeting the minimum while those like Italy and Spain are in default. Italy, a wealthy country, spends less than 1% of GDP on defense. Germany, home to Europe’s top economy, is little better at a meager 1.2%. Relatively poor countries like Poland, Estonia, and Greece are meeting their NATO requirement while wealthy European states are gladly allowing their military to atrophy, enjoying a defense apparatus subsidized by the American taxpayer who is already carrying over $19 trillion in national debt.

Trump recognizes the 2% minimum is useless without enforcement mechanisms. Unless there are consequences for failing to spend 2% (either a fine or loss of membership), European nations will continue to ignore the requirement. Trump’s plan would simply put in penalties for falling short of 2% and would reinvigorate NATO. By forcing Europe to invest its military and thereby reconfirm its commitment to joint security, the alliance will be stronger and could more easily deter Russia. Putin sees a Europe with decaying powers and weak militaries; it is no wonder he is pursuing expansion. A weak Europe has given Putin room to expand, and by being lax on NATO enforcement, we have allowed Europe to weaken. Given NATO’s reliance on American power, we alone have the leverage to get the 23 members who inadequately invest in defense to meet their commitment. The result will be an energized NATO that makes Eastern Europe more not less safe.

Trump’s push for more NATO spending is the only way to stand up to Putin and protect our allies. Islamic terror, an Expansionist Russia, and a strengthening Iran are global problems. They require global responses. Europe should recognize this, especially after a string of terrorist attacks have hit Belgium, France, and now even Germany. Our current policy of blindly subsidizing many European powers has turned NATO from a collective defense pact into a bunch of nations free-riding on the US (and to a lesser extent the UK, Poland, Estonia, and Greece who are spending the 2%). Our European partners need to determine whether they want to help provide and enjoy collective security and meet their commitments.

Trump’s policy will return NATO to its original promise-a transatlantic alliance of democracies all providing for the security of each other. That will make NATO stronger and its collective defense mechanism more credible. Putin will no longer be able to devour the decaying carcass of Europe; instead, the Continent will be able to deter Putin and other aspiring powers like Russia and China. We can then deal with these nations from a position of strength, striking deals when possible and pushing back when necessary. America and the world will be better for it.

Time to Unite Behind Trump

While the media focuses exclusively on deepening divides within the Republican Party, we need to take a step back and remember the stakes of this election. A certain Senator this evening exhorted voters to “vote their conscience.” Yes, his non-endorsement of Donald Trump was clear, but let’s consider what our conscience actually demands of us.

Does your conscience consider the fact 3,400 Americans, many of them children, have been killed in the past 8 years in the city of Chicago acceptable? How about the fact the unemployment rate for African-American teenagers has risen in 2016 to 31%? Or that economic growth, the ultimate engine for lifting people out of poverty and into the middle class, is running at the slowest pace in a peace-time recovery since World War II? Are you comfortable with the fact that after years of decline, the violent crime rate has been rising since early 2015? Can your conscience tolerate the fact that Radical Islam is on the march, poisoning the minds of millions, seeping into Europe and even this country, while stripping millions of Muslim women and gays in the Middle East of basic human rights and dignity?

Are we willing to accept that this is the best that America can be? If your conscience says, “yes, the status quo is acceptable,” then perhaps you should vote for Hillary Clinton. After all, she is not an agent of change. Rather, she is beholden to an entrenched donor and political class that will continue the policies of President Barack Obama. Moreover, this status quo will persist beyond her 4 year term as she appoints judges, regulators, commissioners, and civil servants who could serve decades beyond her final day in office. A Hillary Clinton Presidency will cement our current trajectory for a generation. However, even if you are comfortable with the status quo, does your conscience permit you to vote for a woman of Hillary Clinton’s character? Obama’s own FBI Director noted Clinton’s “extreme carelessness” as she attempted to keep her emails secret from voters while exposing our nation’s secrets to our enemies. She even told the mother of an American killed in Benghazi that a video was the cause of the attack while telling her own daughter and a foreign diplomat otherwise. If Hillary Clinton can’t be trusted to tell a grieving mother the truth, can she be trusted in the event of a national crisis?

