Sunday, February 28, 2016

It's Official Now

As expected, Hillary Clinton scored a resounding victory over Bernie Sanders in yesterday's South Carolina primary.

And, as I have observed in recent weeks, the winner of the South Carolina Democrat and Republican primaries almost always goes on to win the nomination for president.

If you're looking for a political bellwether, at least at this stage of a presidential campaign, it's hard to find one that is better than South Carolina.

Thus, it is likely that we now know who will be the major parties' standard bearers in the fall — but, of course, we really didn't need South Carolina for that, did we? I mean, didn't we already know it would be Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton?

And, indeed, those are the candidates who won the endorsements of South Carolina's voters.

Mathematically, of course, neither Trump nor Clinton has anywhere near enough committed delegates to be absolutely assured of nomination, but both can take a giant step forward in that regard a couple of days from now when 10 states vote on "Super Tuesday." There will also be one state caucus in each party.

Polls show Trump and Clinton leading in most of them. If those polls prove to be accurate, historically speaking, it's a done deal, and that will spare voters in the remaining primaries the onslaught of media attention and advertising to which the earlier primary and caucus participants have been subjected. For the folks who vote later in the political calendar, I'm sure that will be cause for much rejoicing.

But is that really a good thing?

The only matters left will be the formality of the votes at the conventions and the selections of the nominees' running mates.

The selection of a running mate, of course, is always regarded as the first presidential–level decision a presumptive nonincumbent nominee must make. It is rarely as consequential as it is made to seem, but there certainly have been times, particularly when there was no incumbent in the race, when the choice of a running mate has made a difference.

In 2008, for example, John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin was panned while Barack Obama's choice of Joe Biden was seen as being presidential. Polls remained close until the economic implosion, but the choice of Biden did seem to give the Democrats a boost.

Twenty years earlier, the whole thing seemed to be unimportant to voters. George H.W. Bush's choice of Dan Quayle could not compete with the stature of Michael Dukakis' choice, Lloyd Bentsen, but that did not seem to matter to voters. For the only time since World War II, voters voted for the same party for a third straight time, largely because the majority of voters wanted a third term for term–limited Ronald Reagan.

Speculation about the running mates can be pretty intense when there is so much time to fill. There is usually little else about which political writers care to write in the time they must fill before the convention, and everything in the process becomes magnified. You know what they say about idle hands ...

The earlier the nomination battle is decided, the longer the speculation about running mates is apt to be.

That is why it may be best for everyone, including the candidates, if the nominations are still undetermined for awhile.

But there are problems with that, too. If a campaign goes on until the end of the primary calendar, as it did in 2008, it leaves less time for the nominee to make the choice — and increases the likelihood that a mistake will be made.

So it may be that the fact that the likely nominees are known at this stage will be beneficial. At least they can begin vetting vice–presidential prospects before whittling it to a short list that can be paraded before the media at the appropriate time.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Palmetto Principles Part II

"There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other."

Madeleine Albright

I don't know if they have early voting in South Carolina. If they do, then some of the state's Democrats have undoubtedly voted by now. If not, then they will be showing up at the polls today.

By nightfall, we should know whether Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders won — and, if the polls are accurate, Clinton is likely to win by a wide margin.

And, as I observed last week ahead of the Republican primary, that will be important — because of what it has meant in recent history.

It was important, of course, who won the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. But those states have had poor records in recent presidential election years. Seldom has the eventual nominee won in those states. Not so in South Carolina. Since 1980, Mitt Romney has been the only Republican nominee who did not win the South Carolina primary.

Democrats have only been holding primaries in South Carolina since 1992, but in those six previous primaries, John Kerry was his party's only eventual nominee who did not win the South Carolina primary. Like Romney, Kerry lost to a Southerner — John Edwards from neighboring North Carolina (Romney lost to Newt Gingrich from Georgia on the state's southern border).

Interestingly, both Romney and Kerry held political office in Massachusetts. In fact, they were in office at the same time. Romney was governor of Massachusetts, and Kerry represented the state in the Senate alongside Ted Kennedy.

