Sunday, January 31, 2016

Does Iowa Matter?

I remember when Iowa first became a player in the presidential nominating process.

As I understand it, Iowa has been holding caucuses since the 1840s, but the caucuses weren't the first–in–the–nation political events they have become in presidential politics until 1972. Nothing much happened in the caucuses that year.

It was outsider Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia, who put Iowa on the political map with a strong showing in the 1976 Iowa caucuses. He didn't win. "Uncommitted" did, as it had in 1972. But Carter received more than 27% of the vote in the Democrats' caucuses, more than doubling the total of his nearest rival, and he got a lot of positive press that gave him the momentum he needed to win the nomination and, eventually, the presidency.

In the 40 years since that time, catching lightning in a bottle the way Carter did has become the holy grail for every candidate who has come into Iowa trailing significantly in the polls. Ironically, I suppose, that seldom happens, especially on the Democrats' side. Former Vice President Walter Mondale (in 1984), Vice President Al Gore (2000) and Sen. John Kerry (2004) won the Iowa caucuses as front runners and went on to win the nomination as expected — but not the general election.

Eventual nominee Michael Dukakis finished third in Iowa in 1988, and Bill Clinton polled less than 3% in the 1992 caucuses, which were won by favorite son Tom Harkin in a landslide. Sixteen years later, Clinton's wife Hillary was the front runner going into Iowa — but came in third behind Barack Obama and John Edwards.

The rest, as they say, is history, but I don't think that history repeated itself in that campaign. History, as Mark Twain said, doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

It is tempting to suggest that Obama duplicated Carter's accomplishment in 2008, but I would argue that Carter was much more of an unknown nationally than Obama. Carter also changed American politics by putting his name on every primary ballot; up to that time, candidates picked which primaries to contest. Most states picked their delegates in state conventions.

In fact, that is actually how delegates from Iowa will be chosen. The caucuses are simply the first step of a fairly lengthy process.

Carter had never held a national office when he won his party's nomination; Obama had been a U.S. senator for four years.

Plus, Obama delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention that nominated Kerry. That speech, which was given less than four months before Obama won the Senate seat from Illinois, is credited by many historians with launching Obama's national political career. Carter, to my knowledge, never appeared before a convention until he accepted the 1976 nomination.

Both, of course, went on to win the presidency, which was something Mondale, Gore and Kerry never did. But, from the perspective of becoming the party's nominee, Iowa Democrats have a fairly long history of supporting their eventual nomineess in the caucuses.

Thus, from an historical standpoint, Iowa certainly does matter for Democrats, particularly since the dawn of the 21st century. No Democrat has won the presidential nomination in the last two decades without winning the Iowa caucuses.

That makes Iowa incredibly important for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential aspirations. It is generally conceded that the Vermont senator will win New Hampshire a week from Tuesday, but to be a plausible threat to the supposedly inevitable Hillary Clinton, it is generally accepted by most political observers that Sanders must win in Iowa tomorrow.

Polls show Clinton with a lead of varying amounts. The latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll has Clinton leading by three percentage points, 45% to 42%. The poll's margin of error is 4%.

Clinton's lead is outside the margins of error in the latest Public Policy Polling survey, where Clinton has 48% to Sanders' 40%, and the latest Gravis Marketing poll, where Clinton is exceeding 50%.

Before that, the NBC News/WSJ/Marist Poll found Clinton leading by 48% to 45%, which is within that poll's margin of error, and a Monmouth University poll found Clinton leading 47% to 42%, which is outside that poll's margin of error (but only by about half a percentage point).

Clearly, anything could happen, and observers say a high turnout could make the race even tighter. That may depend on whether snow strikes Iowa during tomorrow night's caucuses. Currently, there is a less than 50% chance of snow in most of Iowa's major cities tomorrow night with the greatest chance for snow coming after midnight. So caucus goers may dodge the bullet, and turnout may be high. We'll see if that is good news for Sanders.

Yes, Iowa Democrats clearly have a history of endorsing their party's eventual nominee. Republicans? Not so much.

On the Republican side, victory in Iowa has meant little in the overall scheme of things. Since 1980, only two winners of the Republican nomination have won in Iowa's GOP caucuses — Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. Rick Santorum won Iowa in 2012. Mike Huckabee won Iowa in 2008. Dole beat George H.W. Bush in Iowa in 1988, and George H.W. Bush beat Ronald Reagan in Iowa in 1980.