True to the American spirit of perpetually seeking national betterment, perhaps your conscience says the status quo isn’t good enough, that we can do better. That we can turn a safety net that merely makes poverty more palatable into a safety trampoline which makes poverty less prevalent. That we should give all parents choice where their children go to school to end the vicious circle of entrenched poverty. That we can accelerate growth by returning power and freedom to the most innovate citizenry the world has ever known. That we have a leader who is unafraid to call out evil in the world by its true name and work to eradicate it, instead of merely downplaying it.

Doing better requires doing something else. It requires voting not for an all-talk-no-action entrenched DC elite but for an outsider who is a doer not a talker. Doesn’t our conscience demand a vote for Donald Trump? We need a President who will cease to accept the decline into mediocrity that is our present course. Would we not rather have Paul Ryan as a governing partner with a Republican White House than as a leader of the opposition against yet another Democrat President who is simply presenting the same old ideas in new packaging?

If we believe conservative principles will make American lives better, we have a moral imperative to vote for the candidate most likely to institute them. Without a doubt, that candidate is Donald Trump, helped by his fantastic running mate, Mike Pence, and a partner in Congress in Speaker Ryan. I will vote my conscience, and it demands a vote for Donald Trump.

He offers change. She offer more of the same. He will return power to ordinary people and to the markets to free up the economy, boost working Americans, and improve social mobility. She will continue the same top-heavy policies that have seen weakened growth and ever-rising inequality. He will restore strength around the world after a President who has let American power recede by backing off red lines, downplaying Radical Islamic terror, and letting China expand in the South China Sea. Her foreign policy? Well, let’s put it this way: if global warming is such a major problem, perhaps the fact Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left a world on fire shares some of the blame.

Let’s unite and win in 2016.

Your Super Tuesday Primer

We are now just hours from the biggest day in the GOP Primary: Super Tuesday. 11 states will be holding binding primaries or caucuses, primarily centered in the South, and 595 delegates are up for grabs. At this point, the base case has to be a Donald Trump romp. He clearly has the momentum and has proven to be quite strong in the South and Northeast where most of the primaries are being held. I would expect Trump to carry 9 or 10 states (Texas likely goes to Cruz, and Minnesota is a bit of a wild card). Given this outcome, Trump is the runaway frontrunner in the race (I’d give him a 70% chance at the nomination) with Senator Marco Rubio the best positioned of the rest to beat him. Below are details on Super Tuesday and five things to watch.

odds

First, here is the list of states holding their primaries as well as minimum thresholds. These are important because while every state has a proportional allocation system, candidates must reach a certain share of the vote either statewide or in a congressional district to qualify for any delegates. For instance to win any of its statewide delegates in Texas, a candidate needs 20%. If he only gets 19%, he will fail to garner any delegates. If only one candidate meets the threshold, he would get all the delegates. In other words, proportional isn’t exactly proportional. With Cruz and Rubio polling around the minimum threshold in some states, their exact vote total could significantly sway the delegate count.

st states

Based on my expected winners and assuming Kasich and Carson fall short of viability thresholds throughout much of the South, below is my expected delegate haul for each candidate. Note, these are rough estimates because making or missing a viability threshold could swing these numbers meaningfully. Relative to my baseline, the risk is to the upside for Rubio and Trump and to the downside for Cruz. I am still expecting a reasonable victory for Cruz in Texas, which explains his haul exceeding Rubio. Cruz is clearly losing altitude, and a loss in Texas or distant third place finishes in the South would leave him behind Rubio. If Trump can expand from the low-30%’s to the low-40%’s in some states, he could come closer to 275 delegates. Basically, I would expect Trump to have a 100+ delegate lead, somewhere around 40-45% of total delegates, with Cruz and Rubio in a close battle for second.

