Russia and the GOP: Friends with Benefits?

After the initial reports emerged that the Russian government had interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the intention of aiding Donald Trump, the dismissal from Team Trump was swift and predictable. The outage from Democrats, many of whom have long suspected Russian sympathies for The Donald, was equally predictable, but there were numerous Republicans who joined them in calling for an investigation. Longtime critics of Russia such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham quickly condemned the interference, and a handful of conservatives with an interest in free and fair elections also joined the fray.

The response from most Republicans, however, was meekness with a shrug, as many congressional conservatives raised doubts about the impact of the alleged hacking or the credibility and integrity of American intelligence agencies. Much of this is a simple political calculation – the mandate of the Republican president-elect will obviously not be strengthened by revelations that his election was aided by an authoritarian KGB-alum. However, there may a more long-term aspect to the political calculus here. After watching  the Russians meddle in presidential election that came down to razor-thin margins in a few states, some Republicans have to be asking: is it really a bad thing to have these guys on our side?

One of the most basic functions of any campaign, particularly in this hyper-partisan era, is gathering information on your opponent that can be used to portray them more negatively. Databases are mined, tax records are requested, business partners scrutinized, faded newspaper clippings see the light of day, and a lot of money is spent on the effort. While the impact of the resulting attack ads, one-liners, and talking points can be overstated, plenty of races on all levels have turned on information unearthed by such research.

As exhaustive and sophisticated as these efforts have become, most campaigns aren’t staging electronic Watergate operations intended to breach the internal communications of their rivals. Aside from the potential illegality of such actions, voters might not reward a campaign that peddles hacked information. Russia, however, can function as an outside information broker with hacking and electronic espionage operations that far surpass anything a campaign could bring to bear. It can also, as it did in this election, cover its tracks or at least maintain sufficient ambiguity over its role to conceal the source of the information until after election day. There is, of course, no shortage of online portals that can be used to anonymously dump enough information to affect the outcome of the race, and pinpointing the source of a hack can require a long and complicated investigative effort.

It might seem unlikely that the Republican Party will soften its position towards a historic adversary simply to garner an electronic electoral advantage. However, the power of sophisticated cyber-warfare and the ubiquity of electronic communications should be considered here. Every day, virtually every aide and every surrogate for a candidate communicates electronically, and each of those communications could potentially be accessed by a sufficiently skilled hacker and released for public consumption. Any off-color joke, insulting remark, poorly worded sentence, or half-baked policy idea by anyone in the vast universe of a presidential campaign is a potential liability.

The 2016 election, of course, more than demonstrated this. Most of the emails that were unveiled by the DNC hack, though gleefully exaggerated by the right and wildly misinterpreted by disillusioned liberal voters, were fairly innocuous. Bad ideas were proposed and unfriendly things were said about a senator from Vermont, but no crimes were uncovered. Nonetheless, the hacks may have cost Clinton the election, as the media proved itself willing and eager to dive down any rabbit hole unveiled by Wikileaks while simultaneously providing extensive negative commentary related to the investigation of Clinton’s email server.

Although it’s nice to think that Republicans would shy away from a Soviet-style leader such as Vladimir Putin, politicians from Sumerian times on have proven themselves willing and eager to alter their positions to appease people who can help them get elected. Plenty of politicians, left and right, have discovered their silence on an issue after a $50,000 check arrived at the P.O. box of their super PAC. While the extent of Russian meddling has yet to be established, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that, in an election decided by fractional percentage points in a few swing states, that the months-long theater of scandal authored by Russian hackers might have been decisive. We politely wish for a higher standard of virtue in our political leaders, but plenty of them would shrink from biting the hand that launched the phishing attack that exposed 60,000 potentially damning emails about their election opponent. It would be nice to assume that the veneration of our democratic traditions and the sanctity of elections untarnished by a murderous authoritarian would transcend partisanship, but plenty on the right have shown themselves unwilling to hurt themselves politically in the interest of defending such basic principles. After all, Russia just helped their party claim, against all odds, the biggest prize in politics. Will democratic principles really be an issue for them when that kind of power is at stake?