When a party has an incumbent running for re–election, that party usually doesn't hold caucuses> The Democrats of 1980 were an exception to that rule. Then–President Carter defeated Edward Kennedy, 59% to 31%, in the Iowa caucuses that year. Since then, Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and both Bushes were not challenged in Iowa.

According to recent polls, it could be just about anyone's caucus on the GOP side. Donald Trump was trailing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in Iowa at one point, but he seems to have pulled ahead following former vice–presidential nominee Sarah Palin's endorsement. The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll showed Trump with a five–point lead over Cruz — just outside its margin of error. The latest Gravis Marketing poll reported that Trump has a four–point lead, right on that poll's margin of error.

Trump enjoys leads of seven and eight points in the NBC News/WSJ/Marist Poll and Public Policy Polling survey.

Now because of the history of Iowa's Republican presidential caucuses, it seems that anyone who really wants to win the nomination would not want to finish first in Iowa. Historically Republicans who won the battle in Iowa wound up losing the war for the nomination.

Finishing in the top four has been best — Reagan came in second in Iowa in 1980, George H.W. Bush was third in 1988, and John McCain was fourth in 2008. No, you certainly don't have to win in Iowa to win the nomination, but apparently it is necessary to finish in double digits in Iowa if you want to be the standard bearer. If your share of the Iowa caucus vote is less than 10%, you probably won't be the nominee.

So that is my bottom line on the caucuses. Who won on the Democrats' side? That probably will be the party's nominee. Who won on the Republican side? That probably will not be the party's nominee.

Well, that is what history says. But students of political history never would have believed that someone with no political experience would be running so far ahead of his rivals for the Republican nomination. Donald Trump is an enigma — and even if he wins tomorrow night, that does not mean he will be denied the nomination.

At this point, the only thing of which I am certain is that, if not this week, then certainly next week (after the New Hampshire primary), we will start to see candidates dropping out of the races. Sanders may last to Super Tuesday or beyond if he can win Iowa. If not, he may be a casualty; former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is almost sure to be finished after New Hampshire.

On the Republican side, Jeb Bush is likely to remain in the race no matter what happens. He still has more than enough money to finance a run through the spring primaries. But those who finish in single digits in Iowa or New Hampshire or both will be re–evaluating their situations, and my guess is that, by the middle of February, the Republican race will be down to a more manageable five or six candidates. That group is likely to include Trump, Cruz, Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, possibly Chris Christie and maybe someone else.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Two Weeks to Go Until Iowa Caucuses

I have mentioned here before that I have little faith in polls except for the ones in which actual voters participate on Election Day.

And the first such actual vote will take place two weeks from today in Iowa — where it won't be an actual vote, as in a primary. It will be a caucus, and results from caucuses are less precise than those from primaries.

Until that happens, though, we really won't know if the polls are right or wrong. For now, the polls are all we have, whether the findings turn out to be accurate or not.

Another point about caucuses: Participating in one require more — much more — of a commitment of one's time than merely walking into a voting booth and selecting the candidates for whom one wishes to vote so caucuses are notorious for attracting the diehards, the extremists. Consequently, it would not surprise me if the extreme element among Iowa's Democrats hand a victory to Bernie Sanders.

Earlier in 2015, Sanders was far behind Hillary Clinton in Iowa polls. But that was months before the caucus — and Hillary has had some setbacks — and the latest polls show the race tightening. Just in time for the caucus.

Hillary still leads in the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll, but only by two points, 42% to 40% — and that falls within the poll's margin of error.

Sanders leads in the latest Quinnipiac University poll, 49% to 44%.

I guess Hillary can take some solace in the fact that she leads in the latest CBS/New York Times poll, 48% to 41%, although that lead shows some slippage.

For Hillary backers who are nostalgic for the days of summer, Gravis Marketing finds Hillary leading, 57% to 36%.

I wouldn't count on anything that lopsided, though.

On the Republican side, the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll finds Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas leading Donald Trump by three points, 25% to 22%.

But as much as Trump has appeared to be preparing his followers for a defeat, I think he may actually be trying to lower expectations so the victory he anticipates will be that much more meaningful. Gravis Marketing has Trump in front by six points, 34% to 28%. Public Policy Polling says Trump is ahead but by a narrower margin, 28% to 26%.