st delegates

Now what to look for:

  1. It’s Trump’s Race to Lose

Trump is going to clean up on Tuesday with an outside chance at running the table. He will very likely carry at least 9 states, and 10 is my bet. After Tuesday, Trump will have a big delegate lead but will likely have only 25-30% on the delegates needed to be the nominee. That said, winning begets more winning as voters typically bandwagon to the winner. While he is divisive, Trump will enjoy some of this, and a romping will help Trump in future states. Winning Florida and Ohio would slam the door shut.  Additionally, a romping could lead to a wave of endorsements as members of the political class aim to team up with a winner (a la Chris Christie). Some endorsements (possibly Rudy Giuliani or Florida Governor Rick Scott) could give him more momentum, and each endorsement makes him seem more acceptable to anti-Trump voters. Barring a really stunning turn of events, Trump will win big on Tuesday and will be in excellent shape to claim the nomination.

  1. Can Rubio Win Somewhere?

Much of the establishment is moving behind his bid, and he is the candidate best positioned to take on Trump at this point, though he is a distant underdog. At some point, Rubio needs to start winning states rather than merely rack up 2nd and 3rd place finishes. His firewall is Florida, but recent polls show him down double digits there. Losing Florida and its 99 delegates to Trump leaves him with no path to 1,237 delegates. The question is whether Rubio can come back in Florida without winning somewhere else first, and given recent polling, skepticism is merited. Rubio will not win many states on Tuesday, and Minnesota appears to be his best shot (though no one really knows with caucus turnout hard to predict). Elsewhere, Rubio should have a strong showing in Northern Virginia, though that is unlikely to be enough to carry the state. If he can’t win any states, his path does get narrower, and he will have to expend significant resources to take back FL and get on track. If he can beat Cruz throughout the South and take more delegates, Rubio may be able to get more anti-Trump voters to jump on board. The Rubio-Cruz battle for 2nd is one to watch. Rubio is best positioned among the non-Trump candidates but still faces a steep uphill climb.

  1. Can Cruz Stay Viable?

March 1 should be good for Cruz; the South is evangelical heavy, which is the base of his support. His home state of Texas is also the biggest delegate prize. If he can’t win on March 1, it is unclear where he could. Frankly to have a clear shot at the nomination, Cruz needs to be the delegate leader on Tuesday as the map gets worse for him thereafter. However, that’s just not going to happen after disappointing finishes in South Carolina and Nevada. He absolutely must win Texas to justify staying in, and I think that is likelier than not. It would be helpful to win another state with Arkansas or maybe Oklahoma his best shot, but I wouldn’t bet on that. Cruz will likely win TX and be shut out elsewhere, which is enough to merit sticking around but leaves him without a clear path to 1,237 delegates. His strategy would be one of accumulating delegates and playing in a contested convention, though there could be pressure to drop out and swing behind Rubio in an anti-Trump coalition. If he has more delegates than Rubio after Tuesday, would Cruz step aside though? I doubt it.

  1. Can Kasich Surprise in the Northeast?

Kasich is betting his campaign on winning Ohio and its 66 delegates on the 15th. If he carries Ohio while Rubio loses Florida the same day, he’d be the last viable candidate to face Trump (full disclosure: I’ve donated to the Kasich campaign). He is also looking to do well in Michigan the 8th to be a springboard into Ohio. However, much of the establishment is starting to coalesce around Rubio, so Kasich needs to notch some 2nd place finishes on Tuesday to stay in picture. Vermont and Massachusetts seem like the most likely places for that to happen. His message could also resonate in Northern Virginia and parts of Tennessee where he may be able to beat polls. Kasich is probably better positioned to win OH than Rubio is Florida, but he needs to stay in the conversation until then, which could prove difficult.