The important point, though, is the state's success rate in picking nominees.

Virginia is known as the "Birthplace of Presidents" because eight of the 43 men who have been president were born within that state's boundaries — including four of the first five, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.

Perhaps South Carolina should be known as the "Birthplace of Presidencies." Every president since 1980 has won his party's primary in that state.

That should be good news for whoever wins there tonight — and, as I say, the polls indicate that it will be Clinton by a wide margin.

The Emerson Poll released a survey yesterday that showed Clinton with 60% and Sanders with 37%. The poll credited black voters for giving Clinton such a comfortable lead. Black voters account for more than half of the state's Democrats, and the Emerson Poll reported that more than seven of 10 black voters support Clinton.

No one ever disputed that the black vote would be critical for winning in South Carolina's Democratic primary, but their support won't be enough to win South Carolina in November. South Carolina's overall black population accounts for less than 28% of the state's entire population.

Of course, Sanders can't rely on young voters as he has in other places — and up to this point, he has one decisive win and two narrow defeats in this election season. Young voters (ages 18 to 34) account for 23% of the population in South Carolina, and the other age demographic that has been reasonably receptive to Sanders' message has been voters between the ages of 35 and 64 — the state's largest age group (39%).

Their support hasn't been as lopsided as it has been with younger voters — but it has been more dependable at the polls.

The most dependable age demographic, though, is voters 65 and older. Only 15% of the state's residents are in that category — but older voters are more likely to vote than any other group, and they have been supporting Clinton.

The Clemson University Palmetto Poll reports Clinton with 64% and Sanders with 14%, running behind undecided at 22%.

It doesn't seem like much has changed since last week, when the NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll showed Clinton with 60% and Sanders with 32%.

Of course, polls aren't the same thing as actual votes — a point I have made repeatedly on this blog. So let's wait and see what happens tonight.

Everyone expects a big victory for Clinton — and, frankly, so do I. But nothing is official until they count the votes.

I haven't seen any polls of South Carolina's Democratic women. I suspect that many of the younger women, like their peers in those other states, are supporting Sanders, but their numbers probably won't be as great as their mothers' generation — or their grandmothers' — and the older women are the ones who are likely, it seems to me, to be supporting Clinton.

It will be interesting to see what the exit polls reveal about the women's vote.

I must say that I am perplexed by the rush to anoint nominees after only four states have cast their votes — and none of those states are likely to make a difference in the general election unless it is an extremely tight race. If it is as close as Bush–Gore was in 2000, then any one of the four could make a difference.

But photo finishes like that don't come along very often. In a country where more than 100 million people are likely to vote in November, more often than not the outcome is more decisive than that. In my lifetime, I have witnessed more landslides than cliffhangers.

Most of the states that will be big prizes in the fall vote late in the primary season — when nominees typically are unofficially their parties' standard bearers. Notice I said "big prizes," but I didn't say they would be up for grabs. Many of the big states are going to vote for one party or the other, no matter who the nominee is. I live in Texas, where no Democratic nominee has won since Jimmy Carter in 1976. In fact, few have come close.

Unless you're 30 or older, you probably have no memory of a time when California was not reliably Democratic. It last voted Republican in 1988. In fact, until Bill Clinton was elected president, California had only voted for Democrats twice since the end of World War II. California has now voted for Democrats six straight times — and probably will make it seven this fall.

Texas will vote in next Tuesday's "Super Tuesday" primary, but California, as usual, will vote late in the process — when the nomination has already been secured by someone.

Most big states won't have much of a say in the nominating process — and that strikes me as foolish. Shouldn't both parties want to sound out the voters in the big states before the nominees are chosen? Wouldn't it help their cause in the general election? California alone offers one–fifth of the electoral votes a candidate needs to win the election.

Well, the general election is still a little more than eight months away, and the name of the game is perception. After four small states have voted, we're all ready to crown the champs. I guess we will find out how the big states feel in November.

