Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Slouching Towards Iowa

Its Hour Come Round At Last
The end of the innocence in the GOP race is almost upon us--and the actual GOP Primary is set to begin. Some notable events:

  • Carson / Paul Fade: Carson, once a favorite to win in Iowa, now pulls 4th behind Marco Rubio. His staff is defecting (to Cruz). Rand Paul has also had staff defections and was bumped to the kiddie-table debate--which he will boycott. This also happened to Carly Fiorina.
  • Cruz Rises: Cruz and Trump are neck-and-neck in Cruz's must-win Iowa. Cruz is also polling ahead of Rubio in not-gonna-win New Hampshire. Basically Cruz has consumed Carson's support and consolidated the evangelical vote.
  • Rubio Stalls: Marco Rubio holds the top-slot in the betting-markets to win the GOP nomination--but only by 2%--and Trump is right behind him. Rubio is pretty much the most-likely, most-tolerable establishment candidate--but he currently isn't winning anywhere.
  • Everyone Else Is Even Less Relevant: Chris Christie has had a micro-rally in New Hampshire--bringing him to 4th place. Fourth place in NH is a "four-car pile-up" with Rubio, Cruz, Christie and Kasich all within 4pts of each other (holding, together 46% to Trump's 29%). The problem is that without consolidation, they all cannibalize each other.
  • Bush Attacks Rubio: Bush, somewhat unexpectedly, has turned his guns on Rubio. Perhaps he just wants to take out his former protege out of spite--but more likely he thinks that if Rubio falls, he's more likely to pick up the establishment endorsement than Christie or Kasich. Maybe.

The Net-Net

Part of the problem here is that no one looks like as good a candidate as Mitt Romney did. Whatever Romney's flaws were, he was definitely a "central-casting candidate" who everyone agreed looked like he could be president (in physical appearance, resume, and deportment). Jeb filled that role for the first two--but blew it on the deportment part of the test.

In other words, the famous and highly-regarded book on electoral politics The Party Decides needs to be amended to read: The Party Decides -- But It Has To Make Up Its Mind First, Yo. The good news for parties everywhere is that there are still about 3 weeks left so there's time.

In order to guess what will happen, our cognition takes in facts, runs them through an invisible filter of all our inherent biases, and then creates a "story-board" that gives us a narrative to look at/for. This narrative appears compelling because it seems to be made out of facts(!). Even though we may rationally know these are just "likelihoods," it doesn't matter--we are drawn to this kind of construction like moths to a flame.

Let's look at two of these:

The Omnivore's Most Likely Scenario

It is no longer most-likely that Trump will suffer a "sudden deflation" right before voting begins (although, you know, check with Tom Brady). Trump supporters lined up in freezing weather for hours to get a look at The Donald and that portends well for at least some showing in the Iowa caucus. Additionally, without a chance to really "lose meaningfully" (i.e. even if Trump doesn't win Iowa, it seems unlikely that alone will be enough to paint him as a loser for New Hampshire) he will probably carry momentum through the first four states. If he under-performs in all of them, that might be enough to end him--but we won't know about that until, like, March.

As such, The Omnivore Predicts:
  1. Ted Cruz wins Iowa by a squeaker. The Omnivore suspects Trump will do better than some people think--but probably not well enough to beat the evangelical machine in Iowa.
  2. Panic In New Hampshire. There are 8 days between Iowa and New Hampshire. If Trump places a strong second, there will clearly be no reason a vote (which is easier than a caucus) should go against him in NH. The establishment will exert enormous pressure to force three of the pile-up candidates out. The problem is: no one wants to go until they've had their shot.
  3. Rubio Gets The Pick. Rubio has garnered the most endorsements so-far. In the Most-Likely scenario, Rubio gets a bunch more between Feb 1 and Feb 9--along with a number of Super PACs coming in to warn of a Trump / Cruz victory and/or support Rubio. 
  4. Rubio places a strong second in New Hampshire. Christie and Kasich drop.
  5. Everyone Attacks Trump. At this point Trump is positioned to win in South Carolina on Feb 20. We don't have a heck of a lot of polling--but its Trump, Cruz, everyone else right now. The knives come out--and it's a battle royale to see if anyone can actually take a piece out of Trump.

The Most Exciting Scenario

The most exciting scenario is this: 
  1. Trump wins Iowa by a hair. Rubio has ceded the western half of the state (no ads, not campaigning)--but he is running hard in the eastern part. If he chips off enough support it's probably Cruz that falters (The Omnivore doubts he's competing seriously for Trump voters--Cruz is banking on a version of the "electability" argument). In this case, Trump pulls out a surprise win and the race is suddenly upside down.
  2. NOBODY QUITS IN NEW HAMPSHIRE. With Trump leading strongly in NH, every establishment contender thinks that they need to place 2nd or 3rd to lock up the panic lane. No one gets out. Rubio, as above, gets the endorsements--but EVERYONE ELSE attacks him. Jeb on "Amnesty," Kasich on experience, Christie on Rubio being a bit of a wimp. This free-for-all gives Trump a solid victory and leaves the field damaged.
  3. PANIC IN SOUTH CAROLINA. At this point Cruz is the only one running above water (other than Trump) in South Carolina. The establishment hates him--but if Trump wins all 3 early races (and is favored in Nevada, coming 3 days after SC) then it seems likely he will win the nomination. Support is thrown behind Cruz--but the other candidates, believing they can win during the more moderate Super Tuesday, refuse to drop out, each hoping others will fold first.
  4. The Omnivore runs out of popcorn (emergency!).


The current phase of the election has a lot of thrashing: people are trying to make various plays--but nothing is shaking out yet. There are probably some hidden trends that are visible now--but we're not paying much attention to. Note that, for example, Howard Dean's decline had begun even before the "Dean Scream"--it's just the "scream" that got the attention and the narrative coalesced around it. By definition, these trends-sans-narrative are hard to see--but we should pay attention to the data since it'll probably give us a better picture of what is likely to happen than any story-telling we could muster.

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