2008, Without the Hope and Valor?

The 2016 primaries were vulgar, dramatic, belligerent affairs that blared steadily across the scrolling bars of every news network and intruded endlessly on every news site and Facebook wall. Trump was Trump, Clinton couldn’t close out Sanders, and Cruz, amidst the Titanic-tilt of the GOP, briefly assumed the role of savior for a party that half-loathed him. For all the endless drama and arguments over delegate math and nicknames, there was a sense that this was just the precursor to the main act. If you think this is crazy, people said in bars, wait until the general election.

To be sure, the election is still blaring and dominating the media landscape as one would expect. And to be surer, there has been no shortage of controversy, dismay, and a passing moment to briefly redeem the country. But by and large, the drama of the primaries hasn’t quite been followed, with the exception of a few moments around the convention that merited the hype. After the primary there was endless debate about when Trump would pivot and yield to the obvious fact that he was no longer performing in front of the same older, overwhelmingly-white, strongly conservative audience. But Trump didn’t move. He dithered on establishing serious policy positions, resisted moderation and teleprompters, and saw no particular urgency to fundraise or hire staff. In short, he did little to actually establish a campaign. He did, however, bumble into an endless succession of controversies and found himself unable to distract from them with another evisceration of Jeb Bush. For now Trump looks to be a Hindenberg that never took off but is still counting down to the final implosion.

On the Democratic side, Clinton has run a competent, unspectacular campaign that has quietly hit its marks as Trump has angrily loped along. For a running mate, she made a smart but uninteresting pick with a well-regarded swing state senator. The ads her campaign has been running for months now often relied only on Trump’s own words rather than morning-in-America shots of Clinton attempting inspiration in fruited plains. As the campaign calendar brings us to the final turn, Clinton and her team have been quietly effective with full knowledge that they had little need to engage a candidate so intent on defeating himself.

The result of this, at least so far, has been a campaign that looks more like 2008 than 2012. In 2008 there was the ceaseless drama of Obama and Clinton’s titanic battle and the less-noticed but still impressive resuscitation of John McCain’s campaign from near-bankruptcy to victory. In the general election, however, there was little to encourage McCain and his team aside from an occasional outlier poll that showed them within “striking distance.” McCain’s election prospects were such that by late-August, his team swung for the fences in nominating an untested governor from Alaska who dazzled at the convention but has generally baffled and spoken in tongues ever since. The outcome of the election was largely a forgone conclusion as Obama  coasted to victory.

In 2012 the Republican primary had some moments of drama as Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum all took turns at the lead, but Mitt Romney’s slow and steady march ultimately carried him to victory, with unfortunate nods to self-deportation and severe conservatism along the way.

With an interesting but typical primary campaign in the rearview mirror, the real drama in 2012 took place in the election. Romney was never a natural candidate, but with Paul Ryan on the ticket and a governorship on his resume, he could at least credibly carry the Republican banner. For all his own missteps and stilted campaigning, Romney got to the finish line with flurry of late polls that showed him ahead or even with Obama nationally and within actual striking distance in several swing states. Although the polling in general painted a less hopeful picture for Romeney and many prognosticators pointed out as much, too optimistic conservatives who were convinced that a 2010-style wave of enthusiasm was lurking beneath the surge, Romney had a shot at victory. In the end Obama won comfortably, but it had at least been a contest.

Trump seems to be going the route of John McCain, only he’s doing so without any of the grace, experience, or valor that occasionally shines through McCain’s curmudgeonly veneer. In some sense this isn’t surprising. Although many people projected that Trump’s ascendance through the primaries would continue in the general election, he has yet to demonstrate that he’s ready for this stage. His belligerence and ineptitude have not been  well-received nor hidden under the brightest glare in American politics.

It goes without saying that the election isn’t over before Labor Day, and Clinton’s political missteps and image problems makes any polling lead feel as if it’s built on sand. At the end of the day, however, Trump is not a politician, but a simple con artist in the midst of a desperate but impossible attempt to back up his cheap words and bluster. Unfortunately for him,  it’s hard to pull a con with the whole world watching.