Of course, if Sanders somehow manages to stay close, that could have a ripple effect in next week's primaries. And all bets would be off.

We should know by tonight.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Teaching By Example

I've been wanting to write about Melissa Click, the now former professor at the University of Missouri, for some time now.

I just haven't really known what to say.

That is what this is all about, you see. Freedom of speech. That is really what we as journalists — and I still count myself as a journalist even though I am no longer working in the field — are meant to defend in this country. Among other things. We are expected to be and to do many things in America, although, sadly, many of today's professional journalists have lost sight of their responsibility.

In my mind, freedom of speech and freedom of the press go hand in hand. I can't remember a time when I did not feel that way, and I can't imagine having one without the other.

The case of Melissa Click is troubling because she is the assistant mass media communications professor who was seen in the memorable video calling for "some muscle" to prevent a student journalist from reporting on a campus protest in November. She was fired this week — and rightfully so.

Click was not a journalism professor per se. But I am sure she worked with journalism students — newspaper, TV, radio, digital — as a professor of mass media communications. I always wanted to attend Mizzou. It was one of the finest journalism schools in the country when I was college age. While I haven't consulted college rankings by department recently, I'm pretty sure it still is.

It is inconceivable to me that a professor of mass media communications would not interact with journalism students at such a school.

In Click's mind, I am reasonably sure that she felt — at that moment — that she was defending freedom of speech. But what did that video tell her journalism students about her commitment to freedom of the press?

I don't know which classes she taught, but I hope she didn't teach one on the Constitution and journalism.

The protest was being held on a public university campus. The press had every right to be there, but Click did not want the press to be there. So she called for "some muscle" to rid her of that pesky press.

I wonder why Richard Nixon never tried that.

I guess the First Amendment is a problem for some people who are in the public eye. But I believe, as I say, that you can't have freedom of speech without freedom of the press and vice versa.

Since the video at the top of this post surfaced, I have been trying to reconcile her actions with that belief.

And I can't.

I wish her well. I'm not vindictive. But I am glad that she is no longer teaching those who seek careers in mass media.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Of Caucuses and Primaries and Conventional Wisdom and Bellwethers

One of the things that makes American politics so fascinating is the fact it is constantly evolving. Something is always conventional wisdom — until it isn't.

For example, conventional wisdom once held that a candidate for president who had been divorced could not be elected president. A noteworthy example is Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, who was nominated by the Democrats in 1952 and 1956 but lost both times. He had been divorced in the late 1940s — and did not marry again — and most of the books I have read about Stevenson and presidential politics indicate that his divorce was an obstacle he could never overcome in the more puritanical environment of the 1950s.

But I wouldn't rule out other contributing factors, such as:

When Stevenson ran in 1952, Democrats had held the White House for 20 years, and incumbent Harry Truman's popularity was mired in the 20s, according to Gallup. Voter fatigue was likely a strong factor.

Stevenson's opponent in 1952 was war hero Dwight Eisenhower, who was less than 10 years removed from his triumph in World War II. The amiable, popular Eisenhower was seeking a second term in 1956. That was likely another strong factor.

Stevenson was perceived as an intellectual; while that had appeal for some, it was seen as elitist by blue–collar voters. Yet another strong factor.

Divorce was still a problem for would–be presidents in the '60s. It was problematic for New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in 1960, 1964 and 1968, but not necessarily a permanent problem. In 1960 his problem had not been divorce but Vice President Richard Nixon. Between 1960 and 1964, however, Rockefeller was divorced from his wife of more than 30 years. Divorce was still an issue in many places, but, as historian Theodore H. White observed at the time, "American politics can accept divorce: for every four new marriages each year, one old marriage breaks up. ... Divorced candidates get elected and re–elected in American life; and even after his divorce Nelson Rockefeller was re–elected."

But, White went on to observe, "Remarriage ... complicates even more the political problem," and Rockefeller's remarriage definitely complicated his presidential campaigns in 1964 and 1968.