I'm thinking we could be in for a couple of cliffhangers two weeks from tonight.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Rubber Hits the Road

The past, as they say, is prologue, and the changing of the calendar to the official start of a presidential election year brings a new seriousness to the pursuits of the parties' presidential nominations.

All that went before was little more than strutting and posturing. The party campaigns were popularity contests last year, entertaining but, once the holidays are over and the primaries loom on the horizon, the rhetoric becomes strangely irrelevant.

Participation is what is relevant, and that is a whole other thing.

The people who participate in the voting that will matter — the contests that will assign the actual delegates who will be voting at this summer's conventions — will be highly motivated, especially the ones who participate in the caucuses. They are very different from primaries.

If you live in a caucus state, you must get organized with like–minded folks so you can make an effective case for your candidate at the caucus. Caucus goers often have to devote several hours to their caucus — as opposed to those who vote in primaries, in which you may have to stand in line for awhile but, eventually, you will only spend a brief period in the polling booth — and you will do so alone. With the extended voting periods in so many states, if you plan it well, you can walk right in, vote and walk back out in a matter of minutes. I know. I've done it.

Taking part in either a primary or a caucus does require a level of commitment that not everyone is willing to make. Those are the only poll results I want to see. It doesn't really mean anything until people start voting in primaries or caucuses.

The people who attend political rallies may be registered to vote, but registered voters and likely voters are two different breeds altogether.

It doesn't take much commitment to attend a political rally. Donald Trump has been drawing thousands to his rallies, but many in the crowds are those who, while they may be registered to vote, do not tend to make a habit of voting. Thus, they are not likely voters.

Of course, the same could be said of many who attended Ross Perot's rallies in 1992, but in the end Perot brought nearly 20 million Americans into the electoral process. It remains to be seen if Trump's supporters can match Perot's in terms of commitment.

And we'll start finding out in three weeks, when Iowa holds its caucuses.

The closer we get to actual voting, the more pollsters seem to be moving in the direction of differentiating between merely registered voters and likely voters.

Reach Communications' most recent survey ahead of the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary was conducted with Republicans and independents who said they would be voting in the primary. Donald Trump led by 20 percentage points. Fox News' most recent poll was with likely voters, who are determined through a series of screening questions. That survey showed Trump with an 18–point lead.

Public Policy Polling's latest survey — also conducted among likely voters — shows Trump with a 14–point lead.

The Trump–Ted Cruz battle in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses could be fierce. The most recent Gravis Marketing survey in Iowa was conducted in December, but it, too, emphasized those who were likely to participate. It found Trump and Cruz tied at 31% apiece.

"Many more people say they will vote than actually do," observes the Gallup Organization at its website, "so it is not sufficient to simply ask people whether they will vote."

Gallup's screening questions are:
Thought given to election (quite a lot, some)
Know where people in neighborhood go to vote (yes)
Voted in election precinct before (yes)
How often vote (always, nearly always)
Plan to vote in 2016 election (yes)
Likelihood of voting on a 10-point scale (7-10)
Voted in last presidential election (yes)

Each pollster uses its own screening questions, but the process is essentially the same from one to another.

My guess is that, as we get closer to each primary or caucus, the polls from each state will be conducted with likely voters.

And that is when we will start to get an idea whether a candidate's support has any real depth to it.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

R.I.P., Dale Bumpers

Dale Bumpers must be a patron saint for anyone who dreams of coming from nowhere and winning whatever the greatest prize in that person's chosen profession happens to be. Bumpers' profession — his calling, if you choose to call it that — was in politics.

He may not be the patron saint of all such people, though. Jimmy Carter, who overcame low name recognition to win the presidency, must hold that title for presidential aspirants. But for those with low name recognition who seek lesser offices, well, they couldn't do better than to have Bumpers on their side.

I spent most of the first 30 years of my life in Arkansas, and it often seemed as if Bumpers, who died Friday at the age of 90, had always been a part of the state's political scene, but the truth was that he spent the first 18 years of his career, after serving in World War II and then studying law at Northwestern, in virtual obscurity as a mostly unknown city attorney in the town where he was born — Charleston, a village in Northwest Arkansas.

