Notes from the primaries: ‘extremists’ still ahead

As long as the rest of the Republican vote remains split, Trump remains the front runner

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Simon Rosenberg is the founder of the think tank NDN/NPI. Every Tuesday in the run up to the US election Left Foot Forward will be reposting his weekly analysis of the campaign trail as a UK exclusive. You can find previous columns here

On to Nevada and South Carolina: The race changed quite a bit last week with Sanders and Trump scoring significant victories in New Hampshire (NH). The unorthodox nature of the race was captured in two stats: ‘extremist’ Trump won the vote of moderate Republicans, and ‘extremist’ Sanders beat a Clinton in New Hampshire (a state long favourable to them) among independents by 3-to-1.

Sanders and Trump continue to defy easy ideological classification, and the traditional ‘left-center-right’ way of understanding US politics, long overstated and exaggerated, is proving to be particularly unhelpful this cycle.

Discontent with the elites and the DC political class continue to be a significant – if not paramount – sentiment driving 2016 on both sides.

On the Democratic side much comes down to the Nevada Caucus this Saturday. If Sanders prevails in such a diverse state, the Dem contest could go on for some time. If Clinton prevails, given her advantage in South Carolina, it could be the beginning of the end of the spirited Sanders insurgency.

There is, however, a growing body of evidence (herehere and here) that despite the conventional wisdom, Sanders now has a larger, better funded and deeper campaign, something that could become truly significant in the early March states.

It appears now that the Clinton campaign simply did not contemplate or plan for a competitive Sanders effort, raising over $80m for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and their SuperPAC over the last few months. (SuperPACs are independent political committees that support candidates with donations from companies, unions, or individuals). These funds will not be accessed until after the nomination is settled.

That so much effort was expended raising this much money not designed for use in the primary itself will be a decision long debated; but it leaves the Clinton campaign with the very unpleasant prospect of being out-spent and out-organised over the critical month ahead.

The good news for Hillary is that she is a vastly improved candidate. In my mind she bested a tired Sanders in the debate last Thursday and in general is now putting in strong performances when it really matters.

She has also found what may be her first successful and durable attack on Sanders – that she will be far more effective at building on the Obama legacy (I will have more on both the pros and cons of this argument in a later post).

I am less convinced the ‘single issue’ attack will work, as Sanders has been anything but a single issue candidate in the election so far. There is a difference between having a powerful overarching narrative (rigged economy, corrupt political system) and being a single issue candidate.

Given that over 50 per cent of eligible voters will vote in the two weeks from 1 to 15 March, momentum and organisation strength really matter now. If Clinton wins both Nevada and South Carolina, she will a big advantage heading into our March Madness.

If they split, Bernie’s apparent organisational advantage could make this a very competitive and potentially dangerous period for the Clinton candidacy.

On the Republican side, it is a different story. Trump has once again become a powerful and capable frontrunner, and the question of whether any of the next four – Bush, Cruz, Kasich and Rubio – can emerge to go one-on-one is the big one for this side. As long as the rest of the Republican vote remains split, Trump remains the front runner.

The sad truth for Republicans is that it just isn’t clear if any of their remaining four challengers is strong or capable enough to defeat Trump. To make matters worse, all these candidates are going to start having money problems soon, and may not even make it to the all important March window.

The unprecedented compression of the primary season into this extraordinary March run benefits candidates like Trump and Clinton with strong names, IDs and money.

Sanders appears to be the only other contender with enough of both to seriously challenge after Nevada and South Carolina.

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