  1. Does Carson Drop Out?

Carson will not be President; that much became clear a long time ago. After Tuesday, I expect Carson will drop out. The best explanation for why Carson continues to run is that he wants to take votes away from Cruz (as payback for dirty tricks in Iowa), blocking him from 1st or 2nd place finishes in the South. After Tuesday, that goal will be complete, and his campaign will be running on fumes. Recognizing the inevitable, I would expect Carson to step aside.

 

So, that’s how I see Tuesday. Trump the clear frontrunner, Rubio best positioned to take him on, and Cruz losing altitude fast. Agree? Disagree? Let me know here or on Twitter!

Conseratives: Don’t Pledge #NeverTrump

On Friday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie endorsed Donald Trump, stepping on whatever debate momentum Senator Marco Rubio had and becoming the first major elected official to support the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for President. Conservatives lit up the Governor for his endorsement with some like Erick Erickson pledging never to support Trump. In fact, #NeverTrump was trending across the United States on Friday night as conservatives lined up against Trump, making the same pledge as Erickson. This is a mistake.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting conservatives vote for Trump in the Republican primary as I am not a Trump supporter. I have supported Ohio Governor John Kasich since he announced last summer and continue to today (full disclosure: I have also donated to his campaign). I believe Kasich is the only candidate running today with any meaningful accomplishments in government, has an excellent record in Ohio, plays to our hopes rather than our fears, and is eminently electable. Across the board, Kasich is a better choice than Trump or Rubio or Senator Ted Cruz. I hope you vote for him in the primary.

That said, Trump is the clear frontrunner for the nomination (I would peg his odds at roughly 70%), and for the sake of argument, let’s assume he is the nominee. What should conservatives do in the General when he faces Clinton? Those saying #NeverTrump are pledging not to vote for him in that election, which is an error. Conservatives have five choices: stay home, vote 3rd party, don’t vote in the Presidential election but vote in down-ballot races, vote Hillary Clinton, or vote Trump. Hopefully, we agree staying home is the worst choice and a dereliction of civic duty. There are still important down-ballot races with qualified conservatives, and those candidates need our support. In the event of a credible 3rd party candidate (I would define credible as consistently polling in the 20’s), there may be a strong case to vote for that person over Trump or Hillary (I think this may happen with Mitt Romney possibly running as an independent conservative). Let’s set that scenario aside, as the question is whether it is wise to pledge never to support Trump, no if, ands, or buts. That leaves: Trump, Hillary, or blank ballot.

Ultimately, choosing a blank ballot or voting for Hillary makes it more likely she will be President by lowering the number of Democrat and Independent votes she must draw. I struggle to see how conservatives are better off with Clinton than Trump. Yes, Trump has changed positions on many issues over the years, but Clinton is a committed leftist who has moved further left to ward off the challenge from a socialist. On matters of policy, I am sympathetic to the notion Trump is a wildcard given his inconsistency, but is he going to be worse than Hillary? Yes, there is a risk Trump nominates a liberal to the Supreme Court, but is there any doubt Hillary would? Sometimes, you are better with the devil you don’t know than the devil you do, which would be the case in a Trump v. Clinton election even for conservatives more dubious of Trump than me.

In a vacuum, would Donald Trump be my choice for President? No, but general elections are choices. Not choosing one is a choice for the other; opposing Trump helps Hillary. Trump is a gamble, yes, but Clinton is a sure-fire losing hand. Relative to Hillary, the risk of a Trump Presidency is skewed to the upside. Trump is also not wrong on everything; he is right we need to be tougher on China. They hack our systems, steal our intellectual property, and are taking territory in the China Sea. He is right that the working class is being screwed; median wages are lower than when George W. Bush became President. Both parties are to blame. On foreign affairs, I would also note Clinton has not been a particular success. How’s the Russian reset? Or Libyan intervention? Or situation in Syria? I do think Trump is peddling some fiction to get elected (note: I am not excusing this behavior) and would govern more as a centrist technocrat, so I believe he would be a more competent President than Clinton. Even if you disagree with that assessment, which is admitted speculation, Clinton will be at least as damaging to the conservative cause as he would be given her platform. She will certainly push for leftist policies whereas he may not. His upside exceeds his downside relative to Clinton.