Rockefeller did become vice president. When Gerald Ford, the first to be appointed vice president under the provisions of the 25th Amendment, became president after Richard Nixon's resignation, he nominated Rockefeller to take his place. But when Ford was nominated in 1976 for a full four–year term as president, Rockefeller was not his running mate.

It was ironic, I suppose, that, while Ford was never divorced, his wife Betty had been married and divorced prior to her marriage to the future president.

Four years later, divorce and remarriage were not issues at all when Ronald Reagan sought and won the presidency. He had been divorced in 1949 and remarried in 1952, but he was elected president twice by landslides.

In 2016, divorce and remarriage clearly are not part of the political equation. The apparent Republican front–runner, Donald Trump, has been divorced twice and is on his third marriage.

Today, conventional wisdom is being challenged in other more — shall we say? — conventional ways. In truth, conventional wisdom is always being challenged — sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Eight years ago, conventional wisdom still held that a black man could not win the presidency. In my grandparents' America — and even my parents' America — that was so. It is so no more.

And, in my grandparents' America and my parents' America, the primary in tiny New Hampshire always played a significant role in the selection of a presidential nominee. New Hampshire only chooses a handful of delegates in its primary, though; alone, they are unlikely to influence the eventual decision at the convention unless the vote is very tight. The primary's real value is in the media attention and perceived momentum it gives the winners.

And much of that was due to New Hampshire's reputation for choosing the ultimate winner of the general election.

It is important to remember that presidential primaries are largely post–World War II creations. For much of our history, the delegates who selected presidential nominees at their parties' conventions were chosen by state party conventions, and the delegates to those conventions were generally chosen at the county level via caucuses.

Thus, caucuses, although not how the delegates from most states are chosen today, have deep roots in the American political system. They operate in quirky and inconsistent (from state to state) ways, but that was how the majority of states chose delegates to the national conventions for a long time.

Primaries have existed since the early 19th century, but unless you're well over 40, you probably have no memory of a time when primaries were still a secondary form of delegate selection — if delegates were chosen at all. Some primaries were called "beauty contests" because the results were not binding on the delegates who were chosen.

New Hampshire has been holding first–in–the–nation primaries to choose delegate slates since 1920. The names of candidates were on the ballot starting in 1952, and the history of the primary from 1952 to 1988 was that it was possible to win a party's presidential nomination without winning the New Hampshire primary, but it was not possible to win the presidency.

But the last three nonincumbents to win the presidency — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — did not win the New Hampshire primary before being elected president. All three won it when they ran for re–election.

Clearly, the conventional wisdom about the New Hampshire primary has changed. It is still the first primary in the nation, but its influence is questionable.

The role of the primary system in the selection of presidential nominees changed in 1976 when Jimmy Carter made a point of running in every primary. Prior to 1976, candidates could pick and choose where to campaign. In many states, delegates were not obligated to follow the primary results when they voted for a presidential nominee at the national convention.

After 1976, voters expected every active candidate's name to be on their state's primary ballot. Whereas maybe one–quarter of states (at most) held primaries in the years before Carter's historic campaign, each party will have primaries in 38 states in 2016.

And the results in each will be reflected in the delegates who go to Philadelphia (Democrats) and Cleveland (Republicans) this summer.

OK, so divorce/remarriage no longer matters in presidential politics, and the winner of New Hampshire won't necessarily win the presidency.

If you're looking for a political bellwether, we may have just witnessed one in South Carolina yesterday.

Businessman Donald Trump won with just under one–third of the vote. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were locked in a battle for second place and appear to have emerged as Trump's leading challengers. Cruz, of course, won the Iowa caucuses. Rubio has yet to finish first in any presidential electoral contest, but both he and Cruz predicted they would be nominated. Ohio Gov. John Kasich finished fourth. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush withdrew, and Dr. Ben Carson appears to be in the race at least through Nevada's Republican caucuses on Tuesday.