He entered state politics in 1970 as a Democratic candidate for governor. The incumbent was a Republican so the Democratic primary was crowded. Bumpers was polling at 1% when he entered the race, but he elbowed his way into a runoff with former Gov. Orval Faubus and won it easily. Then, in the general election, he handily defeated the incumbent, Winthrop Rockefeller, in the process earning the reputation of political giant killer.

That wasn't the last giant he toppled, either. In 1974, after serving two two–year terms as governor, Bumpers challenged five–term Sen. Bill Fulbright in the primary and won by a 2–to–1 margin. He went on to serve four terms in the U.S. Senate.

His most memorable moment in the Senate most likely came a few weeks after his retirement from it in 1999, when he was asked to deliver a closing argument in Bill Clinton's Senate impeachment trial. "H.L. Mencken said one time, 'When you hear somebody say, 'This is not about the money,' it's about the money," Bumpers said. "And when you hear somebody say, 'This is not about sex,' it's about sex."

I always love it when someone works in a quote from Mencken.

Bumpers was frequently mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, and I always thought he would have been a good one. He did whatever he thought was right, not what he thought would win him votes. It's my understanding that, even after serving as governor and senator over a period of nearly 30 years, the accomplishment of which he was most proud was playing an important role in the integration of the school district in his hometown — the first in the old Confederacy.

He always had a sunny disposition, whether he actually believed what he said or not. The thing was that he could make others believe it.

I recall when I was on the faculty of the University of Oklahoma, and I attended a lecture being given by former Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, the year Bumpers was re–elected governor in a landslide. After the lecture, I went up to McGovern to introduce myself and shake his hand. I told him I had seen him once, late in that '72 campaign when he made a brief stop at the Little Rock airport, and a crowd of both the curious and the committed gathered in a hangar to see him.

McGovern told me he remembered that stop because Bumpers had assured him he would carry Arkansas when the votes were counted about a week later. It didn't work out that way. Richard Nixon carried 69% of the vote, the first time in precisely one century that Arkansas voted for a Republican for president. It has now done so in all but three of the 10 presidential elections that have been held since — and native son Clinton was the Democrats' nominee in two of those elections.

But through that transition, Bumpers continued to win elections. When he was elected governor, observers speculated that he would be one of a new breed of Southern governors — a group that, at the time, included the likes of Jimmy Carter of Georgia. Carter, as I have pointed out, enjoyed his own meteoric rise when he came from nowhere in 1976 to win the presidency. Bumpers later said he had long believed that 1976 was his best opportunity to be elected president.

Bumpers was often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, but the talk seemed to be loudest in 1980 and 1984. He declined to enter the race both times. I always thought he would have been successful because he had qualities that served Ronald Reagan so well — that sunny disposition I mentioned and remarkable oratorical skills. On a few occasions as a reporter, I covered Bumpers speaking at Labor Day Fish Fries and Chamber of Commerce luncheons in Arkansas, and I always marveled at his speaking style. It was so engaging, so folksy.

He had a real knack for connecting with people, regardless of their political philosophies. It is why in these last couple of days since his death, both Democrats and Republicans in Arkansas have been speaking highly of Bumpers and his ability to reach across the aisle.

Of course, the political landscape in Arkansas has changed considerably since Bumpers was governor. In those days, reaching across the aisle wasn't really the issue. Democrats held nearly every seat in the state legislature, but Bumpers still had to build a consensus on most issues. The legislature had conservative Democrats, liberal Democrats and moderate Democrats. It was the same challenge that Bumpers' Democratic successors, David Pryor (who followed Bumpers to the Senate four years later) and Bill Clinton, faced as governor.

All three understood that it is necessary for each side to give a little, to compromise if great things are to be accomplished. They may not be quite as great as each side envisioned, but they will be better than doing nothing.

Arkansas was fortunate to be governed by such men in times of tremendous change — and doing nothing was not an option.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Jeb's Hail Mary

There was a time when Jeb Bush was regarded as the Republican Party's front–runner for the 2016 nomination — a prospect that elicited groans across the political spectrum. No one, it seemed, relished the idea of another Bush–Clinton campaign — even though, to be old enough merely to remember the first one, never mind the issues of the campaign, I imagine one would have to be at least 30 years old.

Nor, for that matter, did many people seem to be enthusiastic about the prospect of a third Bush presidency.