I would also note that much of what conservatives hate/fear (the Muslim ban, his insults, his comments on libel laws, his finger on the nuclear button etc.) are likely campaign bluster. Again, I am not excusing that behavior, but it suggests he could be a fine President. Even if I am wrong, our government has well-built structures that limit the power of the President, ensuring these positions could not become law. The strength of our institutions deserve more credit than some alarmists let on, further diminishing his downside. While Trump enjoys a Twitter tirade, he has a history of avoiding direct confrontation (with the exception of his personal punching bag, Jeb Bush) as illustrated by his handling of Megyn Kelly among others. I see no reason to feel less safe with Trump our Commander-in-Chief than Clinton.

#NeverTrump conservatives should also ask themselves whether his VP choice could sway them. Ultimatums made rashly can make one look foolish when one reverses or keep one anchored to bad positions out of an aversion to reversing. Does Cruz (or someone else) allay some concerns? If yes, perhaps, it is best to wait for him to make that choice. Assuming he is the nominee, who Trump picks as his VP will be fascinating and enlightening. If I were to make 5 guesses, I would go (in descending order of likelihood): David Petraeus, a business person (to emphasize the anti-politician theme—this un-named pick on my part is a clear cop-out), John Kasich, Bill O’Reilly, and Chris Christie. Who really knows though?

The General Election is a choice, and Trump is a better one than Clinton, especially as his worst ideas won’t become law with any reasonable congress if he even pursues them.

Conservatives could stand to benefit from some of Trump’s populism, and we do need toughness against China. He would also likely surround himself with smart people, providing wise council. A couple dozen people I know, whose judgment I respect and whose character is unimpeachable, are Trump supporters, and their support may have softened my opposition. The twittersphere showcases the worst of his support but is not representative of much of his base. Questions of moral fitness aside, I do think Trump, whom would likely govern as a centrist and pragmatist, would be a decent President, and the fact Clinton with her server and serial lying is equally unfit renders that concern moot in the General Election.

Conservatives have every right to oppose Trump in the primary. However should he be the nominee (very likely), we should be anti-Hillary in 2016, and this may mean voting for Donald Trump. Pledging #NeverTrump is a mistake.

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South Carolina Primary Takeaways

On Saturday, South Carolina delivered Donald Trump a massive victory, in-line with my expectations outlined here (and in the tweet below). Trump claimed about one-third of the vote, enough for a roughly 10% win and a seeming sweep of the 50 delegates. Jeb Bush was relegated to single-digits, and he did the right thing, suspending his campaign. There are now five men standing, though only four have any shot left (Carson is merely spoiler at this point). Below are some takeaways after South Carolina as well as updated odds.

odds

 

  1. Donald Trump is the clear frontrunner

This was a big win for Trump, outperforming some recent polls, showing his lead down to 5%. This win was crucial for him to retain and build on his NH momentum. No one has won NH and SC and failed to be the Republican nominee, though there can always be a first time. Trump’s odds are now over 50% in my opinion as you can see from the above chart. His gains come mainly at the expense of Cruz because if Cruz can’t beat him here, where in the South does Cruz beat Trump March 1? Trump is poised to romp across the South and be the clear delegate leader. After a huge March 1 showing, he would even have a solid chance at winning Florida the 15th, knocking Rubio out. Trump is in an enviable position.