The Trumpian Prophets

Now that Trump has completed his highly improbable path to the GOP nomination (barring a last second delegate coup), the nation’s bars, water coolers, and grills are being manned by people who say, with furrowed brow and grave tone, “I think Trump can win.” When pressed on what has led them to such an insight, they generally say something about how unpredictable the election cycle has been, how nothing seems to affect his poll numbers, or reference his brutal rhetorical slaughters of all GOP nominees who dared challenge him on the debate stage. Treating past as prologue, these sagacious prophets gaze ahead at the nation’s future under the leadership of President Donald J. Trump.

Now it should be said at the outset that of course Trump can win. He is a major party nominee and, regardless of what he does or says, he’ll attract tens of millions of votes from people who will vote out of party loyalty, genuine enthusiasm for Trump, or a hatred of Hillary Clinton. On top of that, with even a minimal effort to moderate his incendiary statements and outlandish policy proposals, he’ll have organizational support from the Republican Party and its donors, which could provide him with hundreds of millions of dollars to build up what is, at present, a barely existent campaign structure. Furthermore, there is the possibility, however unlikely that Hillary Clinton will be indicted for her email practices and give Trump a boost. So yes, Trump can win the election, but does he have a good chance to do so? At the present time: absolutely not.

As was the case with the last two Republican nominees, Trumps has entered the general election with a huge handicap in the electoral map. If  Hillary Clinton can simply win the state’s that are near-certain or likely Democratic states, she needs only one or two swing states to cross the 270 electoral vote threshold and win the election. Trump, on the other hand, starts the election with only 191 electoral votes in safe or likely Republican states (according to Crystal Ball), meaning he needs to win a number of highly competitive swing states to surpass the same threshold. Trump could win all 191 electoral votes in the GOP column plus Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina, and he would still narrowly lose. Clinton on the other hand would virtually lock up the election if she can win Florida. So yes, it is possible Trump can win, but it’s also unlikely.

People predicting a Trump victory are also underestimating the extent to which a national campaign infrastructure and political experience can help in the general election. In the GOP primaries, which were low-turnout affairs full of conservative voters who wanted to send an outsider with two middle fingers to Washington, Trump could make do with headline-grabbing antics and “politically incorrect” statements that obviously resonated with a large share of the GOP base. For the general election, however, the campaign needs to sustain a presence across the entire country for months at a time. Trump can’t swoop into Virginia, win 35% of the vote, claim victory, and leave.

Hillary Clinton, as a veteran of four presidential campaigns, is obviously well aware of this. She has a seasoned staff, a massive network of volunteers and donors, and ads already on the air in several key markets. Donald Trump seems remarkably unaware of the playing field he’s on, whittling away time in non-competitive states, planning a trip to Scotland to open a golf course, and making a lukewarm attempt to court donors. He already wasted an unexpected gift when the Republican nomination process concluded earlier than that of the Democrats, and now Trump seems to be only gradually realizing, after weeks of shooting himself in the foot, that he needs to begin making an effort if he has any interest in this election.

Trump’s effort to at least run a serious campaign may have taken a step forward when he cast aside campaign manager Corey Lewandowski this week, but he still has to overcome a built-in disadvantage in the electoral map, staggeringly high unfavorable ratings, and a bitterly divided party. Sure Trump can win, but his improbable victory in the primaries doesn’t mean that people can’t survey the evidence and see that he has a steep hill to climb and a narrow path to navigate. Election day is a ways away, but Trump is going to need a lot of help to get there with any shot at the presidency.

Trump’s Pivotal Flop

The General Election Pivot has become something of a tradition in contemporary American politics, as the nominated candidates pirouette from gymnasiums of party activists to coliseums of swing state voters. Some candidates make the transition seamlessly after uncontested or skillfully moderated primaries, while others careen out of partisan free-for-alls to try to explain away the promises they made to their bases.

