The first time I really began trying to look ahead to the 2016 election was back in August 2013. I was reacting to a bit of analysis by Larry Sabato. I made three points. The first was that Govs. Christie, Walker and Kasich all needed to win reelection before they could be considered strong contenders. In the end, they all managed to get second terms, and they all entered the race. My second point was that Sabato had not considered the earthquake that would result if Santorum, Cruz, or Rand Paul actually won the nomination. “In any of those cases,” I wrote, “the Republican Party would be fractured beyond recognition.” The third point I made was that Clinton could probably beat back a challenge from Elizabeth Warren, but the “fight would badly split the party, and Clinton would probably prevail in a weakened state.”
In retrospect, there’s not much to amend, but the details played out a little differently than I expected. I was correct to be somewhat skeptical about the strength of the Republicans’ field of governors. While I couldn’t foresee the rise of Donald Trump, I knew that a strong run by Ted Cruz would indicate that the party had fractured beyond recognition. And, if we can consider Bernie Sanders as a proxy for the absent Warren campaign, it seems like Clinton will probably “prevail” over the progressive challenge “in a weakened state.”
A little over a year ago, I was already sensing that Jeb Bush wasn’t going to be able to win the nomination, but I initially thought Scott Walker would become the alternative because he’d be more popular with the Republican base than John Kasich. Walker was famous for standing up to Democratic interest groups and beating them. Kasich was famous for expanding Medicaid, saying that it would be immoral to leave people without access to medical care, and saying that Republicans should focus less on social issues. Still, something about Walker was bugging me: “The caveats here are that Walker will never be able to compete with Jeb in his preparedness for the job, and that will show in all kinds of ways, particularly in debates and interviews with the press on foreign policy.”
I’m still not entirely sure why Walker fizzled so badly. I thought he had earned more loyalty and interest than turned out to be the case. On the eve of the first Republican debate, I identified John Kasich as the next-best (non-Jeb) choice for the GOP, and probably superior to Walker as a general election candidate. I did worry that Kasich was a Romneyesque freak, but that side of him hasn’t reemerged yet on the campaign trail.
In any case, this was my take before the first debate:
Walker has skeletons to worry about, but his biggest liability is lack of charisma and intelligence. Rubio is disadvantaged by a variety of factors, including his own rather massive skeletons, but also by being stuck in Congress, having brokered the immigration deal in the Senate, and simply by being a racial minority in a party that currently wants a white nativist nominee. Kasich probably is best positioned to move up, but he’s peddling a compassionate conservatism that doesn’t seem to fit the mood and that also most easily overlaps with Jeb’s base of support. It could be that a Trump collapse just moves to other protest candidates in an unpredictable and rotating way, but I do see Cruz as best-suited to capitalize on it. He could become a weaker and diminished vehicle for Trump’s message, but one that is strong enough and anti-Washington enough and anti-Republican leadership enough to become the third alternative.
At the time, Kasich was polling at 3% and had barely avoided the kiddie table. By August 25th, I said that Jeb was a terrible campaigner and that Kasich was going to become the establishment’s back-up plan.
When Scott Walker dropped out on late September, I laughed at the idea that it would hurt Trump and suggested that it would instead benefit Kasich.
As Team Jeb continued to struggle, I told them that they were wrong to focus all their fire on Rubio and said that the real threat to them was Kasich. In early October, I responded to a piece by Dana Milbank in which he wrote that he would eat his column if the Republican voters were so irresponsible as to make Donald Trump their nominee.
I’m not sure they’ve actually been given the option of acting responsibly, if you want me to be truthful about it. The best they have on offer is the former guest host of The O’Reilly Factor who also happens to be the two-term governor of Ohio. I’ve been predicting that John Kasich will emerge as the real “responsible” candidate for the simple reason that Jeb! Bush obviously can’t hack campaigning while dodging all the monkey poop being flung his way.
This was really the key to my analysis. While most professional pundits thought that the Republicans had an usually strong and deep bench of candidates, I saw eleventy-billion weaklings. I knew Christie was too damaged to be taken seriously. Of the bunch, I identified Kasich as clearly the strongest general election candidate. I never took Rubio remotely seriously as a threat to win the nomination. I foresaw that the candidacies of Cruz, Paul, or any of the religious candidates would indicate that the party had fractured beyond recognition. And, as I told Nate Silver in late November, it was ridiculous to give Trump only a 20% chance of winning the nomination precisely because his opponents were equally unthinkable.
With these relatively simple frameworks for analysis, I predicted that Trump would persist in his popularity, that Cruz would coast along as the conservative alternative to Trump, and that Kasich (not Rubio) would emerge as the last gasp champion of the establishment.
Tonight we will find out if I have been right. If, as expected, Rubio loses in Florida, he will probably drop out. If Kasich can win in his home state of Ohio, he will finally emerge as the only safe place left for the establishment. They fear Trump and hate Cruz, and they have only resisted Kasich for as long as they have because he’s been an apostate on Obamacare.
Of course, Kasich could easily lose tonight and the race will become a two-way contest between Trump and Cruz. I won’t be able to say that I predicted that, as I always expected some establishment candidate to be one of the last two standing.
There’s a wild card here that I couldn’t have really anticipated, and that’s the degree to which Trump’s campaign has taken on the flavor of a fascist movement. Right when I would have predicted that the party would begin to fall in line behind him, people are actually getting more desperate than ever for an alternative. This could make Kasich even stronger than I anticipated. After all, I thought Kasich would eventually become the establishment choice, but I never thought he could actually win.
If he loses tonight, he’s done. If he wins, he might get on a roll and have a shot at a contested convention in his home state. Trump has become that toxic.