I also don’t buy that Trump is doomed when the field narrows further as he will pick up some voters of dropped out candidates and starts with the highest base of support. With each Trump win, anti-Trump resistance will also soften. Remember, McCain and Romney each got less than 35% in SC and were able to consolidate down the line. Yes, Trump’s ceiling is probably lower than past nominees, but it may well be over 50%. Not every vote cast for someone else is an “anti-Trump” vote, some are pro-Rubio, pro-Cruz etc. and can be swayed. Every candidate would swap places with Trump. That’s a fact.

  1. Ted Cruz is in real trouble

With 70% of voters evangelical and a very conservative electorate, SC should’ve been fertile for Cruz, instead he got 3rd. If Cruz can’t beat Trump here, where can he on March 1 (apart from TX)? Cruz will rack up a lot of delegates that day, but he needs to win states as the map gets worse for him thereafter. After SC, Cruz is still viable with a strong cash position and likely the second most delegates after March 1, but to have an obvious path, he probably needs to be the delegate leader after March 1 as Rubio will stick around until Florida and later states are less conservative.

In hindsight, choosing to campaign in NH was probably a mistake as that 3rd place finish did nothing for him. Conversely a strong 2nd or 1st in SC would have left Cruz with more momentum heading down South. He should’ve hunkered down in SC for the extra week. Cruz needs a killer debate this week to regain the momentum vs. Trump. Otherwise, he is a bad position. He can collect a lot of delegates and be a player in a contested convention, but barring a big shift this week, getting a majority of delegates seems pretty challenging. In hindsight, I have been overstating Cruz’s chances the past month at Trump’s expense and fixed the mistake. I’d peg Cruz’s odds at this point at 1 in 10, but he needs to find a spark this week.

  1. Marco Rubio is in a good, but tenuous, position

By knocking Jeb out, Rubio is in very good position to consolidate much of the establishment lane and have anti-Trump factions coalesce around him. 2nd place is quite good, but Rubio did have Haley, Scott, and Gowdy on his team. If he can’t win a state with so much support from the power structure, where does he win? Again, given how some ridiculously wrote Rubio off after NH, SC was a strong showing, but he must win at some point. The South will be tough on March 1, and Rubio’s best shot may be Virginia or possibly Minnesota. Rubio is the candidate who is arguably acceptable to the broadest swath of voters, which is why I see him as the likeliest non-Trump nominee. By virtue of knocking Jeb out, this was a good night. He also should pick up many Jeb donors, which is important as his campaign is down to $5 million cash on hand as of 1/31.

That is why he is in a good position, but it is tenuous because he needs to win somewhere. To be the nominee, you can’t just rack up 2nd and 3rd. Florida is total firewall on the 15th, and with it comes 99 delegates. Rubio can lurk behind Trump, pick up FL, make a big move up in delegates, and have the momentum to beat him. However, if Rubio loses FL, he is done for. If Rubio can’t win a state before the 15th, there is a serious risk Trump beats him in FL. This is why Rubio is still in a tenuous place. Maybe he wins NV (polling is impossible here), but he needs to find someplace on March 1 to make that stand and hold momentum into FL. Rubio is the establishment’s best shot after the first 3 primaries, but now he needs to win.

  1. John Kasich retains a narrow path

South Carolina didn’t matter to Kasich, and his narrow path remains: surprise in MA, VT, and maybe VA on the 1st, use that to win or take a close 2nd in MI the 8th, and use that to win OH big the 15th alongside strong showings in IL and MO. (Full disclosure: I have donated to Kasich) Everything must go right for this to happen, and if not, he risks playing spoiler for Rubio, which is why some establishment types will call for his exit. However, Kasich is much less likely to lose OH than Rubio is FL, given his sky-high approval ratings and the entire state party working feverishly for him there. In a sense, Kasich is arguably a Rubio insurance policy. If Rubio can’t beat Trump in FL, the establishment needs someone who can, and with an OH win that day, Kasich would be the only guy left. Kasich has a narrow path but a path; I’d peg the odds around 4%. One thing to watch for is whether governors rally around the last governor left. In particular, a Christie endorsement seems quite possible, and with his RGA connections, others might follow. If Christie bring MA’s Baker on board, that would help Kasich surprise on the 1st.