As I observed a few days ago, the South Carolina Republican primary has been won by the party's eventual nominee in every presidential election year but one since 1980 — the last three Republican presidents won the South Carolina primary before being elected. Historically speaking, Trump's win there yesterday should make the nomination, if not the general election, a done deal.

Of course, he also won in New Hampshire, and the history of the last 24 years indicates that, while the winner there might win the nomination, he won't win the election.

Both streaks could continue this year — if Trump wins the nomination but loses the election. Much will depend upon what happens in the next couple of weeks. Polls are suggesting that Trump will win Tuesday's caucuses in Nevada by more than a 2–to–1 margin. Super Tuesday is a week later. If Trump is on a winning streak after Super Tuesday, it will probably be all but over — especially since Cruz's home state of Texas will be voting on Super Tuesday.

The Democrats held their caucuses in Nevada yesterday, and Hillary Clinton defeated insurgent socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, but by a margin that was almost as narrow as the one she had in Iowa.

She seems likely to win next Saturday's South Carolina primary by a comfortable margin — but that was also the conventional wisdom before Iowa and Nevada.

Conventional wisdom holds that Clinton will score well with black voters in South Carolina, who represent more than half of the state's Democrats, because of the good will many blacks still have for her husband. If that proves to be true, she will no doubt win the primary — and in a big way.

But she is still facing a problem with young voters, and the Nevada caucuses revealed her weakness with Latino voters. Neither group has a reputation for voting in large numbers, but they have appeared to be a part of the new emerging Democrat coalition.

What will the outcome in South Carolina next Saturday tell us about the new conventional wisdom concerning those demographics?

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Palmetto Principles, Part I

"History is inescapable anywhere," wrote Richard Cohen and James Barnes in their entry on South Carolina in the 2016 edition of The Almanac of American Politics.

They wrote that as their lead–in to a discussion of last year's racially motivated shootings at an historic black church in Charleston — but in a larger context it was about South Carolina's often troubled history that, as often as not, has crossed all kinds of boundaries — not only racial but economic and social as well.

The state's political history, however, has been more progressive than many people outside the South would care to admit — and that really is representative of many Southern states as well. The state's governor is an Indian–American woman — the first woman and the first racial minority to be the state's chief executive. She won with 51% of the vote in 2010; she received 56% of the vote when she sought re–election in 2014. One of the state's U.S. senators is black. He was appointed to replace Jim DeMint who resigned suddenly in 2013, but Tim Scott received 61% of the vote in a special election to fill the last two years of DeMint's term in 2014.

Both are Republicans, though, which reflects, in historical terms, a recent phenomenon in both the state and the region. Democrats were long in the majority in the South, and most officeholders in most Southern states were Democrats, but then Richard Nixon introduced his Southern strategy and put the transformation into motion.

South Carolina and the rest of the South have been trending solidly Republican in presidential politics for decades now. South Carolina was the only Deep South state — with the debatable exception of Florida — to support Nixon over George Wallace in 1968, and it has only voted for one Democrat (Jimmy Carter in 1976) since then.

"The primaries are not so predictable," wrote Cohen and Barnes. "South Carolina was decisive in determining the Republican nomination from 1988 to 2008," in no small part because it was moved to the front of the political calendar, putting it in position to influence the largely Southern "Super Tuesday" that follows. That is precisely what happened in 1988. Vice President George H.W. Bush won by a wide margin in South Carolina, then went on to do rather well on Super Tuesday a few days later.

The first two electoral skirmishes in the 2016 presidential calendar were held in places that have been known more for supporting ill–fated insurgents than realistic candidates for presidential nominations. South Carolina, which holds its Republican primary this Saturday and its Democratic primary on Feb. 27, has become known for frequently endorsing candidates who ultimately won their parties' nominations.

There have been exceptions, of course. On the Republican side, Newt Gingrich defeated eventual nominee Mitt Romney in South Carolina four years ago.