Donald Trump’s segue into the general election has been harder to comprehend, in part because there has been no such pivot. The Donald has yet to accept or adjust to the fact that the general election is a bigger, more diverse playing field than the GOP primary and seems to think he can continue to settle scores, brush aside skeptics, and exacerbate controversies without consequence. Perhaps his abysmal poll numbers will jar him back to political reality but, with less than five months until election day, it may already be too late.

Although his candidacy was dismissed from beginning to end by the punditry, Trump’s politics were a perfect fit for the 2016 GOP primary. In a crowded field with a number of well-qualified but ideologically similar candidates, Trump had the name, temperament, and high-wattage personality to dominate the media landscape at the expense of his rivals. With this haphazard legion of competitors, Trump could afford to lose two-thirds of the voters in some states and still win the primary. In New Hampshire, where he scored his first primary victory, there were four other candidates who received at least 10 percent of the vote, and a litany of stragglers and also-rans lagged behind them. Trump needed only 35 percent of the vote to win the state, and a week later he took South Carolina in similar fashion with just 33 percent.

This environment incentivized Trump’s belligerence, as the networks provided endless coverage, his rallies attracted massive crowds, and the GOP debates became a sort of weekly political Super Bowl. Also, with the need to moderate his positions eliminated by the divided nature of his opposition, Trump could afford to stand out with his aggressive and often repugnant rhetoric. Faced with doubts about his candidacy that persisted long after he had built a substantial delegate lead, Trump may have learned the lesson too well that his belligerence was good politics.

As the Republican Party grudgingly accepted this orange-hued reality TV star as their nominee, it seemed likely that his advisers or the Republican National Committee would impress upon him that the general election was a new ballgame that required some degree of moderation. Trump, however, perhaps imaging himself smarter-by-half than the political insiders who had long doubted his candidacy, has decidedly gone in the opposite  direction, unleashing a salvo of controversial statements, insults, and policy proposals that have made the awfulness of his candidacy abundantly clear to the party and public alike. Five months is an eternity in politics, but even if he reforms tomorrow these past five weeks will weigh heavily on his candidacy.

What is obvious at this point is that Trump is simply unable or unwilling to understand that he is now facing the entire country as a candidate. His incendiary attacks on immigrants may have been accepted in overwhelmingly white, low-turnout primaries in crimson red Republican states, but in an increasingly diverse country these sentiments are increasingly met with the scorn they deserve. While it is astonishing to see a candidate on this stage with so little awareness of the electorate he’s facing, Trump, having just turned 70, is unlikely to remake himself in the public eye over the next few months. Facing the election as if he’s trying to win a tabloid war instead of the presidency, Trump seems to think he can fight the Democrats, half his own party, the media, and still navigate a path to victory. Facing off against a candidate backed by a comparatively unified Democratic Party, Trump is unlikely to insult his way to the White House.

Five Theories on Bernie’s End Game

In the aftermath of a chaotic Nevada state convention and rhetoric from Bernie Sanders that belies his near-zero chance at securing the nomination, it’s hard to tell what the end game is for the Sanders campaign. Here are a few theories from one of America’s least relevant political blogs on what he’s after.

The Rick Astley  / Wistful Bernie Theory

In virtually every Bernie Sanders stump speech, he’ll take his listeners back to “when we started this campaign” and recall the single-digit poll numbers and equally low expectations from which he launched his presidential bid. Although Sanders never led in pledged delegates after the Nevada caucus on February 20th and never consistently led Clinton in national polls, there were plenty of moments in the campaign when it looked like the perpetual underdog surely had the momentum and, in the eyes of his supporters if not the pundits, a legitimate chance at securing the nomination.

Even when Clinton seemed about to close the door, for months Sanders was able to pry it open with timely wins that cast doubt on whether the race was really over. After the ups and downs of that ride and months of defying expectations, it has to be hard for Sanders to admit that the door may have really closed, particularly since, at 74 years old, this is likely his first and last bid at the White House. On top of that, there are millions of Sanders supporters who emphatically want him to take the race all the way to the convention, and Bernie might have political incentives to do just that. Also, the cheering crowds and continuing enthusiasm for Bernie makes it clear, particularly from the vantage point of the podium, that he still has a receptive audience for his message.

