The Fading Revolution

Since his New Hampshire victory, Bernie Sanders has slowly faded as a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton and regressed to the role of a beloved but unlikely candidate for the nomination. As Clinton has piled up endorsements from superdelegates and alternated between shaky and convincing victories, there has been no small amount of indignation from Sanders’ supporters over the various injustices and conspiracies that have detoured his path to the nomination. There have been many grievances aired on social media over a variety of issues, from the kerfuffle over coin flips in Iowa to the complaints about the “undemocratic” nature of the primary (see delegates, super) to the apparently serious suggestion that The Onion, having been bought by a company owned by a major Hillary supporter, was now a pro-Hillary outlet.

It’s not unusual for the supporters of a candidate to complain about the process or perceived wrongs committed against their steed. In this case, however, they ignore a fairly obvious point, which is that Sanders actually was in a position to challenge and even win the nomination. Although Hillary may have gotten some breaks along the way, more endorsements, and a friendly story in The Onion, none of that should take away from the fact that the nomination is slipping away from Sanders not because it’s being stolen, but because of the simplest possible reason: he isn’t winning enough votes.

Before and after his convincing New Hampshire win, Sanders had chances to win critical states and feed the innate media desire for a hotly contested primary. His 0.3 percent loss in Iowa, though insignificant in terms of delegates, denied him bragging rights for winning the first two states. After New Hampshire, Sanders had a winnable contest in Nevada, where the final Real Clear Politics polling average had Clinton up by 2.4 points, but Clinton more than doubled that margin before absolutely crushing Sanders a week later in South Carolina. By the time results came in on Super Tuesday, it was clear that Sanders, despite a few wins that night, had stalled on his narrow path to the nomination. Sanders has won three of the past four states since then, but Clinton won the biggest delegate prize of the group by taking Louisiana.

As the delegate math has gradually made Sanders’ nomination less likely, many liberal voters and writers have turned their ire on the system. The New York Daily News, Huffington Post, and other liberal outlets have carried stories on the “rigged” Democratic primary process, while a MoveOn petition decrying the role of superdelegates has collected nearly 200,000 signatures.

This narrative of woe ignores the fact Sanders isn’t winning the popular vote. In states that have voted or caucused so far, Clinton has won 4.2 million votes, compared to 2.7 million for Sanders (excluding Iowa, which doesn’t release raw vote totals for its caucus). This is hardly an insignificant margin. On top of that, despite winning 61.1% of votes cast, Clinton has actually only claimed 58.5% of the pledged delegates (which are delegates allocated based on vote/caucus totals). There’s no conspiracy behind this statistical quirk, but it certainly belies the notion that Sanders is being cheated when he’s losing the popular vote and receiving delegates at a slightly higher proportion than his opponent. Far from being an aggrieved underdog, Sanders is a formidable opponent who’s raised tremendous amounts  of money, run a great campaign, but simply isn’t beating Clinton at the ballot box.

As for the superdelegates who currently account for most of Clinton’s massive lead in delegates, it should be remembered that a primary election is a party function, not an election for public office, and it can be carried out however those in the party deem fit. In the past, the process was almost entirely dictated by party insiders and, after years of complaints, both parties have moved to comparatively democratic systems. However, in the Democratic process, party insiders still obviously maintain a certain a degree of influence. That said, if Sanders was winning state after state, it is unlikely that they would be able to deny him the nomination. Hillary Clinton tried to use superdelegates to eke past Obama in 2008 but failed due to his popularity at the voting booth. It should also be remembered that, for all the grumbling about the system, there are reasons to leave a role for party heavyweights. The Republican Party right now surely wishes it had a firewall of superdelegates capable of impeding Donald Trump’s belligerent march to the nomination (as FiveThirtyEight noted today).

The most critical impetus for Sanders deflating nomination is the fact that he hasn’t won over critical groups in the Democratic coalition, most notably African-American voters. While it may be frustrating to his supporters that the former Civil Rights activist is losing the black vote to a woman who many associate with mass incarceration, for whatever reason Sanders has simply been unable to gain much traction in states that aren’t overwhelmingly white. There’s no trickery behind the huge margins of victory in South Carolina and elsewhere. The Democratic electorate, for now at least, is simply saying to Sanders, “You don’t have the votes.” It’s a message he was going to hear one day or another, either during the election or from Paul Ryan on his first day in the White House.