But South Carolina's Republicans had an unbroken streak going from 1980 to 2008, endorsing Ronald Reagan in 1980 (he was unchallenged there when he sought a second term in 1984), George H.W. Bush in 1988 and 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000 (like Reagan, Bush was unchallenged when he sought his second term in 2004) and John McCain in 2008.

From an historical perspective, it seems to me that winning South Carolina would be more meaningful than a win in New Hampshire or Iowa, even though those earlier clashes offered early momentum and media exposure to the winners.

Not that Donald Trump needs much in the way of exposure. But New Hampshire gave him a little momentum, perhaps a little credibility in his new field — and cut back on some of the momentum and media buzz generated by Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucuses. A second primary win would add to Trump's electoral credibility.

As I say, though, the outcomes in Iowa and New Hampshire have had little influence on the races for the nomination in recent years. It wasn't always that way in New Hampshire. For a long time, conventional wisdom held that, if a candidate did not win the New Hampshire primary, that candidate could not win the election.

Bill Clinton was the first presidential candidate to lose the New Hampshire primary (in 1992) but go on to win the election. Both of his successors did the same thing. George W. Bush lost to McCain in 2000 and Barack Obama lost to Hillary Clinton in 2008. Like President Clinton, both won the New Hampshire primary with no credible opposition when they sought re–election.

Thus, no nonincumbent has been elected president after winning the New Hampshire primary since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

On the other hand, history is loaded with recent examples of eventual presidents–elect who won the South Carolina primary.

So it seems to me that South Carolina is clearly the prize for Republicans. If the state's Republicans endorse a candidate who goes on to win the nomination — and, as I have observed, only Mitt Romney failed to achieve both in the last 36 years — he will probably end up with a convincing win in the Palmetto State in November. After all, Romney defeated Obama by more than 200,000 votes in South Carolina in 2012.

Defeat in South Carolina need not be decisive. But I guess that depends on how wide the margin is.

Let's take a look at some of the recent polls in South Carolina for clues to what might happen on Saturday:

Today a Public Policy Polling survey of nearly 900 likely primary voters was released that showed Trump with nearly a 2–to–1 lead over Cruz and Marco Rubio. Trump had 35%, and Cruz and Rubio each had 18%. The poll has a 3.3% margin of error.

On Monday, the South Carolina House Republican Caucus released a survey of more than 1,300 likely voters that showed Trump with a better than 2–to–1 lead. In that survey, Trump had 32.65%, Rubio had 14.02%, Cruz had 13.94% and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had 13.39%. The margin of error in that survey is 2.83%.

CBS News/YouGov reported the results of a survey on Sunday that, once again, showed Trump with more than a 2–to–1 lead. Trump had 42%, Cruz had 20% and Rubio had 15%.

On Saturday American Research Group reported the results of a survey that had Trump leading by something like 2⅓ to 1. Trump had 35%, Ohio Gov. John Kasich had 15%, Rubio had 14%, Cruz had 12% and Bush had 10%.

Last Friday the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle reported that its survey had Trump with the narrowest lead of all, 36% to Cruz's 20% and Rubio's 15%.

There are sure to be other surveys in the next few days — and I always remind people that polls are like snapshots, not videos. They give people an idea of what sentiment was like at the time the survey was conducted. But sentiments can change in a matter of days, hours, even minutes.

Right now, the polls suggest that Trump is likely to win by a wide margin. Thus, most of the attention probably will be on who finishes second — and, thus, who may emerge as Trump's main challenger for the nomination. The polls seem to suggest that Cruz is likely to finish second — although it could be Rubio. It might even be Bush, whose father and brother always did well there.

But that really is nothing more than a sideshow because, as I observed earlier, the winner in South Carolina usually goes on to win the nomination. At best the runner–up buys himself some time to compete in upcoming primaries, but in the last three dozen years, only Romney has come back from a second–place finish in South Carolina to win his party's nomination.

