Politics

The central drama that will play out in tonight’s GOP presidential debate is how the pack of mainstream candidates, languishing in the polls, will confront Donald Trump. Trump has benefited to this point by a widely held – but so far incorrect assumption – that if you stay out of his way long enough he will eventually crash and burn. Yet, Trump has (surprisingly) proven to be more resilient as a candidate than many of us (myself included) would have ever believed, surviving a series of gaffes and missteps that would have felled a lesser candidate.

For the pack of mainstream candidates stuck in the middle (or perhaps more accurately at the bottom), the time has come to stop waiting for the inevitable collapse and push Trump into the wall. The trouble is, if Trump does crash, he’ll take several other cars with him, including the driver who forced him out the race.

Here is where a large field of candidates makes a difference: Were Trump matched with any of the other candidates in a two-person race, the strategic calculation to attack would be obvious. In a multi-candidate race, attacks are riskier as they often impose a toll on both the attacker and the attacked. The candidate that emerges from this overcrowded field may well be the candidate who stays out of (and above) the fray. Think Ben Carson or John Kasich.

But these “stuck in the middle” candidates have other strategic imperatives they must also consider. In order to continue to garner campaign contributions and build the organizations necessary to run a successful presidential campaign, they need to show that their campaigns are gaining (and not losing) momentum. The trouble confronting Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and others is that they appear to be backsliding from contenders and front-runners to also-rans. To combat this, they need a strong and assertive performance to show that their campaigns are not “low energy.”

The polls, in this sense, do matter; though it is not simply a matter of who is winning and who is losing. In mid-September, we are still in the beginning chapters of the 2016 presidential campaign. The question of who is gaining ground and who is losing ground – and who is emerging as a viable and electable candidate  –  is far more important. The early front-runners in this election cycle – Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul – need to reestablish their candidacies by making a strong claim as to why they should be the nominee.

The most direct path is to stand up the classroom bully.The risk, of course, is that Trump has proven he will hit back.

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Who Will Stand Up to Trump in the Second GOP Debate?

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Politics

Winning by Losing: The Politics of Running for President When You Have Little Chance of Winning

Watching Governor Bobby Jindal mount a quixotic campaign for president has led many observers – and not just Jindal critics – to question why run at all if you have no chance of winning.  You can ask the same question about any number of growing crowd of Republican contenders from Lindsey Graham to Chris Christie to Donald Trump.  While some of the reasons are deeply personal, there are also more systematic explanations.

First, the more candidates that enter the race – particularly in the absence of a clear frontrunner, the smaller the share of the vote any candidate needs to potentially become viable. In most national polls, Jeb Bush is leading the pack but only has 15-20 percent of the vote. As a potential candidate, you don’t need the ground to shift very dramatically to become competitive.

Second, call it the Obama Effect or the Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Santorum Effect. Many of these candidates remember that: (1) President Obama beat the established, heavily advantaged and overwhelming favorite Hillary Clinton in 2008 to win the Democratic nomination; and (2) In 2012, a number of Republican candidates emerged as the “anti-Romney” candidate for brief flicker of time but none could capitalize on the opportunity. Rick Santorum who got beat by 16-points in his last Pennsylvania Senate campaign managed the strongest and most sustained challenge. Nearly every single announced candidate this go-round is at least as strong as Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann or Rick Santorum in 2012. Their hope is to catch fire and transition into a major contender.

Third, in politics winning isn’t everything, particularly if you are focused just on the 2016 election cycle. For many of these candidates, their goals are not narrowly focused on a 2016 win but rather to emerge as a future leader of the Republican Party. Candidates like Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal can run in 2036 and still be younger than Hillary Clinton is today. Running now helps to establish an organizational presence, a funding basis for future elections, and establishes them as a potential voice for the Republican Party should Democrats win in 2016.

Fourth, winning the presidency isn’t the only “win” from running a national campaign. Any number of the candidates currently on the campaign trail will likely have cabinet level positions should a Republican win the presidency. If a Republican doesn’t win the presidency, they will be in position for television gigs on Fox News or The Blaze Network, or with national think-tanks like the Heritage Institute, the CATO Institute, or the Family Research Council. As Mike Huckabee has demonstrated, losing a presidential bid is not always a bad career move.

Finally, some candidates run not out of personal ambition but to influence the campaign agenda. The best example here may be on the Democratic side where Bernie Sanders seems unlikely to win the nomination but will almost certainly have a liberalizing impact on the Democratic Party. On the Republican side, this Republican nomination is not just about who wins, but the future direction of the party.

Overall, the question to ask then is not why are they running when they have no chance of winning, but rather what do they hope to gain out of a failed presidential bid? In most cases, there are real tangible benefits to losing a presidential nomination including (but not limited to) improving your chances for the next go around.

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Scott Walker v. Martin O’Malley in 2016? (No, Not Really, But Maybe?)

Instead of talking Jeb Bush v. Hillary Clinton in 2016, maybe we should discuss Scott Walker v. Martin O’Malley. I am not entirely serious about this but here is what we know:

  1.  The Republican Party will have a crowded field but will essentially be competing for two sets of voters. Conservatives appealing to the ideological base versus establishment candidates appealing to moderates and “practical” conservatives. Scott Walker, elected in blue-state Wisconsin and the survivor of union-led recall election, has the potential to appeal to both sets of voters.  In 2000, Republican money and organization very smartly united behind George W. Bush early in the campaign process minimizing competition. The only wrinkle was John McCain who apparently didn’t get the memo and made the nomination look potentially interesting until getting decimated by negative campaigning in South Carolina. The Republican Party heading into 2016 is considerably more chaotic making such a strategy untenable, the process far less predictable, and Jeb Bush far less inevitable.  Bush unquestionably brings a lot to the table in terms of money and organization, but he is no sure thing when it comes to the nomination.
  2. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looks unbeatable but it is worth remembering that she also looked unbeatable in 2008. The ideological base of the Democratic Party never really embraced the Clintons (Bill or Hillary) and the politics of compromise and triangulation, and has ongoing doubts about a Hillary Clinton presidency. Those doubts are starting to emerge and will be expressed more loudly and clearly as we move closer to the nomination.  The email scandal and the reemergence of Monica Lewinsky are just the beginning. While it is tempting to believe these stories will be pushed solely by Republicans, there are plenty of Democrats willing to play along.  Assuming no other serious candidates emerge, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has the potential to capture this dissatisfaction and mount a serious challenge. How serious may well depend on the deftness of the Hillary Clinton campaign and her ability to reassure doubters and unite an uncertain base.

Neither of these outcomes is particularly likely, but the field for 2016 is hardly set, and voters may well be in a mindset of rejecting “politics as usual” which means rejecting the obvious and safe political choices.

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