Bobby Jindal: GOP Ambulance Chaser

In January 2013, with his party still in the midst of an extended post-election wake, Bobby Jindal attempted to establish himself as a voice of reason in the GOP. At the Republican National Committee’s winter meetings, Jindal gave a speech on how the party could “recalibrate the compass of conservatism” and “win the argument” with the electorate. Though the speech wasn’t  high on specifics, Jindal said the party needed to be more forward looking, more appealing to new groups of voters, and, in a headline-grabbing line, had to “stop being the stupid party.” At the time, it seemed like a savvy political move, as Jindal tried to position himself as an outside-the-Beltway truth-teller with ideas on how to reinvigorate a party that has lost five of the last six popular votes in presidential elections. Unfortunately for Jindal, it didn’t work out as planned, and since then he’s had to forage aimlessly on the right-wing of his party for some shred of conservative identity not yet claimed by another candidate. He hasn’t found it yet, but Jindal is still chasing his ambition.

As other candidates have filled out the first and second tier of GOP presidential candidates, Jindal has been eagerly jostling for relevance. His apparent strategy in recent months has been to dive into whatever controversy presents itself and pretend he’s been there the whole time. In January, for example, a well-bleached “terrorism analyst” named Steve Emerson appeared on Fox News to discuss the existence of so-called “no-go zones” in England and France, claiming that there were areas that essentially operated under Sharia law and were outside governmental control. Residents of Birmingham, England, a city that is 22 percent Muslim, were surely surprised to learn that their city was “totally Muslim” and inaccessible to non-Muslims. Unsurprisingly, Emerson’s remarks, lacking any foundation in reality, produced a strong reaction. Prime Minister David Cameron said Emerson was “clearly a complete idiot”, and the city of Paris decided to eventually pursue legal action against Fox.

Not wanting to miss a chance to stir the pot, Jindal went to London nine days later (after Fox apologized for the report) and delivered a speech in which he claimed Europe was riddled with “no-go zones” where Muslims are implementing Sharia law “without regard for the laws of the democratic countries” they live in.  Although it’s doubtful that Jindal, a former Rhodes scholar who studied in Oxford, seriously believes that swaths of Europe are operating under Sharia law, he refused to back down, even when he encountered pushback from Fox News on his claim. Eager to cash in on a GOP scandal that had already passed him by, Jindal stuck to his guns.

Jindal had a similar but even more ridiculous performance after Republican senators penned a controversial letter to the leaders of Iran. Since Jindal is not a member of the Senate, he was obviously not a signatory to the letter (although he did later add his name to it). That didn’t stop him from making the absurd suggestion that the whole idea had originated with him, claiming that it had been “something we’ve been pushing for a while.” Jindal also noted that Tom Cotton had been in the audience at an AEI event where Jindal had allegedly discussed the idea. When asked if he was implying that Cotton had stolen his idea, Jindal magnanimously said there was “no pride of authorship” for the letter he had neither written nor signed, and that he hoped “a lot of people came to the same conclusion at the same time on their own.”

The governor has made predictable lurches to the right on other matters as well. He strongly defended Rudy Giuliani after the former mayor questioned the President’s patriotism and told the audience that Obama “wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up.” He is also one of the most vociferous critics of Common Core, despite the fact that he previously supported the law and helped implement it in Louisiana. When questioned about his former support, Jindal claimed that some sort of “bait and switch” had occurred and that Common Core had since become an unconstitutional affront to the 10th Amendment. Needless to say, the growing conservative opposition to Common Core had nothing to do with his sudden evolution.

Even if Jindal’s eager attempts to join every controversy are successful, the governor has deep political problems back home that may well sink his nascent campaign. Although Jindal came in to office with a budget surplus, his state is now facing a $1.6 billion deficit and one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. Although the recession and plummeting oil prices bear some of the blame for the state’s poor economy, Jindals’s fiscal policies have been criticized by members of both parties. The governor has used budget cuts and accounting tricks to gloss over the issue, but a real solution may require the kind of tough choices (meaning revenue increases) that won’t play well in a GOP primary debate.