It's getting serious now. That's true in both parties, as I will point out in this space next week.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Game Changer

"The Court claims that the Act must equate federal and state establishment of Exchanges when it defines a qualified individual as someone who (among other things) lives in the 'State that established the Exchange.' Otherwise, the Court says, there would be no qualified individuals on federal Exchanges, contradicting (for example) the provision requiring every Exchange to take the 'interests of qualified individuals' into account when selecting health plans. ... Pure applesauce."

Antonin Scalia, King v. Burwell (2015)

I have followed politics longer — and, as nearly as I can tell, more closely — than most people. Perhaps it has been to my detriment.

A few days ago, I was thinking about the first time I dabbled in predicting the outcomes of New Hampshire's presidential primaries. It was almost 40 years ago — when I told my friend and mentor, Aunt Bess, that Jimmy Carter would win on the Democratic side and President Ford would narrowly defeat Ronald Reagan on the Republican side. I was right on both counts.

I must have been like a novice investor who hits it big the first time he buys stock in a company — and concludes that it is a breeze to make money on the stock market. I must have concluded that I had some special gift for predicting the outcomes of elections — and was, therefore, stunned when many of my predictions in future years fell flat.

People who hit game–winning home runs in their first–ever at–bats are generally due for big letdowns the next time they step to the plate, and I have had more than my share.

Oh, I have had some successes over the years, but not nearly as many as I probably expected I would have. My subsequent predictions, as I say, haven't always turned out so well, and that losing streak has mostly continued since 1976.

I guess the reason why I have continued to be intrigued by politics is that it always seems that something totally unexpected happens to change the trajectory of a campaign somehow. It may not alter the eventual outcome — although it might — but it may change how resounding that outcome is. Was it decisive? If so — or if not — it may be due to a previously unexpected event.

In hindsight such an event may come to be regarded as preordained. Part of our history having an influential role in our future.

These unforeseen events are never quite the same. I guess they are the most obvious examples of Mark Twain's observation that "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

The death yesterday of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has the potential to be such an event.

Supreme Court vacancies don't come around very often, and such vacancies are even more infrequent in presidential election years. Vacancies caused by death are rarer still.

And it is, I suppose, one of the quirks of American history that presidents are seldom asked to select a replacement for a justice whose views were so opposite of the chief executive's. Some are, but Obama, should he choose to go ahead with a nomination, would be an historical rarity.

It has been 28 years since a lame–duck president had to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in a year when his successor would be chosen. That was 1988 when Lewis Powell retired. Ronald Reagan, who nominated Scalia in 1986, appointed Anthony Kennedy to succeed Powell.

Powell had also been nominated during an election year; Richard Nixon picked him to replace FDR appointee Hugo Black in 1972. But Nixon wasn't a lame duck. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was seeking re–election, which he won in a massive landslide later that year.

And Black hadn't died. He had retired — although he did die eight days after his retirement.

(Nixon also nominated William Rehnquist to succeed Eisenhower appointee John Marshall Harlan that year. Harlan, too, was a retiree.)

Some presidents — Carter, for example — never get to nominate a Supreme Court justice. Most get the opportunity to nominate at least one, but their choices are rarely seen as consequential as this one could — and, probably, will — be.

This country is about as evenly divided as it has ever been in my lifetime. My guess is that it really has been that way for at least the last 25 years. Although much has been made of Democrats winning the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and the electoral vote in four of the last six, the margins have been much closer than they tended to be even in the second half of the 20th century.

Even when he was re–elected four years ago, Barack Obama had an historically underwhelming performance — perhaps not as bad as George W. Bush in 2004 but hardly the mandate that most re–elected presidents tend to claim. Until the dawn of the 21st century, presidents who won re–election did so by wide margins.

Obama had a lower share of the vote and a lower electoral vote total than he received in winning his first term. Obama was the first president to be re–elected with a lower share of the popular vote than he received the first time around since Andrew Jackson 180 years earlier.

Only one other president — Woodrow Wilson in 1916 — was re–elected with a smaller share of the electoral vote than he won the first time.

Justice Scalia is widely regarded to have been a stable, conservative voice on a closely divided court. Philosophically, it is safe to say that he and Obama did not agree on many things.