Where to next?

We have NV on Tuesday, which is very hard to predict (my guess is Trump but Rubio could surprise). Eyes will really be focused on the SEC Primary. Right now, it seems like Trump is going to roll. Cruz needs to find some way to regain momentum. Rubio has to find a state or two to win, and Kasich needs to build a Northeast firewall before Michigan. It will also be interesting to see what a debate is like without Jeb (aka the Trump punching-bag). Fun times, indeed!

In brief after South Carolina, I’d rather be Trump than anyone else. He is the clear frontrunner. Rubio is best positioned to rally together anti-Trump factions, but he better do so soon.

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South Carolina Primary Predictions and Thoughts

Well, the first in the South primary, South Carolina, is upon us, and public polling has added a bit of uncertainty to the race. While most polls had been showing Donald Trump with a commanding 15+% lead, others since the debate show a less than 5% lead (perhaps his George W. Bush attack did have ramifications). Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz appear to be battling for 2nd and 3rd, though some polls have also shown Governors Jeb Bush and John Kasich with a potential shot at 3rd while Dr. Ben Carson has been languishing. Below are my predictions as well as what each candidate needs to achieve to consider the night a success.

 

Donald Trump: Trump is the national frontrunner and every candidate would trade places with him. Given all the polls showing him up 10+%, a loss in SC would be a major surprise and setback but not enough to totally derail his candidacy as he would still likely place well with numerous victories across the South on March 1. A win in SC would really solidify his standing and give him momentum to nearly run the table March 1 (it is hard to see him win TX at this point). My guess is the polls showing him up 15% are overstating things and he likely wins by about 10%. At that point, it very much becomes Trump’s race to lose with a chance to take a commanding delegate lead and a head of steam after the SEC Primary, though if the field narrows to 2 after the 15th all bets are off. I would expect Trump to win tomorrow with the operative question “by how much.” I guess 9%.

Marco Rubio: Rubio has seemingly rebounded from his NH debacle thanks to a strong ground game, solid debate performance, and key endorsements from Rep. Trey Gowdy, Sen. Tim Scott, and Gov. Nikki Haley. With that popular trio, Rubio should be finishing very strongly in SC, even if NH derailed the “3-2-1” strategy (now it’s the less catchy “3-5-2/3”). The Rubio/Cruz battle for 2nd/3rd is very close, but Rubio appears to be the candidate with the momentum. These endorsements have given Rubio the shot he has at 2nd but raise the bar for success. 2nd place leaves Rubio in a very good position to consolidate the “establishment” and “center-right” lanes, become the clear anti-Trump choice, and win a few states (perhaps NV?) before picking up Florida’s 99 delegates the 15th. A solid 3rd gives Rubio some momentum and still leaves him the clear choice in anti-Trump circles. The problem for Rubio would arise if he came in a weak 3rd (say 15%). If that’s all he can muster with the institutional support he has in SC, it will raise reasonable concerns about where Rubio can win. A weak showing could let Bush continue, siphoning off votes on March 1, while leaving the anti-Trump part of the party fractured. In the worst case, Rubio, without any SC momentum, goes winless on the 1st and 8th, leaving him vulnerable to losing to Trump in FL, ending his bid. My base case is 2nd for Rubio, but he has to perform tomorrow, if he drifts much below 17%, yellow lights will be flashing.  15% is my benchmark for failure, which is not my expectation.