The Bernie Sanders Is Pissed and Now a Source of Nihilistic Rage Theory

Another feature in virtually every Sanders stump speech is his denunciation of The Establishment and a riff on the allegedly crooked process that has obstructed his path to the nomination. This is politically valuable in the sense that, in spite of substantial deficits in the delegate count and popular vote for much of the race, Sanders has been able to keep alive the idea that he is the true tribune of the people. However, just because this message helps Sanders’ political narrative doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe it. Oftentimes Sanders sounds legitimately embittered and convinced that he has been denied a fair shot at the nomination. Is it possible that he’s angry enough to widen the split in the Democratic Party in the name of ornery New England spite?

The cold water on this theory is the simple fact that Sanders is an astute politician who’s unlikely to throw away his political capital for a kamikaze attack on the Democratic Party. Also, a casual jaunt through grainy clips of Sanders speeches from years past leaves one with the blindingly obvious impression that Sanders has been angry at The Establishment for years, so this isn’t a new concept for him. Finally, Sanders has regularly said that any Democratic nominee is far better than a Republican in the White House, so he’s unlikely to undercut that to settle a personal grudge.

The Power of the Healer Theory

Perhaps the most compelling theory is that Sanders benefits politically from maintaining something of a gulf between his supporters and the Democratic Party. Had Sanders read the writing on the wall after his crushing loss in New York and decided  to march gently into the good night, the Democratic Party would be more unified today, but such a move would sharply diminish Sanders’ clout. He would have a good speaking slot at the convention and might be holding unity rallies with Clinton, but his ability to push the party left and influence its platform would be fading by the day. By keeping his campaign alive into June, Sanders maintains his influence and heightens his ability to extract concessions from the party. Also, to borrow from the last two theories, this enables him to stay on the trail and, if he’s so inclined, air a few grievances.

If this is indeed Sanders’ strategy, it’s a dangerous one for the Democrats since each day of party disunity benefits Donald Trump. However, Sanders is undoubtedly aware of Trump’s astronomically high unfavorable ratings, decades of incendiary quotes, and problematic relationships with nearly every demographic group the Census Bureau acknowledges. With what looks like a winnable race for Clinton, Sanders might feel he can afford to push her and the Democratic Party to the left for a few more weeks.

The Valley of the Polls Theory

One has to believe that, behind closed doors, Bernie is aware that his chances of winning are virtually non-existent. However, one argument he’s been making for months is that, because of his better poll numbers against Trump, superdelegates should read the political tea leaves and award him the nomination. Since that would involve a complete repudiation of the popular vote, this is highly unlikely to happen, and Bernie’s tenuous relationship with the Democratic Party makes this hail-mary effort even more of a long shot. Still, a mass defection of superdelegates is the only chance Sanders has at this point, so by delaying party unity and denying Clinton a bump in the polls as the party coalesces around her, Bernie keeps his negligible chances of winning on life support.

The this-won’t-happen-BUT-OH-MY-GOD-WHAT-IF-IT-DOES Theory

If Trump has astronomically high unfavorables right now, Hillary Clinton’s negatives are at least adrift in the stratosphere. Clinton’s profile is likely more fixable than Trump’s since many of her negative storylines are old news that has been in the papers since the previous century, while Trump on the other hand is about to face a level of scrutiny that far surpasses what he encountered during the primary or during earlier flirtations with higher office. On top of that, the Democrats will soon dust off their opposition research file on Trump, which surely rivals War & Peace in both length and narrative complexity. However, if Sanders has truly ventured into the political wilderness he might read into the unfavorable ratings of  the two presumptive nominees and see a narrow path to the nomination on the third party track. The chances of this, while infinitesimal, are just enough to sustain a paragraph of wild speculation.