But that was before Donald Trump came along, seized the lead and held on to it for months, defying gravity in a political environment that has long been accustomed to seeing a front–runner of the week in races for the Republican nomination.

Meanwhile Jeb has been sinking like a stone in a pond. The former front–runner has been mired in single digits in the polls for weeks now.

I continue to believe, as I always have, that polls conducted in the early stages of presidential nominating contests mean little. I have seen too many front–runners falter. Most of the time, the front–runner winds up winning ... but not always. That is why early polls mean little to me. They're usually about name recognition and little else (which makes it telling, I suppose, that so many Democrats choose someone other than Hillary Clinton, who was first lady for eight years, senator for another eight and secretary of state for four, or continue to say they are undecided when asked their preference in 2016).

It's what people do when they are in the privacy of the voting booth that matters.

So I prefer to wait until people actually start voting before I begin the process of deciding for whom I will vote. And, being an independent, I don't tend to vote in primaries, anyway. So I can wait until the parties have made their decisions before I choose a candidate to support — if I do.

But I'm in the minority on that one, I suppose. It never fails to amaze me — the faith that people place in polls conducted more than a year before an election is to be held and how so many things — chiefly financial and popular support — ride on something that can be as imprecise as public opinion polling.

Bush's latest move should come as no surprise. He is redeploying his resources away from ad buys and boots on the ground in Iowa and South Carolina and focusing on New Hampshire (where recent polls conducted by American Research Group and CBS News/YouGov show Bush in single digits) and some other early primaries.

(That's another thing about presidential politics that I have always found troubling — how something as important as a major party's nomination for the presidency of the greatest nation on earth can hinge on the electoral whims of the voters in a state — New Hampshire — with a total population that is only slightly larger and much less diverse than the city in which I live — Dallas. But that is another subject for another day.)

Bush's decision is a desperation move. You can call it that, or you can use other names for it — a "Hail Mary" or a by–the–seat–of–your–pants strategy. Whatever you call it, the Bush campaign is struggling and needs something to give it some juice. That will be easier said than done.

"The decision will keep Bush from paying for roughly $3 million of reserved TV time in January," explains Ed O'Keefe in the Washington Post, "a little more than $1 million in Iowa, just under $2 million in South Carolina."

See? It's a dollars–and–cents thing, pure and simple.

But South Carolina will be the second primary on the Republican calendar. New Hampshire votes in its first–in–the–nation primary on Feb. 9 a week after the caucuses in Iowa (where a Gravis Marketing poll shows Bush with only 4%); South Carolina (where the most recent CBS News/YouGov poll has Bush at 7%, far behind Trump and Ted Cruz) votes two weeks later. I presume that, if Bush rallies and wins in New Hampshire, he will re–redeploy resources to South Carolina.

That is the essence of the "Hail Mary" strategy. You do it, and, if it succeeds, you will probably have to do it again — and perhaps again. Football teams that have to go to the "Hail Mary" often need to make up more than one score. The romanticized vision of the "Hail Mary" is a single long pass, like the one Roger Staubach threw in the playoffs 40 years ago, but the realistic one is that it is more like the "domino theory" of presidential politics

That will be Bush's last chance to establish some momentum before the March 1 "Super Tuesday" primaries in 10 states — Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia. That is the big day, and my guess is that several campaigns will come to an end within days of Super Tuesday — unless each state votes for someone different, and that doesn't seem likely to happen.

But that suggests faith that the polls are right, and they may not be. They may be overstating Donald Trump's support (which may be made apparent as we move into the post–holiday phase when, per the conventional wisdom, voters start paying closer attention to the candidates), or they may be, as I wrote recently, understating it.

Even if Bush survives until Super Tuesday, he has other problems that he has to hope stronger–than–expected showings in New Hampshire and South Carolina will help to resolve. Polls in Super Tuesday states don't have good news for the Bush campaign — if they voted today. In Massachusetts, a Boston Globe/Suffolk poll has Bush in fourth place with 7%, 25 points behind Trump. In Oklahoma, the most recent Sooner Poll has Bush at 2%.

There are, of course, still three states that have not chosen dates for their primaries — Maine, North Dakota and Wyoming — but even if they schedule their primaries on one of the other days when multiple primaries will be held, there still will be no other day when as many states vote as Super Tuesday.

That will be the real Hail Mary for those who win — as well as those who survive — in New Hampshire and South Carolina.