With the GOP pool of contenders already well stocked, Jindal’s failure to gain any traction isn’t exactly roiling the race. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, he was barely ahead of Lindsey Graham and tied with “Wouldn’t vote.” However, his ineptitude and inability to settle on any particular political identity is likely a disappointment to Republicans who once saw him as a rising star in the party  (although for some donors and insiders that star may have fallen after the Kenneth the Page speech). For the time being, however, Jindal’s sputtering campaign remains mired in Louisiana’s red ink and, in spite of his best efforts, disappointingly uncontroversial.


Update on Jindal’s still unnoticed presidential campaign (4/2): Amidst the uproar over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Jindal is once again eagerly chasing after the scandal and casually insisting that he was more or less responsible for the whole thing. From the Washington Post: “An email from top Jindal adviser Timmy Teepell this morning touted the fact that “Governor Jindal will do three radio interviews today to talk about the fight for religious liberty” and noted, “Governor Jindal was one of the first potential 2016 candidates to talk about the fight for religious liberty when he gave a speech at The Reagan Library in February of 2014. A copy of the speech can be found here.”

Scott Walker: A Candidate Outside His Political Habitat

Scott Walker’s ascension to the first tier of Republican presidential candidates was quickly followed by the typical stumbles of a candidate suddenly thrust into the national limelight. After former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani stoked a controversy by questioning the president’s patriotism, Walker joined in by refusing to repudiate the mayor’s comments and later pleading ignorance when asked whether or not Obama is a Christian. While such doubts about Obama’s patriotism and religion are widespread amongst Republicans, the comments drew the ire of pundits and editorialists alike and forced Walker to play defense for a few days. In the marathon that is a presidential campaign, this minor slip-up is unlikely to have a lasting impact, and may even help Walker with GOP primary voters who sympathize with his viewpoints. The whole episode, however, does reveal potentially serious weaknesses with a candidate who is very much outside of his comfort zone.

Proponents of Walker are fond of pointing to his electoral success in Wisconsin, a state that has supported a Democrat in seven consecutive presidential elections, as an indicator of his broad appeal. The reality, however, is that Wisconsin is one of the most politically balkanized states in the country, and Walker’s success has less to do with attracting crossover votes than it does with his ability to motivate conservative voters. His strongest base of support in the state comes from three strongly conservative counties outside Milwaukee that constitutes the red half of an extremely polarized metropolitan area. Seventy-three percent of the voters in these three counties (Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee) voted for Walker in 2014, providing him with a 146,000 vote cushion in an election he won by just under 138,000 votes. On one hand, Walker’s support from these areas demonstrate his ability to turn out the base, which is obviously an asset, particularly in the primaries. On the other hand, these counties are 95 percent white, wealthier than most of the country, and rich in demographic subsets (i.e. gun owners, home owners) that are generally more sympathetic to Republicans. Given the struggles of Mitt Romney, the former governor of a comparatively diverse state, to reach voters beyond the Republican base, it’s hard to see Walker as a candidate who can expand the GOP’s appeal.

The native political habitat of Walker may also hurt his chances in other respects. As someone who’s built a political career speaking to the conservative base, he often has the benefit of communicating through friendly media outlets. The governor has a good relationship with conservative talk radio hosts in the area, namely Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling, and often attracted laudatory coverage from national conservative outlets during his battles with the unions and the subsequent recall effort. After watching the governor unnecessarily insert himself into the Giuliani controversy and indignantly chastise the press for asking him about Obama’s religion, it’s fair to wonder whether Walker is ready to handle questions from the national media.

These issues, Walker’s inexperience with reaching out beyond the base and dealing with the national media, will not knock him out of contention in the primary. The primary contests will reflect the Republican base and draw older, whiter, and more conservative voters than the general election. Contentious exchanges with the national media may even help his cause and build his reputation as the uncompromising conservative in the field. Beyond the primary elections though, it seems unlikely Walker will be able to address the problems that have dogged Republicans in the past two election cycles. The exit polls from Walker’s reelection campaign reflect many of struggles the GOP had in 2012, as the governor struggled to win over women, younger voters, minorities, and lower-income households. While he may attract adoration from the Republican base, at this early stage the Walker does not look like the strongest general election challenger for the GOP.