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Despite the bitter conclusion to this year’s Democratic primary and Sanders’ obstinate refusal to yield to the cold realities of delegate math, Sanders has repeatedly indicated that he will support the Democratic nominee. While it remains to be seen whether he will be an enthusiastic supporter of Clinton (as she was of Obama in 2008) or a lukewarm endorser (in the mold of Ted Kennedy in 1980), the  most likely outcome is that Sanders will endorse Hillary and muster a reasonable level of enthusiasm while seeking to capitalize on his newfound profile. Whether he does that in the Senate or attempts to sustain the movement he spearheaded in less traditional ways will be interesting to watch, but he is surely ready to serve as an antagonist to whoever is elected to the White House.

Bernie Sanders’ Southern Whitewash

The Sunday before the raucous Democratic  debate in Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders appeared on This Week with George Stephanopoulos to discuss the race and his conviction that he is the better general election candidate than Hillary Clinton. As he was channeling his inner Bob Dole to make the point that “Bernie Sanders is the stronger candidate,” Stephanopoulos interjected to point out that Clinton is getting more votes than him. Sanders paused briefly before brushing off the point by saying “Well, she’s getting more votes. A lot of that came from the South.”

On its surface, this seems like a curious retort. In a national primary, it doesn’t matter which region a candidates’ support comes from; all that matters is how many votes and delegates they win. Sanders, however, followed up on this line of thinking in the debate four days later, saying that the South is “the most conservative part of this great country”  before downplaying Clinton’s large margins there. While minimizing your opponent’s victories is no political novelty, there are two problems with this argument. The first is that it is completely misleading; the conservative voters Sanders is alluding to are not voting in a Democratic primary. The second is that he’s diminishing the vote of black Southerners, the most historically disenfranchised group of voters in the country.

Contrary to the talking points of Sanders and his surrogates, the voters who turn out in the southern primaries are not conservative representatives of the “Old South.” In the Mississippi primary, 71 percent of voters were black, and African-Americans also accounted for the majority of voters in the Alabama, Georgia ,and Louisiana contests. In every southern primary, the share of black voters participating is substantially higher than their overall share of the population, and in all these states Clinton won at least 80% of their vote.

Sanders is surely aware that these primaries are dominated by black voters, particularly since his campaign essentially ceded most of them to Clinton due to his poor poll numbers with that group. It’s unlikely of course that Sanders, who was a civil rights organizer, is attempting to sound the alarm about black voters. Instead, he’s trying to capitalize on more general cultural prejudices about the south. Given the crimson red conservatism of many southern states, voters naturally assume that their primaries would reflect that to some degree and Sanders is likely trying to evoke the image of Confederate-clad Southern conservatives marching to the polls in support of Clinton. Unsurprisingly, a quick a look at the exit polls shows that Sanders did far better with southern whites than he did with minority voters. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it belies his disingenuous insinuation that Clinton is winning the south because of its conservative bent. Perhaps Sanders should focus on broadening his coalition instead of diminishing voters who aren’t supporting him.

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.

Why is Hillary Running?

It is a frequently preached political mantra that the first thing a candidate has to do is let everyone know why they are running. Bernie Sanders is running for president to reduce income inequality, and Donald Trump is running to cut deals that will “make America great again”. Ted Cruz is running to promote conservative (but not necessarily Republican) values, and Bobby Jindal is running with the desperate hope that someone will notice his feeble attempt at the presidency. But why is Hillary Clinton in the race? Though she has certainly answered this question many times, it’s still hard to settle on a single answer.

For now, the best answer seems to be that Clinton is running to be the champion of working America. Whether voicing her commitment to “make the economy work for everyday Americans” or for “nurses who work the night shift”, she used some variant of the word “work” or “worker” 35 times in her rollout speech. However, as with previous editions of Hillary Clinton, voters may have trouble relating to her identity as a working class defender.

Although Clinton’s record is fairly liberal as a whole, her most recent job was secretary of state, and she spent most of the 2008 campaign selling the idea that she was “tough and experienced.” The most famous moment of her Senate tenure, particularly for Democratic primary voters, was her vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution, and during her eight years there she was known more as a pragmatist than a champion of the working class.  It could be accurately pointed out that this abbreviated narrative of Clinton’s political career leaves out a range of impressive liberal accomplishments. However, as someone who’s been out of public office since 2013 and had limited influence on domestic affairs since her departure from the Senate years ago, the best known moments of her recent political career don’t lend themselves to this picture of her as a fighter for the middle-class.

