Clinton Strong; Republican Nominating Contest in Flux

With three months to go before the first primaries, America’s parties are in very different places.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush answers questions from reporters in Hudson, New Hampshire, July 8
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush answers questions from reporters in Hudson, New Hampshire, July 8 (Michael Vadon)

Now that the first nominating contests in the United States’ presidential primaries are only a little over three months away, voters are starting to pay attention to the race to succeed Barack Obama and something meaningful might be said about the polls.

Fluctuations are still to be expected. As we pointed out in July, when property tycoon Donald Trump rose to the top of the polls on the Republican side, half a year before Iowa and New Hampshire voted in 2012 Mitt Romney was far behind fringe candidate Michele Bachmann. Even in October, businessman Herman Cain bested him in the polls. Yet Romney ended up winning the nomination.

Most voters aren’t paying serious attention yet to primaries for an election that is more than a year away. If Trump is supported by 23 percent of Republican voters, as the RealClearPolitics average of national polls suggests, it’s probably not because they’ve thought out his policy proposals (such as they are) in great detail but because his laments about the inefficacy of Obama’s administration and today’s Republican leaders in Congress resonate with a segment of the American right.

Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that will have the first go at voting for the candidates in February, should start to pay closer attention.

But at least on the right, there is still very little divergence between the national and the state polls.

In Iowa, where Republican voters tend to be more conservative than in the rest of the country, the outsiders Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Trump take a combined 50 percent of the votes, according to the RealClearPolitics averages. That corresponds with the national figures. The only notable difference is that the far-right Texas senator Ted Cruz does better in Iowa than nationally.

In moderate New Hampshire, the two most centrist candidates, Jeb Bush and John Kasich, do better than elsewhere. They both get around 8 percent support there. But the three outsiders would still take nearly one in two votes.

On the Democratic side, the story seems the reverse. Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and “establishment” choice, is more popular nationally than she is in Iowa and New Hampshire. In the former, she gets 37 percent support against 31 percent for her closest rival, the Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders. In New Hampshire, the polls even put Sanders ahead.

How much does this matter?

Those — like the Atlantic Sentinel — who believe that “the party decides” are unperturbed.

Bloomberg View‘s Jonathan Bernstein recently argued that “the” Republican Party — understood as a broad coalition of elected and party officials, donors and political insiders — is still making up its mind. The party cares about winning elections and right now, according to Bernstein, it’s not yet sure who will do best on the national stage.

The process has already doomed the aspirations of two contenders who were viable on paper. Former Texas governor Rick Perry never recovered from his poor debate performances in 2012. Incumbent Wisconsin governor Scott Walker turned out to be far less impressive than his admirers had thought. Both dropped out of the race.

If the past is a guide, Republican party actors will not only be able to defeat Donald Trump or Ben Carson; they will also likely choose from among those they like. Perhaps they’ll do that in the next several weeks or perhaps they’ll wait until the early states provide new evidence about who is electable.

The contest seems down to Bush and fellow Floridian Marco Rubio. The former has gathered the most endorsements and financial support — two ways in which “the party decides” — but the latter is ideologically closer to the Republican base.

The Washington Post reports that some top donors are worried and have warned the Bush campaign that it needs to “demonstrate growth in the polls over the next month or face serious defections among supporters.” If Bush’s financial backers lose faith in his ability to eventually break through, it could herald a shift in “the” party’s support — probably toward Rubio (even if his naive foreign policy frightens us a little).

On the Democratic side, Clinton shouldn’t worry too much. Unlike Bush, her party support — as measured in endorsements by FiveThirtyEight — is overwhelming. Sanders, by contrast, has no institutional support at all. Which isn’t surprising given that he isn’t even a Democrat. Sanders caucuses with the party in the Senate but is nominally an independent.

What the Democratic Party is looking for is a candidate who can advance its agenda and win. Clinton is the obvious choice. She is responding to left-wing enthusiasm for Sanders by moving to the left of President Obama on issues like wages and trade. But she’s also a bit more hawkish on foreign policy.

The first, as we warned this week, could hurt her in the general election. Criticizing a trade deal she previously supported, opposing an oil pipeline the very State Department she led has said is perfectly safe and calling for more regulations to protect workers plays well with environmental lobbyists and trade unions — two important Democratic constituencies. But it’s going to be less popular with middle-class voters in states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia who will likely decide the outcome of the 2016 election.

Perhaps Clinton’s more assertive foreign policy could balance that out.

The only thing that should disconcert her is that the more voters see her up close in person, the less they seem to like her — especially well-educated white voters. Low-wage workers, racial minorities and women, three other key Democratic voting blocs, are still largely on Clinton’s side. But her support from a constituency that twice helped elect Barack Obama is slipping.