Tonight is the beginning of the end. Finally, after a long slog of a campaign for the 2016 presidential election, we will start having conversations around actual votes instead of guesswork. So let’s get in one last guess about how this is going to go down before this field narrows.
First, a quick look at the candidates (skip down for my predictions).
Bernie Sanders is a self-declared “democratic socialist,” espousing a kind of Rousseauian revolutionary vision in which the egalitarian “will of the people” is achieved through a large, powerful government. This “progressive” argument is 150+years old. Of course, this requires one to believe that A) our lives should be governed by the opinions of a majority, B) the majority wants a socialist society fundamentally different from American values, and C) that a large, powerful government is capable of serving the interests of the people in the first place. But if you think businesspeople and wealthy people are generally corrupt and there’s really no such thing as property rights or limited government, Bernie is your guy.
Hillary Clinton is a more moderate Democrat—or as moderate as you can be and still win in today’s climate. One can argue that her greatest asset is her experience in Washington. One can also argue that her greatest weakness is her experience in Washington. She is the icon of the “establishment” candidate, having operated at the top rungs of Washington politics for decades. For these reasons and others, people simply do not trust her, and those cautions are being validated by scandals surfacing before she has even clenched the nomination. That is going to be a big problem in the general election.
Donald Trump is the strong man who, like Sanders, plays on fear, anger, and ignorance. His target audience: anyone who is pissed off and feels like our country in on the wrong track because of political correctness and Those Damn Politicians. His message: we’re going to tell it like it is, take out the garbage, and get things done. He has all the markings of a self-aggrandizing tyrant, with the support of a surprisingly large contingent of evangelicals. Trump’s campaign isn’t about conservatism—he pulls support from the far right, the middle, and even some on the left—but best described as a coalition of late-aged, low-income white men without a college education. But Trump’s weakness is that everyone who doesn’t love him hates him, so he is unlikely to gain any further support.
Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio may appear that they are running in seperate lanes, but these are both principled conservatives that are further to the right than any Republican nominee for at least the last 20 years. Recall that Rubio upset the Florida race for Senator by beating the Republican incumbent on the Tea Party wave of 2010. Their differences are less about philosophy than tactics. Rubio is the pragmatic type who is willing to compromise and work across the aisle to solve problems in the most conservative way he believes is achievable. Cruz prefers an all-or-nothing approach and demonstrates a flair for painting in bold colors—particularly if a camera is nearby. A legal scholar with perhaps a deeper and more acute understanding of the Constitution than any candidate in recent memory, Cruz is genuinely committed to his convictions and has bet his career on his firebrand, no-compromise style, and his promise to challenge the way of Washington. Admittedly, he’s been quite successful so far, thanks to superb strategic deftness, but it has earned him many enemies, and a large portion of the electorate finds his antics off-putting.
Jeb Bush was the most promising candidate at the beginning of the race. To the powerbrokers in the GOP, he looked great on paper: a successful governor of a purple state, member of a political dynasty, more polished than his elder brother, positions that would appeal to moderates and independents, and—to top it off—he speaks fluent Spanish, apparently the secret ingredient to attract the highly-coveted latino vote. But it was a political calculation destined to fail. The last name alone was a hurdle, and he turned out to be far less exciting and articulate than younger—and actually latino—alternatives. When challenged in debates, he appeared weak and unprepared.
Ben Carson is a world-class surgeon with principled conservative beliefs, and not much else. What makes him appealing is his calm, Christian demeanor, in contrast to the brashness of Trump, Cruz, and just about all of conservative talk radio. He is reassuring and intelligent, preferring to attack ideas with sharp words instead of loud ones. But for all of his good graces, Carson is incredibly inexperienced, lacking knowledge and proven skill in either politics or business. This left him vulnerable to attacks, and when the spotlight turned his way he withered.
Rand Paul continues to carry the libertarian banner of his father, albeit with a less obstructive, hard-lined approach. But that approach is precisely what made the Paul brand work. Without it, he loses the enthusiasm of some of Ron Paul’s followers without gaining among moderates who we just as well see Ted Cruz in the White House. Rand hasn’t performed all that well in debates, and his reticent take on foreign policy has been his largest weakness in gaining viability—particularly as terror groups increase in strength. Paul would do well as a peacetime presidential candidate, but the nation is looking for someone who can speak boldly and carry a big stick.
That about sums up the candidates who I expect to have a decent showing in Iowa.
On the left, Sanders will take Iowa in a highly unexpected re-run of 2008 when Obama stole the show from Hillary Clinton. I don’t see Bernie being the nominee, but it’s going to build momentum for the campaign and America is going to take a good hard look at herself.
Such a self-examination would also be called for if Trump wins on the Republican side, though I’m going to make a bold prediction that this isn’t going to happen—despite all polls showing him with a strong lead. Instead, both Cruz and Rubio are going to make a stronger-than-expected showing in first and third place, respectively, while Trump comes in at a close second.
If this happens, we’re going to see this race turn quickly into a Cruz-Rubio showdown, and my guess is that Trump isn’t willing to accept the “loser” label any longer than necessary and he’ll quit when the prospects turn south. In the event that Trump does come first in Iowa, it’ll be by narrow margins, and might spell the end of Cruz’s campaign. Either way, Rubio ends up on one end of a two-man race.
As for the rest, Kasich and Christie will be in single digits, and folks like Huckabee, Santorum, and Fiorina are already finished. If they don’t drop out this week, they will after New Hampshire.
Looking far out into the land of impossible predictions, I’m betting the next few months are going to play out as follows: Cruz or Trump will become the representative of those who passionately feel that this is the time for a bold, no-compromise leader. Rubio will become the more electable, yet still solidly conservative alternative. In the end, the candidate will be the one people trust at a gut level, and I think Rubio is going to pull ahead with a message that feels more genuine, more optimistic, and less radical. Additionally, he will have the support of the so-called establishment, and that remains a significant advantage.
Rubio will get the nomination and will subsequently beat Hillary Clinton in November.