On top of this, there’s the additional problem of “Clinton Inc.”, the expansive political and financial empire built by the country’s preeminent power couple. Clinton is a former secretary of state, senator, and first lady whose husband served five terms as a governor and two as president. She’s been a nationally known figure for over two decades and, since Bill left the White House, the couple has amassed a considerable fortune, much of it from speaking fees paid by major corporations. The amount of money Hillary Clinton has charged for single speeches (her highest fee was $335,000) is actually slightly more than Bernie Sanders’ entire net worth (estimated at $330,000). Impressive as her political and professional career has been, voters may not easily see a working class hero in a woman who has a personal net worth that exceeds $30 million and can earn the annual salary of 20 fast-food employees with an hour-long speech.

Related to the problems posed by Clinton Inc. is the difficulty in crafting a new identify for someone who has been in the public eye for decades. Millions of voters had their first impression of Hillary Clinton during the 1992 election, and it’s difficult to build a campaign message tailored to the present with someone who’s been a public figure for so long. Despite her tremendous early advantage in the 2008 race, her message of strength and competence was a poor fit in an election defined by Bush fatigue, economic upheaval, and a desire for change that Barack Obama clearly harnessed. However, her lengthy tenure in the spotlight prevented her from making an argument that she was a “change candidate.” Seven years later, with income inequality as a major issue, Clinton’s progressive/populist rhetoric may ring a bit hollow, particularly given her highly lucrative tour of the corporate speaking circuit. Unlike other candidates who are relatively unknown on the national stage, Clinton’s ability to reinvent herself is constrained by the past.

It hasn’t helped matters that Clinton has often played the part of the out-to-touch elitist with her campaign missteps, such as the widely-mocked assertion that her and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House, or her casual comment that she hasn’t driven a car in over 20 years. Although these are relatively minor gaffes in the grand scheme of a presidential campaign, they also send the signal to voters that she may have trouble relating to their concerns. After all, how does someone who’s been chauffeured everywhere since the mid-90s understand the dread of seeing the check engine light come on? Recall George H.W. Bush’s alleged struggles with a supermarket scanner and inability to say how much a gallon of milk cost. While scanners and milk prices may not have been leading issues in the 1992 election, Bush contributed to the perception of him as an out-of-touch patrician, and sharpened the contrast between him and his much younger and more affable opponent.

This isn’t to say that Clinton can’t craft a winning message or build a compelling campaign narrative in the months ahead. If she secures the nomination, she may emerge as the default working-class candidate if the tumultuous GOP primary yields a Republican candidate who follows in the footsteps of plutocratic forbears such as Mitt Romney. However, the endless and exhausting scandal over her email server, minor but persistent political missteps, and the rise of Sanders mean Clinton has to answer the question of why she’s running with something more compelling and authentic than poll-tested platitudes about “helping working families”. Why is Hillary Clinton running? She may know, but voters don’t.

Could King v. Burwell Cost Republians the White House?

If the Supreme Court exercises a willful disregard of legislative intent and rules against the government in the case of King v. Burwell, GOP pols will likely be celebrating before every camera they see. Behind closed doors, however, the merriment could be a bit more muted as they grapple with the consequences of the decision. A ruling in favor of the plaintiff would disallow federal health insurance subsidies to residents of the 34 states who lack state run marketplaces. The Urban Institute projects that 9.35 million people will lose health insurance subsidies, and an estimated 87 percent of those losing subsidies will lose their insurance altogether. What may be more ominous for the Republican Party is the fact that 35 percent of those projected to lose subsidies reside in states that were decided by 8 points or less in the 2012 election, and in Virginia, Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina, the percentage of the estimated voting population losing subsidies is greater than the margin of victory between Obama and Romney in 2012.

