2016 Primaries Recap: What I got right and what I got wrong.
With both parties now turning to their nominating conventions, the 2016 Presidential Primary campaign is officially over. This has been an extraordinary race, one that I feel will be written on and studied for generations, much like the election of 1968. Here, before we turn our gaze to the general election, I’m going to share a few of my thoughts on the race, and examine the predictions I made last summer when this race began and see how they held up.
For starters, this was not the race anyone signed up for. It’s easy to forget, but before the campaign began, Clinton was the most admired politician in the country, and the most admired Democrat among Republicans. No one thought she would lose 22 states to a 74 year old socialist senator from Vermont.
On the GOP side, this was supposed to be a race where a young, forward looking GOP had a contest between its best and brightest. This was the election where, after McCain and Romney’s defeats and the GOP’s lurches to the right, they’d pivot to the center, expand their base, and cease existing as the party for rich white men. Bush, Rubio, Christie, Paul, Kasich, Walker, Jindal, Cruz, Fiorina-a formidable lineup, and that was only half the eventual field.
That all changed. The optimistic GOP was stillborn, turning to a negative politics unseen in the last 100 years, short on substance, lacking nuance, and brimming with hyperbole and extremism. The GOP doubled down on hardline stances and went further to the right on issues like immigration and gay rights, the exact opposite of the RNC’s post 2012 game plan. The campaign that started with Rubio’s call for a “New American Century” and Bush’s “Right to Rise” a GOP convention supporting a ban on Muslims, claiming Clinton and Obama were murderers, and a Republican Representative arguing that whites have contributed more to civilization than other groups.
This was not the race anyone was planning for.
Remember who the original GOP frontrunners were? Bush, Christie, Paul, Rubio, Walker and Huckabee all led the GOP field at some point before 2016. They won 1 state between the six of them.
And Ted Cruz? The Senator called a “wacko bird” by John McCain, loathed by Boehner, McConnell, George W. Bush, and the GOP leadership? Who thought he would be the establishment’s last hope, earning endorsements from the Bushes, McCain, and others in GOP leadership?
Remember how Republicans attacked the patriotism of anyone who questioned the foreign policy of George W. Bush, even if the person doing the questioning was a war hero? Well now they voted for a guy who is to the left of Michael Moore on 9/11 and has suggested Iraq was better under Saddam.
Oh, and yeah, who thought the nominee could be Donald Trump? Well, I did. But more on that soon.
Last summer, I made a handful of predictions on the 2016 race. There were five big things I got right, and three big things I got wrong:
What I got right:
- Donald Trump winning the Republican Nomination
Okay, I’m going to take a victory lap on this one. Last summer, virtually everyone, from stat wizard Nate Silver to newspapers like the New York Times, The Economist, The Washington Post, from columnists like George Will to cable pundits to our politicians themselves, said Donald Trump had virtually no chance of winning the nomination. It was nearly unanimous across both parties. In August, I argued that he had a very strong chance. I did hedge my bet: I said conventional wisdom preferred Bush or Rubio, but I felt, in my heart, that Trump would be the nominee. Here’s what I wrote back in the beginning of August:
Here’s why Trump is formidable: first, he has no future in the GOP, so he can say things that would end other candidate’s careers (such as calling John McCain not a real war hero). Not being a politician frees him from those rules, and, ironically, years of conservatives saying “government is the problem” had made Trump more trustworthy to GOP voters than actual conservatives in government. Second, the voters who like Trump aren’t voting for him in spite of his offensive statements; they’re voting for him because of it. Every conversation I’ve had with a Trump supporter, they’ll tell me they like him because he ‘tells it as it is.’ Other candidates calling on Trump to apologize just strengthens his image as a man willing to ‘tell hard truths.’ The media saying Trump is too right wing just makes him more popular with his base because they think the problem with the GOP is that they’re not conservative enough. That is precisely why after every single outlandish comment Trump has made this campaign, despite the outrage, his numbers have only gone up. Further, while other GOP candidates are following the RNC’s 2012 autopsy that suggested they pivot towards the center, Trump knows that primary voters don’t care about the RNC or its autopsy reports. They view the GOP as a weak institution that allowed a black, Kenyan socialist to come into power and radically reshape America. Trump realizes that GOP voters have become more right wing since 2012, and more nationalistic since the rise of ISIS. If he continues this, and if the rest of the field remains fractured and starved for media attention, then yes, Donald Trump could become the Republican nominee…
… it’s hard to imagine ‘The Donald’ ranking fourth in New Hampshire and dropping out after a bad Super Tuesday like just any old candidate. That’s something a ‘loser’ would do, to borrow one of his favorite words. I suppose that leaves him two routes; exiting the race before the voting begins due to ‘media bias,’ or, perhaps, not ending up like a ‘loser,’ and actually winning the nomination.
Conventional wisdom says that it’s going to be Bush or Rubio. However, I don’t know if this is a conventional election. With the direction the GOP has gone the past few decades, with phenomena like Limbaugh, Fox and Palin, and with Trump’s imperiousness to political gravity, I’m only more convinced of what I thought when I heard Trump’s announcement speech: I don’t know how he can lose.
