Branding the 2016 presidential primary season “The Twilight Zone election,” and “the craziest election I’ve ever seen,” David Wasserman says what should be “a slam dunk” for Republicans to retake the White House is instead a challenging road.
Wasserman, U.S. House editor for the Cook Political Report, was keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the Plains Cotton Growers at Lubbock.
As the presidential primary season winds down, he says it grows more likely there will be the first contested Republican convention since 1948 — and it could be chaotic.
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Either of the two front-runner Republican candidates, Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, will be an extremely unpopular option, Wasserman says: Trump has a 31 percent favorable rating, Cruz 41 percent.
“If Donald Trump gets the nomination, he will be the “most unpopular major candidate for either party in history,” he says. “That could be a problem in the general election.”
And a third party candidate is not likely without “an extraordinary set of circumstances — but it could happen.
“The paradox is that this election should be a slam dunk for Republicans, who have an electorate that is anti- dynasty and ready for a change. Hillary Clinton is extremely beatable,” he says, citing the email server controversy as well as likeability issues.
Trump would face high hurdles in the general election, Wasserman says, but “doomed is not absolute.”
He says Trump has “made Cruz look borderline acceptable.”
They appeal to different segments of the electorate, he says. Trump does best with voters without college degrees; Cruz has an advantage with social evangelicals.
“Trump is unscripted and unpredictable, and proposes simple solutions to complex problems that Congress hasn’t solved,” Wasserman says.
Marco Rubio, once considered the Republican establishment candidate, appealed to more educated voters before he “melted down in New Hampshire; that cost him big time.”
Trump’s ascendancy, he says, “would not be possible without a weak GOP. Electability is not a big concern for Trump supporters — it’s an emotional response. Only 13 percent of GOP primary voters cite electability as a priority.”
Feeding Trump’s popularity is what Wasserman calls “the record distrust of Congress, which has only a 15 percent approval rate — and that has been even lower.”
Bernie Sanders is the standard bearer for dissatisfied Democrats, he says. “Millennials are ‘feeling the Bern.’ Sanders has a significant advantage with 19 to 29 year-olds.” Millennials have no experience with the Cold War and “no problem with socialism,” he says.
Still, he doesn’t believe the Democrat contest is close. “Hillary has a distinct advantage in delegates, and Sanders would have to win 56 percent of the remaining delegates just to tie — and Democrats have no winner-take-all states.”
Trump has a less certain path to the nomination, Wasserman says. “His share of the vote is not expanding as the primary season goes on. He won 46 percent of his delegates with tiny fractions of eligible voters.”
Some of Trump’s current advantage, he says, is an “unintended consequence” of primary rules changes the Republicans put in place after the 2012 election to “allow the front runner to tie up the nomination early.”
A 50/50 CHANCE
Regardless of any advantage, Trump needs 58 percent of the remaining delegates to prevent a contested convention, Wasserman says. “The rest of the primaries are critical with winner-take-all states.”
He gives Trump a 50/50 chance of tying up enough delegates to earn the nomination before the convention. Cruz and Kasich could cooperate to divide up states where one is stronger than the other and try to deny Trump a plurality in those states and decrease his delegate gains. “But they are both stubborn and neither will bow out,” he says.
Key dates will decide the outcome. April 19 is New York, and “If Trump gets more than 50 percent of the vote, he’ll likely get all 95 delegates. Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Connecticut hold primaries April 26. “Kasich may be a key,” he says.
Indiana holds its primary May 3, and is expected to be close between Trump and Cruz. “If Cruz wins Indiana as big as he won Wisconsin, a contested convention is likely. If Trump wins, it could be the end.”
Wasserman says California’s primary, June 7, “offers the biggest prize — if the nomination is still on the bubble for Trump.”
A contested convention does not bode well for Trump, Wasserman says. “If Trump doesn’t win on the first ballot, Cruz will win on the second.” After that first ballot, some delegates are released into what Wasserman says could become a “multi-ballot chaos.”
By the third ballot, nearly all delegates will be free to vote however they choose. Rules can be changed, too, by a panel of 112 Republican Party officials – two from each state and territory — just days before the convention.
One possible change would be Rule 40, which stipulates that no candidate who won less than eight states during the primaries may be the party nominee. Without a rule change, Kasich likely will be ineligible.
AN UPHILL BATTLE
If Cruz becomes the Republican Party nominee, he also will face an uphill battle, Wasserman says. “Cruz is still relatively undefined. But if he is the nominee in July, the Democrats will pounce.”
The Republican candidate also may affect Senate and House races, Wasserman says. “Republicans are staring into the abyss, and may need to endorse Trump or Cruz in red states. In blue states, they will run as far as possible away from Trump.”
Republicans could lose 15 to 20 seats in the House with Trump as their candidate, he says. The Democrats could take the Senate, but could lose it back in 2018 when more Democrat seats will be open.
The Senate should probably consider holding hearings for President Obama’s selection for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, he says. “Three Supreme Court Justices are over 75 years old. If Hillary is elected, the Supreme Court could become more liberal.”
Wasserman says he sees no “road to the White House for Republicans without Ohio and Florida. And the GOP can’t afford to get crushed in November by non-white voters.” The electorate has changed, he says, with only 71 percent white voters.
“The newest generation is nearly unanimous in embracing diversity, and cultural and religious differences. Many are open to the Republican message, but if the Republican Party continues to come across to minorities as if they don’t want them here, it will cease to be a relevant party.”
Two things, Wasserman says, will energize Democrats in November: a Trump candidacy or a Cruz candidacy. And one candidate will energize Republicans — Hillary. “Democrats will drive out the vote, and when the vote is heavy, it favors Democrats.”