Ted Cruz: Cruz like Rubio needs a strong showing, and while I see him in a close third, his fantastic ground game could still get him in 2nd. The fact is Cruz needs to crush it on March 1 because the map gets very unfavorable after that. He should win big in TX, which could net him 100-120 delegates, but he needs some wins elsewhere in the South to wrest the anti-establishment crown from Trump as places like MI, OH, MO, FL, WI are unlikely to be as favorable as AL, TN, OK, and GA. If Cruz can’t win in the South, it is unclear where he could thereafter. A bunch of second place finishes to Trump would give him plenty of delegates and a chance in a brokered convention but would leave him with a challenged path to winning outright. Cruz needs to walk out of SC with some momentum so that he can challenge Trump on March 1. A win certainly would do that but seems unlikely. 2nd also leaves him with a decent shot, though he will need a good week campaigning and solid debate performance to hold Trump back. A 3rd place finish leaves Cruz in a weakened position, and something closer to 15% than 20% would be very problematic (though that seems unlikely). For Cruz to have a credible shot at the nomination, he likely needs to be the delegate leader after March 1. A weak SC showing makes that tough to envision.

Jeb Bush: Bush needs a top three finish to justify continuing his campaign. Besides running low on cash at the campaign level, he may not have much of a choice about how much longer he continues. After making SC a make or break state and bringing in his brother to campaign for him, a loss to Rubio would be very disappointing and lead to even more of a donor exodus. If he can beat Rubio, Bush will be able to stick around, though it is unclear when Bush would actually be able to win a primary. Anyway at this point, 5th place is likelier than 3rd. With money drying up and no momentum, Bush’s campaign will probably be done after SC, though he may take a shot at NV hoping to hit the proverbial jackpot. If he sticks around despite a poor finish, it will be nothing but a vanity effort with Bush too hobbled to have any credible chance at the nomination.

John Kasich: Kasich probably has the lowest bar of any candidate tomorrow as South Carolina has never seemed like a perfect fit, especially given the time and money Rubio and Bush have devoted to the state (full disclosure: I have donated to the Kasich campaign). I would look for Kasich to finish 5th, and it would be helpful for him to get to double digits to keep some of his NH momentum. Surpassing Bush, an outside possibility, would also help him in the expectations game. Kasich retains a narrow path to the nomination that doesn’t change much based on SC: use March 15 (a huge win in OH, strong showings/wins in MO and IL) to consolidate anti-Trump and start a big winning streak. That likely requires winning or a strong 2nd in Michigan on the 8th. To do that, I would argue he must show some viability on March 1, probably by winning or coming in 2nd in VT, MA, and maybe VA. It is a narrow path, and SC won’t derail it, but a finish above Jeb would be beneficial. One thing to watch for is a possible Governor Christie endorsement before March 1, which could bring other Governors (like MA’s Charlie Baker) on board and help Kasich score a better than expected showing on the 1st.

Ben Carson: There just is no plausible path for Carson to be the Republican nominee, and I would expect a 6th place finish, though thanks to committed supporters, there is an outside chance he sneaks into 5th. Ben Carson really seems to be this cycle’s Fred Thompson. In 2008, Thompson, who had no shot, stayed in through SC to pull votes from Huckabee and help his friend, John McCain win the state. It feels like Carson is sticking around to take votes away from Cruz, whose campaign spread a rumor he was dropping out in Iowa. By pulling over 5%, Carson does make Cruz’s life tougher, thereby helping Trump. Carson may stick around through March 1st, but if he does, it will only serve to hurt Cruz.

Ultimately, Cruz and Rubio are in somewhat precarious positions. Both need to exit SC with momentum to gain ownership of their lane. Strong showings put them in good positions to take on Trump, but weak showings could cripple them. I’m going to guess Rubio bests Cruz but both achieve what they need to. For Trump, a win solidifies his status as frontrunner, particularly if he can make it double-digits, but even a shocking loss leaves him with a path. Jeb is all but done, but Rubio needs to put him away. Carson is merely playing spoiler. Perhaps more than a strong performance of his own, Kasich is rooting for a bit softer Rubio performance to delay the consolidation of the establishment lane, making his narrow path a bit more plausible.

Of course, if these predictions are proven wrong in 24 hours, I will deny having given them. That does seem to work for our frontrunner after all…

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