Consider the table above, which shows margins of victory in the 2012 presidential race and the estimated percentage of voting age adults who could lose subsidies in swing states that do not operate state marketplaces. A small adjustment has been made to account for the fact that roughly six percent of marketplace enrollees are under the age of 18. These numbers could definitely be refined further (i.e. to account for people who have lost voting rights), but this is a blog that averages 1.7 readers a day. Statistical accuracy will improve when I reach 5.

Consider the table above, which shows margins of victory in the 2012 presidential race and the estimated percentage of voting age adults who could lose subsidies in swing states that do not operate state marketplaces. A small adjustment has been made to account for the fact that roughly six percent of marketplace enrollees are under the age of 18. These numbers could definitely be refined further (i.e. to account for people who have lost voting rights), but this is a blog that averages 1.7 readers a day. Statistical accuracy will improve when I reach 5.

Optimistic Republicans may point out that people who lose insurance are not necessarily registered voters or destined to become newly-minted Democrats. They might also shrug their shoulders and say that it was the ostensibly apolitical Supreme Court, not the Republican Party, that ultimately undid Obamacare. They could also highlight the fact that, even in the most affected states, 90-something percent of the population would not be losing subsidies. Furthermore, those that do lose subsidies will be younger, lower-income voters who are, statistically speaking, less likely to vote.

All of these points have some degree of validity, and ultimately the 2016 elections may turn on issues other than a year old Supreme Court decision. However, the low margin for error in many of these states means that a relatively small number of votes could turn the tide. Recall that Florida, a state in which more than a million people would likely lose insurance, was decided by a 0.009 percent margin in 2000 and, in a comparative landslide, by 0.88 percent in 2012. Even with unregistered voters and Republicans amidst those losing coverage, there will still be many voters who are angered and mobilized by the decision. Republicans might have some success in blaming the court for ill effects of the decision, but here they run into problems as well. For starters, repealing the Affordable Care Act has been an integral part of the GOP message for the past three election cycles. Regardless of how the law was undone, they will be associated with its downfall. Also, Republican control of the House, Senate, and most state legislatures and governor’s mansions puts the party in a position to address problems with the law, although it’s obviously unlikely they will move to fix a law they’ve fought so hard to break.

The loss of insurance by millions of people may also increase internal tensions within the GOP. On a state level, enthusiasm for repeal seems to have flagged, as only 7 states filed amicus briefs on behalf of the plaintiff in King v. Burwell, compared to 26 states that supported the last major Supreme Court challenge to the ACA. A Republican Congress certainly won’t be throwing a lifeline to the ACA, although pressures will arise to address the millions of people suddenly rejoining the ranks of the uninsured. However, even if the country was graced with a functional Congress, a major health care bill in the near future is a virtual impossibility, particularly with a sub-cloture majority in the Senate, a Democrat in the White House, and a national election looming. Governors and state governments, having less enthusiasm for inaction than Congress, will feel additional pressures to act or establish an insurance marketplace in their state. Any effort to do so, will unleash fierce denunciations from the right and spark intra-party squabbling during the build-up to 2016..

Needless to say, a ruling for the government will render all these political conundrums moot for the time being. Either way, these potential issues hint at an increasingly difficult political landscape surrounding the ACA. National polls have consistently shown the law to be underwater in terms of favorability, but outside a surge in unpopularity after the bungled launch of Healthcare.gov, public attitudes about the ACA have been relatively static. Furthermore, the Congressional Budget Office recently lowered its cost estimates for the law, and the number of uninsured Americans has declined sharply. Nonetheless, the law is still a major issue for the Republican base and will likely remain so for some time. But for many moderates and independents, the ACA is no longer a primary concern, and polls have consistently shown that, even if it remains unpopular, there is limited enthusiasm for an outright repeal. If the court effectively issues a partial repeal, voters may look to the GOP for solutions it is unable or unwilling to provide. If the court upholds the law, they will soldier on as vocal opponents. However, for a party already being pushed by demographics, ongoing opposition may risk political capital the Republicans cannot spare in a national election.

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.”