So yeah, I predicted that an unqualified and dangerous candidate could win the GOP nomination before most anyone else did. And I was right. Congrats to me…I guess.
2. The surprising strength of Ted Cruz.
From the start, I thought that Ted Cruz was running the smartest campaign. His views were closest in line with GOP primary voters (closer even than Trump), and while Trump’s entry hurt most GOP candidates, it helped Cruz. Last summer, when Cruz was 8th in the polls, I argued that he had a chance to win Iowa, and was a dark horse for the nomination. Because of Trump’s presence in the race, Cruz would appear more reasonable that he would have otherwise, and, with the establishment candidates fractured, Cruz could position himself as the conservative alternative. Which is, as it turns out, exactly what Cruz did, earning himself the runner up title this primary season.
3. Walker as a paper tiger.
Remember when Scott Walker led the GOP field and told everyone he was going to win Iowa? While it’s easy to forget given how early he dropped out, Scott Walker entered the race as a stronger candidate than Rubio, Cruz and, yes, Trump. However, I wasn’t sold on Walker’s chances, even just a few weeks after he entered the race:
Personally, I do not think Scott Walker will be the Republican nominee. He is a policy lightweight and is relatively boring; more debates will show that, and the first one already has…and he will fade.
As it turns out, six weeks after writing that, Scott Walker had another boring debate performance, was at less than 1% in the polls, and then dropped out of the race.
4. Rubio’s Failure to Build a Base.
My outlook on Rubio was split: I viewed him as the candidate with the biggest upside (I still believe that), but one who could also find himself without a base or a path to the nomination. Here was my take last summer:
…as without a clear base, he [Rubio] remains low in the polls, but importantly, many voters’ second choice. He will need to seize the spotlight currently monopolized by Bush and Trump; continuing his strong debate performances can help do just that…ultimately, Rubio’s campaign can end in two ways; he can remain everyone’s second choice, and, without an obvious base of support, sputter out after failing to win any of the four first states. Alternatively, Rubio can set himself apart as a generational candidate of change, unite the party, and sail to the White House on the currents of optimism. I do not know which one is more likely.
What happened? Rubio came third in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire, second in South Carolina and Nevada, and found himself without a base on Super Tuesday.
5. Carson’s Rise and Fall.
Last summer, Ben Carson was on the rise, and by the fall, would rival Trump for his lead in the polls. Here was my prediction last August:
Carson’s campaign is almost scripted with its feelings of political déjà vu; an outsider becomes a frontrunner in the summer, only to reveal a lack of policy expertise, and his campaign, without many veteran operatives or the requisite funding, buckles and breaks in the fall. Forget about Carson; just remember Wesley Clark, Fred Thompson or Herman Cain, and you’ll know how Carson’s story ends.
And we know the rest.
What I got wrong:
1. The Democratic Race
This isn’t based on anything I wrote, but rather, what I thought. I never thought Clinton would maintain her high approval ratings and not face a primary challenge. However, I did not think that Bernie Sanders would present such a strong challenge, and win 22 states. As it turned out, Democrat voters didn’t like Clinton as much as they originally claimed to, and the email scandal provided an opening to exploit that, giving Sanders more support than he otherwise would have gotten, even he still never really had a shot at the nomination (my take: half of Sanders’ supporters were voting for any Clinton alternative. If Biden ran, he could have taken the nomination).
2. The Irrelevance of Super PACs.
When this race began, most pundits were predicting that, in a post Citizen’s United environment, Super PACs would allow many candidates to raise massive sums of money from single donors and stay afloat later into the primary process. I thought so too. That didn’t happen. Sure, candidates raised lots of money in their Super PACs-that didn’t help raise money to run the day to day operations of their campaigns. Candidates-including Perry, Walker and Jindal-found themselves forced to exit the race due to financial troubles even while sitting on vast war chests in their Super PACs. Additionally, two candidates without large Super PACs did quite well for themselves. Their names? Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. So much for the “rise of Super PACs.”
3. Chris Christie and Everything that Happened There.
I have said Chris Christie is the best retail politician in the GOP with the worst sense of political timing. That view was vindicated this election. I said not to underestimate his debating prowess-that was vindicated with his tour-de-force in New Hampshire that basically cost Rubio the nomination. So what did I get wrong?
Even if he doesn’t win…Christie will emerge with a better reputation than he had when he entered the race, that I am sure of.
Yeah, I missed the boat there. Christie was enhancing his reputation among GOP voters…until he endorsed Trump. Sure, it made sense: back the winning horse. The problem was, everyone else saw how nakedly political it was. Christie, a guy who campaigned on entitlement reform, endorsed Trump, who was opposed to entitlement reform. The two disagreed on foreign policy, immigration policy, and a litany of issues. The result? Christie seemed like an opportunist, devoid of principles, willing to debase himself to make it on Trump’s ticket. And obviously that worked out well.
Why I missed the mark? I knew that Christie had bad political timing. I just didn’t know it was that bad.
And that’s it. I’ll write about the General Election soon. This race is historic and nasty in equal measure, but I’m still going to write about it. For all the bad things that have gone on in this cycle, this is still politics, and politics, as it has been said, is the most American thing you can do.