Notes from the Primaries: Sanders and Cruz live to fight another day

The GOP is in full freak out over Trump, but is he really so different to the establishment?

Bern Cruz

Trump and Clinton still lead, but Cruz and Sanders are not going away

Both Cruz and Sanders did well enough this weekend that their campaigns can push ahead while, mathematically, Clinton is in better shape than Trump at this point. There is some evidence that the extraordinary attacks on Trump by Mitt Romney and others these past few weeks have begun to slow his momentum.

‘Little Marco’ Rubio appears to have missed his window of opportunity, and continues to underperform just about everywhere. John Kasich has picked up important endorsements and impressed on the debate stage.

But it just feels too late for him, as the extraordinary investments made by more establishment Republicans in Bush and Rubio have left him with very little time or money. Finally, his ‘Midwestern nice’, low-key demeanor seems ill-suited to this particular election, preventing him from emerging as a legitimate challenger to the more electric Trump and Cruz.

Each party has another debate this week, and there are big, delegate rich states voting between now and March 15th – Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, among others. So, we will know an awful lot more about this race on March 16th, including whether Sanders or Cruz can sustain a serious challenge in what amounts to the second half of the primary season, running from mid-March through to early June.

I for one hope the campaigns go on into the spring. If they end in March, almost 40 per cent  of the country will not be able to cast a meaningful primary vote this year. And as I’ve written elsewhere, it is becoming far too common for big chunks of the country to not be able to cast a meaningful vote in our national elections, a contributor no doubt to the distance many are feeling from Washington and our country’s politics.

Cruz and Sanders will remain in the race as long as their public rationale for winning the nomination remains convincing enough to keep the money coming in from their supporters. As a Democrat, I remain impressed and surprised by what a strong campaign Sanders has run, and that he has been able to hold his own on the national stage with Secretary Clinton.

These long primary fights are important times for parties to regenerate, test messages, revisit old fights, and innovate on tactics and media. A remarkable new ad from the Sanders campaign is one of those bright spots in this long, hard slog, as he and his team are clearly stretching, reaching deep to try to keep up with the formidable Clinton camp. It is well worth watching.

GOP in full freak out over Trump

While the GOP’s attacks on Trump escalated this past week, most notably in Mitt Romney’s high profile speech, I find these protestations a bit hard to take. Where exactly does Trump differ from the current GOP establishment?

He is for large unfunded tax cuts which would drive up deficits and harm the economy; repealing Obama’s health care plan; a militaristic foreign policy; and for getting the 11m undocumented immigrants to leave. Even on trade, hard to argue that he is all that different right now from the Washington Republicans currently refusing to vote on the President’s hard fought TPP deal.

The differences between the Romney and Trump approaches are far more about style and biography, and far less about their governing agenda. Donald Trump is very much a creation of modern Republican politics, and one can understand how worrisome that is to so many on the right.

The establishment, however, should be equally worried about Trump’s lack of a traditional campaign as they are about his blustery manner and foul mouth. Building a national campaign in this day and age is like building a start-up company – you grow the company by doing, by trial and error, by learning from what works and what doesn’t.

It takes time to get it right, to learn the terrain of this particularly year, to adapt the latest media and data techniques in a rapidly changing communications environment, to have your team gel into something bigger than themselves. And it takes time.

You are seeing both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns improve and grow as they move into terrain and voting groups beyond the early small states, raise money, do their debates, produce their ads, etc. Trump has in essence yet to start building his campaign. He isn’t raising money in large amounts, isn’t spending a lot of money, isn’t producing a lot of paid media and appears to not have invested a lot on the ground in the states so far.

It is hard to me to imagine given the national deficits he has now against Clinton and Sanders for him to win in the fall without a full-on modern campaign. Which means that he will have to start building it from almost the ground up starting in a few months, putting him at a significant organizational disadvantage to a far more experienced and capable Democratic presidential political operative class. He just won’t be able to muscle through the general the way he has the primaries.

And this is a real problem indeed for the GOP and Trump who are likely to enter the general behind the Democrats and their incumbent president’s impressive 51 per cent approval rating.

This theory will be tested over the next ten days. Cruz’s strong showing this weekend and some other polls showing signs of Trump slippage in key states could be early signs of Trump beginning to meaningful weaken.

A normal, well-funded campaign would respond with a big positive ad buy to maintain their edge and prevent erosion. If the Trump campaign does not do this in the next few days very loud alarm bells should be going off in GOP land about Trump’s ability to fund and run a modern campaign.

Simon Rosenberg is the founder of the think tank NDN/NPI. 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

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