Obama now has the opportunity to nominate a replacement. He's been looking for a way to ensure his legacy after he leaves office, and this could be it. Kennedy has largely been identified as the swing vote on a court that is otherwise divided 4–4. If Obama nominates someone whose legal positions support Obama's agenda, that nominee would have the potential to influence court decisions for a generation.

While their potential for long–term influence on court decisions is always acknowledged, Supreme Court vacancies generally are not seen as being overall game changers, but this one could be.

Scalia often observed that he was not a politician. He was a jurist. But it is important to remember that this is a presidential election year, and everything that the lame–duck president does will be perceived politically.

If he chooses to send a liberal nominee to Capitol Hill, it could set off a national political discussion on all sorts of issues as Obama's nominee speaks to the senators who will vote on the nomination. Remember: The majority party in the Senate is Republican, and the Republican Senate is not likely to act on a Democratic lame–duck president's Supreme Court nomination prior to an election.

Obama could nominate a more moderate justice than he might prefer, simply to avoid an embarrassing setback, but that is a risky proposal. A more centrist judge might well take positions in some cases that are contrary to Obama's.

But a more extreme nominee almost certainly would have no chance of being approved by a Republican Senate.

Obama could issue a recess appointment when the Senate is not in session, in which case the Constitution calls for such an appointment to be approved by the Senate before the end of the legislative session. If it isn't approved, it becomes vacant again.

Under the present circumstances, the Senate is likely to remain in session as long as possible, but congressional terms end early in January, and Congress will not be in session until the presidential inauguration.

Obama would have roughly 2½ weeks to make a recess appointment before his successor is sworn in. A recess appointment probably would prove to be a temporary solution, but that would depend on other things that are likely to be discussed in the next 8½ months. Whether Obama announces his nominee before or after the election could become a big issue when voters go to the polls — along with the positions such a nominee is likely to take on cases involving the most pressing issues of our time.

That, I suppose, will depend on how many Americans recognize the impact that Scalia's successor can have on their lives. It will be interesting to see just how many that is — and to hear the discussion it sparks.

That could be the real game changer.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Scattershooting on the Night of the New Hampshire Primary

I've been watching the results from the New Hampshire primary tonight.

Although there was much talk about how many New Hampshire voters don't make up their minds until the last days before the vote, I can't say the results surprised me. I knew what the outcome would be. I guess everyone knew what the outcome would be. Donald Trump won the Republican primary. Bernie Sanders from neighboring Vermont won the Democratic primary.

For me, the entertaining part was hearing their speeches. That's when the show really began. I heard several of them — and darned if they didn't all sound like they won, even though only two, Trump and Sanders, actually did.

First I saw Hillary Clinton give her basic stump speech, and she sounded like she had won — although she got Berned by more than 20 percentage points. I guess she was getting in some practice for a couple of weeks from now, when she is likely to win by as much — or more — in South Carolina as she lost by in New Hampshire.

I heard John Kasich's speech, in which he sounded like he, too, won, although he lost to Trump by better than two to one.

I had an odd feeling when I watched Marco Rubio.

See, I was a big fan of The West Wing when it was on the air, and I especially enjoyed the last two seasons that chronicled the rise of a Latino from Texas to the presidential nomination — and, eventually, election as president.

There were several things about Rubio that just reminded me of Jimmy Smits, who played the longshot candidate, a virtual unknown. The character Smits played was more left of center whereas Rubio is more right of center, but it wasn't most of the things Rubio said that reminded me of Smits as it was gestures, mannerisms, even pronunciations.

I have heard it said that when Smits' character was written, it was partly modeled after Barack Obama, who was a state senator in Illinois at the time but whose ambition for higher office was already well known. And Smits' character certainly had a lot in common with Obama philosophically.

But I never had the same feeling with Obama that I have with Rubio concerning their similarities to Smits' character — and, as a writer, I guess I am always looking for those examples when life imitates art.

Could that be what is happening on the Republican side this year?