Wednesday, January 20, 2016


Capital Brief is back!

In the lead-up to the 2012 election, I published a one-page weekly analysis of presidential election dynamics, taking the most noteworthy evolutions of the previous week and presenting them accompanied by a concise analysis.

After the jump, read the inaugural Capital Brief of the 2016 election season, this edition focused on the GOP and Democratic debates and their aftermath.

CAPITAL BRIEF, 20 January 2016
Republican, Democratic Debates Reinforce Dynamics Without Altering Them

  • The sixth Republican debate (Jan 12) witnessed end of entente between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, with sharp attacks exchanged and Trump calling into question Cruz’s citizenship and eligibility to run. When pressed, Trump admitted to doing this (as previously with Obama) because of recent Cruz gains in the polls. The debate evoked a wide range of topics: economy, military intervention, refugees,...
  • The debate confirmed a two-tier race - led by Trump and Cruz - followed by a cluster of viable, yet less popular candidates (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich). Despite predictions that the nomination was inevitable for Jeb Bush, he has had difficulty emerging from the media shadow created by Trump and gaining ground in a race increasingly defined by anger. Observers question how long Bush’s candidacy can hold, but his money and infrastructure should help him stay long enough to have a chance at winning the nomination.
  • Then on Jan 17, the three Democratic candidates debated in South Carolina, with the focus mainly on Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Pressure was high on both sides as recent polling data showing Sanders gaining on, and even beating, Clinton in early voting states (Iowa and New Hampshire).
  • Clinton linked herself to Obama’s policies relentlessly, calculating that the president is very popular among Democrats and African American voters (dominant group of S. Carolina voters, where debate was held). She made the case of being the natural heir to Bill Clinton and Obama legacies while signaling Sanders’ policy shifts (namely on health care and gun control). Her goal was two-fold: 1- place political distance between Sanders and Obama and 2- chip away at image of Sanders as a genuine outsider, to paint him as a politician like any other.
  • Sanders attacked Clinton most fervently on her finances, questioning her commitment to the middle class while also accepting speaking fees of $600K in one year from Goldman Sachs. He argued that she is cozy with moneyed interests (Wall St.), far from the average American.
  • Overall, both Democratic candidates doubled down on traditional attacks against their opponent: Clinton as untrustworthy and inauthentic, Sanders as a fringe candidate with neither viable policy ideas nor the ability to assemble a winning coalition.

  • On the left, Clinton comfortably retains her national frontrunner status despite polling data in the early states. She is still poised to win the Obama victory coalition (minorities, women, youth) and campaigns aggressively to ensure this. She has considerable money, organization, and infrastructure. Sanders seems far from being an existential threat to Clinton’s path to the Democratic nomination. His marginal appeal is a fundamental limit, yet the extent of his power to cause Clinton problems, especially early on, remains to be seen.
  • On the right, Trump is the frontrunner, with caveats. His support remains limited: only 30% of Republican voters claim to have chosen a candidate, and less than 30% of that minority support Trump. Most pundits agree that a clear frontrunner will not emerge before April.
  • Will groups that comprise Trump’s base, invigorated by his outrage and bellicose rhetoric, formalize their support and mobilize to vote? Once voting begins, as moderates turn out and voters demand policy content, a Presidential temperament, and a viable candidate against the Democrats, will Trump be able to pass beyond bluster and impossible ideas (ex. banning all Muslims, requiring Apple to produce all products in the US)? Other candidates (Bush, Kasich, Rubio) would have the chance to make their case as electable, policy-oriented alternatives to Trump.
  • In a climate of domestic economic precariousness, complex global instability, and the question of the US’ place in the world, it is useful to recall the electoral tradition: the American people tend to vote ultimately for a president based not on doomsday proposals rooted in isolation and pessimism, but rather on construction and optimism.