24 December 2015

Pass On The Right

by J R Thomas

Rogue MaleThe more astonishing the remark, the more offensive the comment, the more the voters seem to love him.  It could only be The Donald of course; who, having managed to get more than  half a million names on a petition to ban him from setting foot on UK soil as a protest against his calls for Muslims to be banned from entering the US, turned the spotlight on to Scotland.  He accused Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of making a “rookie mistake” when she stripped Mr Trump of his membership of an elite Scottish business club, ostensibly because of remarks made by the Republican US presidential candidate about the Scottish courts after they turned down his appeal (his third) to block the construction of a wind-farm offshore from the Trump Organisation’s new prestigious golf course in Aberdeenshire.  He also called former First Minister Alex Salmond “a has been”; Mr Trump’s spokesman adding, in case anybody did not get the point, that Salmond was an embarrassment and a disgrace… “a deadbeat politician”.  For a man owning two championship golf courses in Scotland this seems to be bold language, indeed.

All this however appears to do Donald nothing but good in the polls back home.  His call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US (details not yet pencilled in) caused him to move up sharply in the polls, his national share of Republican voters leaping from 28% to 38%.  Meanwhile the rest of the field is running many lengths behind him, with Dr Carson slowly falling away through the middle teens and Messrs Cruz and Rubio rising to pass Carson, with Cruz currently the leader, narrowly.  Everybody else is well back, with Jeb Bush on 4%, as is Carly Fiorina, and several contenders now barely registering at all.

But Trump is far from the winning post yet.  And what may be a black cloud on the Trump horizon is what is happening in the two states that will poll first in the race, Iowa and New Hampshire.  In both states Trump is not doing nearly so well.  In Iowa he has given way as front runner to Ted Cruz – on 28%, to Trump on 26%, and Marco Rubio is not far behind him.  And in New Hampshire his lead is falling fast, down to 32%, but then with a three way split of Cruz, Rubio and local boy (more or less) Chris Christie splitting 40% of the vote between them.  What seems to be happening, or so Republican leaders in Washington hope, is that as the voters get nearer to actually having to make a choice, they start to take it all more seriously, and they don’t want Donald in charge.

What Republican voters may also be starting to reflect on, irrespective of what they think about The Donald, is that a vote for him might actually be a vote for Hillary.  NBC have been doing a series of polls in Iowa as to voter’s intentions in various permutations of Presidential contests.  This is not great news for Trump – or indeed Clinton.  Trump is about the one candidate Hillary can beat; by a margin of 10%.  Rubio and Carson are potential winners in this theoretical contest, with Cruz level with the lady.  What might also cause Hillary some concern is that, although she is ahead of Sanders in Iowa, the gap is narrowing, and Sanders is fourteen points ahead in New Hampshire.  If that is how thing are in the vote, Hillary is looking very vulnerable, though there is only her and Sanders in this race, O’Malley being on around 4%.  (This is before any polls after the Democrat candidate’s debate in New Hampshire on Saturday, where Hillary seemed triumphant.)

So, you might think, a victory for Sanders would give the Republicans a walkover in the Presidential?  Well, not if you believe the polls.  On that one, Sanders would beat Trump, Bush, Cruz and Carson, (just); in fact, only Rubio would emerge as President against Sanders.  (Mr Cameron, take note of the dangers of eccentric white haired lefty seniors.)

As the primaries get underway voters start to think of course – not “Who do I want in the White House” but “Who do I really not want…”.  Many Republicans detest Hillary, to the extent that they would, if they must have a Democrat President, prefer Bernie.  But there is not a lot they can do to influence that, so the next best thing is the candidate who can best beat both.  That is starting to look like Marco Rubio.  Mr Rubio should not yet be choosing curtains for the Oval Office, though.  Ted Cruz has risen fast and is an ambitious man.  He has risen by use of two factors – a manner of engaging with voters which goes down very well with them, and by stealing some of Mr Trump’s thunder – he is the acceptable face of the Tea Party, one might say (acceptable on the Republican right, anyway).  If he is to stay in the race, and not be crushed between the smooth wheels of Mr Rubio on the one side and the constantly flailing tank tracks of Mr Trump on the other, he has to navigate a more middle course.

In the end, how voters tend to behave in elections is that the party loyalists will vote, as they say, for a pig as long as it is party registered.  It is true to say that most voters are of one persuasion or the other, and rarely change their allegiance.  But there are such things as floating (undetermined) voters and even if only ten per cent of voters are floaters, that is enough to swing elections quite dramatically, especially if a number of normally loyal voters think their own candidate is untrustworthy, or over-impulsive (fill your own nominations in for those descriptions) and decide to stay at home on polling day.

So Mr Rubio looks increasingly appealing as a compromise candidate (a compromise among sixteen candidates).  His CV is remarkably like Ted Cruz’s –in his mid 40’s, happily married, a lawyer, of Cuban Latino heritage, a junior Senator (for Florida, in his case).  He rose through political activity in Miami, his home town, being elected to the Senate in 2010, where he has quickly made his mark and is noted for his speaking skills; he is a fine man with a large audience.

He had strong Tea Party support for his initial Senate run, but since then has moved away from their positions (especially on international affairs) to a more traditional mainstream Republican one, though he remains anti-regulation, low tax supporting, anti-big government, and cynical on man-made climate change.  He has managed to garner Republican hierarchy support but still somehow not seem too much of an establishment figure – essential among the present atmosphere of disaffected voters.  In short, he is an ideal candidate for mainstream Republican supporters.  The question is, are there enough of those to deliver him the nomination?

That is a serious question.  Trump might be best described as a Tea Party inclining Republican independent (as Bernie Sanders is an independent Democrat); but Cruz and Carson are both acceptable to the Tea Party.  That gives the rightist faction of the Republican coalition above half the votes in the nomination nationally, with Trump on around 38%.  So could Rubio capture, say, 40%?  As we touched on above, the answer may well turn out to be “yes”, though he will need to start winning primaries fast to capitalise on his poll showing.  If he starts to look  to be somebody who can beat Hillary or Bernie, then he starts to look like a winner and that impetus will carry him far.  He has already knocked out, so it seems, those who might have been expected to be the centrist candidate, most noticeably his fellow Floridian Jeb Bush.

The main threat (apart from The Donald finding even more insults that resonate with the Republican hard-core, which one should not discount) is probably now the ever-ambitious Mr Cruz subtly moving towards the centre until Marco and Ted start to look like identical twins.  Then how will voters distinguish between them?

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