On the Presidential Race as it Turns Southward

For months the presidential race was endlessly and excruciatingly geared toward Iowa and New Hampshire, Iowa and New Hampshire, Iowa and New Hampshire, Iowa and New Hampshire. Now, as we leave those two states behind forever (by which of course I mean three and a half years), it’s a propitious moment to take stock as the circus alights in our neck of the woods. Herewith, five semi-random observations.

[1] Polling still works. We hear lots of whining in the punditsphere about the evils of polling, and some want to believe that the fact that Trump didn’t win Iowa is more evidence of its failures. To the contrary, the Iowa results were within bounds given the structural weirdness of predicting likely turnout in caucuses, and polling in New Hampshire got things mostly right. It’s well known to those who understand how these things work that polling in primaries is especially vulnerable to late deciders (so late polls are better). More generally, the complications of cell phones for reaching poll victims and the higher likelihood that people once reached will refuse to be polled doesn’t make good quality polls significantly less accurate; it just makes them more challenging and more expensive to do right. Bad polling is a distraction, but good polling still matters.

[2] Hillary Clinton has problems that may not be so easily solved just by shifting to more diverse states south and west. Sure, she remains the likely nominee and her loss in New Hampshire was fully expected, but the scope of the shellacking astounds nevertheless. I’m not just talking about the shellacking in the actual vote, but also what the exit polls have to say. As The Washington Post reported, a third of all Dem primary voters in New Hampshire cited honesty as the key candidate trait in making their choice, and of this group Bernie Sanders won 92-6. Being perceived by many as questionably untrustworthy is one thing, but 92-6! Also of concern is the extent to which the post-NH hand wringing in Hillaryworld is about message. Carl Bernstein on CNN said “she has got to find her voice.” POLITICO quotes a Clinton superdelegate declaring that “her campaign is tone-deaf.” An accomplished woman who has been in public life for 30 years, has served in the Senate and has run three past campaigns is tone-deaf and needs to find her voice? Will her next ‘voice’ be any more persuasively authentic than her last one?

[3] Bernie Sanders needs to improve his messaging. Yes, compared to Clinton’s his message is simple, direct and powerful, but he can’t win unless he expands his base and it isn’t clear that his present approach will accomplish that. His victory speech Tuesday night in New Hampshire was more excruciating than inspiring – it was an overly long rehash of his stump speech. That’s not a cardinal sin, but it was a big-time missed opportunity, and it makes you wonder about the nature of the political advice he is getting. At some point he has to tackle head-on the legitimate concern that he will be unable to enact his agenda. Yes, I get the argument that implementation challenges are not by themselves reasons to shy away from being aspirational, but it’s not enough. And pure electability matters as well: he has to persuade influential Dems everywhere that giving Sanders the nomination isn’t just a way of handing two or three Supreme Court appointments to a GOP president. Saying the word “billionaire” over and over again doesn’t accomplish this.

[4] I miss Chris Christie, and not just because he did us all a favor by singlehandedly clubbing the baby seal that is Marco Rubio’s campaign to near-death with 30 seconds of nimble verbal sparring. Sure, Christie’s a blowhard and at times a bully, but he’s smart, and his true self appears to be pretty moderate and thoughtful. (What can I say? As a pushy New Yorker I have a soft spot for pushy New Jerseyans, though I agree with those who say there’s probably room for only one pugnacious asshole in the race.) I certainly wouldn’t want him in the White House, but I like him as an (ultimately failing) Republican nominee. Christie-Clinton debates would be sensational political theater – a battle royale between two intelligent and accomplished pols who both have a history of working with rather than merely demonizing the other side, and who probably both have a pretty healthy dose of respect for one other.

[5] I don’t miss Carly Fiorina. How someone who is best known for poor performance as a CEO (and second best known for running a feckless Senate race) imagines herself as an inspirational reform-minded political leader is beyond me. Announcing her departure from the presidential race on Facebook, Fiorina said her campaign was about “taking back our country from a political class that only serves the big, the powerful, the wealthy, and the well connected.” It was never clear to me how someone wealthy, powerful and well-connected is ideally positioned to take back our country from the wealthy, powerful and well-connected. Plus as the Planned Parenthood shenanigans amply demonstrated, Fiorina is an accomplished pathological liar. (She’s also good at fibbing about her own record as a CEO.)

We ramp up for the next round with tonight’s Dem candidate debate; look for my recap tomorrow.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

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