WASHINGTON – If you find America’s presidential election campaign puzzling, you probably have a better grasp of it than those who are willing to predict an outcome. At this point, with both major parties set to choose their nominees in state-level primary elections or caucuses, there can be no predictions, only informed (or uninformed) guesses.
The first major contest, in Iowa on Feb. 1, is usually tricky to forecast, because the outcome relies more on organizational prowess than on popularity. The main question, in both the Republican and Democratic races, is whether the candidates can get enough of their supporters to the caucuses — relatively small gatherings held in the evening in wintry conditions.
On the Republican side, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are within the margin of polling error of each other in both Iowa and New Hampshire, which votes eight days later. Although Trump leads by an enormous margin in national polls, the strength of his Iowa organization is unknown, and what matters are the state-level results as the nominating process moves ahead. His challenge is that many of his supporters have never actually participated in an election.
Trump’s success so far reflects his shrewdness at reading the times and pleasing a crowd. (His reality television show, “The Apprentice,” gave him plenty of practice.) The electorate is angrier and more fearful than in recent presidential contests, and both he and Cruz are capitalizing on it. That sentiment — a product of slow economic recovery, ever-widening wealth and income inequality, and a racially infused sense of insecurity (particularly among white men) — makes for volatile politics.
Trump, in particular, is channeling the same populist anger on the right that fueled the rise in 2010 of the tea party, which opposed both the government’s bailout of the banks that had caused the 2008 financial crisis and President Barack Obama’s health care program. But the tea party candidates who swept into Congress in 2010 failed to deliver on their promises to repeal “Obamacare” and substantially cut federal spending, further inflaming much of the Republican base. So the preference of the possible Republican voters has been for someone who hasn’t been “tainted” by “Washington.”
Trump — roughly half of whose supporters have only a high school education or less — is especially deft at pandering to racial prejudices and hostility toward immigration. And his supposed success in business (his record is actually mixed) convinces his followers that he knows how to get things done, while his enormous personal wealth is seen as making him incorruptible.
An important consideration to bear in mind, though, is that Trump has been benefiting from the fact that the field is so large. When other candidates drop out, the picture could be quite different. Whether an “establishment” figure — one backed by the party leadership, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — can catch on with voters will become clearer only after Iowa and New Hampshire have voted.
Conservative fundamentalist Christians — traditionally a powerful force in the Iowa Republican caucus — had been largely backing another anti-establishment candidate, the neurosurgeon Ben Carson. But as Carson’s campaign has collapsed under the weight of his obliviousness to policy, Cruz has emerged as the greatest threat to Trump in the early contests.
A first-term senator from Texas, Cruz is smart, serious and nasty. In the current political climate, he wears the scorn of his Senate colleagues — he’s detested by almost all of them — as a badge of honor. That approach, along with his record as Obamacare’s greatest congressional foe and his displays of religiosity, is clearly working for him.
Those who assumed — as many did — that Bush would walk away with the Republican nomination were misreading the political barometer. The Bush name is no longer magic, and Jeb had been out of politics for eight years when he entered the race. Moreover, the pressures facing a national candidate are quite different — both more magnified and more diffuse — from those facing a governor. Yet some believe that it’s too soon to write Bush off.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida — a supposedly “establishment” candidate who has been moving up in the polls — is arguably the exception to the pattern so far. But, based on his record in the Senate, the “establishment” label is debatable. Rubio, the epitome of a young man in a hurry, has taken positions — for example, on the Iran nuclear deal — that have incensed the Senate Republican leadership.
Rubio’s slick speaking style and Hispanic heritage make Democrats nervous. But he is now being tested as never before, and he’s made some mistakes (including something as silly as turning up in boots with “Cuban” heels that made him look faintly ridiculous).
On the Democratic side, the huge crowds turning up for the self-described Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders are also motivated largely by perceived economic injustice (creating a possible overlap — which Sanders has noted — with Trump supporters). It should be no surprise that Sanders — substantive, authentic and uninhibited by the need to placate the party’s various interest groups — is posing such a strong challenge to Hillary Clinton, the long-presumed Democratic nominee. He leads most polls in New Hampshire, which neighbors his home state of Vermont, but also some in Iowa.
Nonetheless, given Clinton’s organizational advantages (particularly the overwhelming support of other Democratic officeholders), only some dramatic and unforeseeable development could block her path to the party’s nomination. Her greatest challenge, in the primaries if not in the general election, is likely to be an enthusiasm gap: Support for her candidacy, while broad, is not deep. Indeed, because she lacks the intense connection with voters needed to encourage them to turn out in a close race, her front-runner status could, paradoxically, become her greatest weakness.
Elizabeth Drew is the author of “Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.” © Project Syndicate, 2016