Getting a Grip

Snakes alive! The 2016 presidential cycle is fully upon us, and it’s a crazy, crazy place!

Donald Trump’s Big Blue Bus has transfixed the normally jaded Iowa Republican political consumers (per Rucker and Costa of WaPo):

For five days, the royal-blue bus rumbled through miles of cornfields alongside a popular annual bicycle trek across Iowa. It showed up at a country music concert in Cherokee and at a bacon festival in Ottumwa.

And when the hulking vehicle with thick white block letters that spell “TRUMP” pulled into a Wal-Mart parking lot in Fort Dodge this week, people flocked to it. It didn’t matter that Donald Trump wasn’t inside. The bus alone — with the “Make America Great Again!” slogan extending across its sides — created an irresistible oasis of celebrity politics amid a desert of minivans and shopping carts.

“One hundred people showing up for a staffer? I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Chuck Laudner, a longtime Iowa organizer who oversees Trump’s efforts here. “They kept saying the same thing: They want something different….”

“I see them as a major threat to all the other campaigns because of the aggressiveness of their ground game,” said Sam Clovis, an Iowa conservative who leads former Texas governor Rick Perry’s campaign.

“You cannot swing a dead cat in Iowa and not hit a Trump person,” Clovis continued. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. . . . Every event we go to — the Boone County Eisenhower Social, the Black Hawk County Lincoln ­Dinner, the boots-and-barbecue down in Denison — the Trump people are everywhere with literature and T-shirts and signing people up.

Aside from offending cat fanciers, ol’ Sam is talking about something previously unimaginable: the Trump ground game. Isn’t Trump just an ego-tripping celebrity who is surfing lightly on free national media, and whose support is an inch deep, ready to vanish when Real Republicans rouse themselves to cast him out of the party?

The craziness is if possible even wilder on the other side of the political barricades, where we’ve gone in a few quick months from Democrats wringing their hands over a Clinton “coronation” to a scenario where Bernie Sanders is doing so well he seems to be calling others into the candidate pool for a swim. Joe Biden’s right on the brink of running! Al Gore’s thinking about running! And there’s even been talk of John Kerry running! Can a John Edwards comeback be far behind? Could be, since the national horror over Hillary Clinton’s email malfeasance has clearly destroyed her campaign. How can she possibly survive the righteous indignation of Ron Fournier and the Scorn of MoDo?

But at The Upshot yesterday, Nate Cohn suggests that we all get a grip:

Mrs. Clinton’s advantage among the majority of Democratic voters is underpinned by just about all of the forces that help shape public opinion and determine the outcome of primary elections. Her policy views are smack-dab in the middle of the Democratic electorate, denying Mr. Sanders much room to challenge her on the left. She has won the so-called invisible primary, the behind-the-scenes competition for elite support that helps decide the nomination. She has more endorsements and cash than just about any candidate in American history

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Her commanding advantage among party elites has not been shaken by the concerns about her email account. Just ask Joe Biden.

The possibility that Mr. Biden might run for president has led many to imagine that Mrs. Clinton’s sagging support has Democrats on the verge of drafting him into the race. But the reaction from Democratic elites to a possible Biden run has been tepid at best. Major Democratic figures have publicly argued against his candidacy. My colleagues Carl Hulse and Jason Horowitz reported that the skepticism even extends to Mr. Biden’s friends and many Obama 2008 supporters — exactly the sort of people who ought to be most receptive to his candidacy.

Mr. Biden is the party’s natural emergency alarm option. Party leaders aren’t breaking the glass.

Now having resisted all sorts of pressure to worship at the shrine of The Party Decides, I’m not as big on Elite Endorsements as most people. But still, HRC’s overwhelming success in that measurement of influential support is pretty hard to dismiss. FiveThirtyEight has a point system for party endorsements. Jeb Bush leads the Republican field with 31 points. Hillary Clinton has 307.

But won’t the grave concerns of the American people over emails and Benghazi! and Whitewater and the Rose Law Firm make Hillary unelectable? Probably not. Everything we know about polarization and electability suggests we are at a moment when for a variety of reasons the dynamics of 2012 are likely to play themselves out once again with minor if potentially crucial variations. And speaking of 2012, notes Cohn:

[M]uch of the damage to Mrs. Clinton among Republican-leaning independents was inevitable, while the damage to Democrats can be overcome by partisan loyalty.

A good example of this is Mitt Romney, whose ratings fell even lower than Mrs. Clinton’s during the Republican primary. He then faced a variety of attacks about his time at Bain Capital. He damaged himself with his “47 percent” comments. Yet despite it all, his ratings recovered by the 2012 general election. Republican-leaning voters, sure to vote against Mr. Obama, gradually figured out a way to like Mr. Romney. We saw the same thing with another Clinton, William Jefferson, who had even worse favorable ratings than Mrs. Clinton before quickly turning around his image once the 1992 general election began.

Now without question, Bernie Sanders is an independent variable in all these calculations, and if he can find a way to break out of the golden ghetto of white liberal support, he could in theory knock the props from beneath HRC’s carefully constructed platform as a partywide consensus candidate. He, too, could benefit from the convergence of Democratic-leaning voters around anyone with the Donkey label. But it’s still a very long shot, as is some hoary alternative figure crashing into the race late, much as journalistic phantasists are trying to conjure this up.

As for the Trump Ground Game…well, that’s still just crazy and we’ll have more to say about that later today.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.