Good morning Austin:
I’m still in Iowa.
Where did everybody go?
I’ve spent about 20 days in Iowa this month.
While the outcome of Monday’s caucuses might suggest otherwise, the fundamental political revelation I had during my time in Iowa was that Donald Trump could actually be elected president.
I came to this realization because of the number of people I encountered who, even if they might ultimately caucus for Ted Cruz, appreciated the way Trump had busted things up.
While Iowa is no Texas, it is a big state, east to west, and I spent a lot of time driving along solitary and beautiful landscapes, contemplating a Trump presidency.
I think his strength as a candidate – and as a potential president – is what Cruz identified for Iowa caucus-goers. Trump is not a consistent conservative. In fact, he is neither consistent nor conservative. He is a situational conservative. But that makes him especially dangerous in a general election as a candidate who could really upset the red-blue paradigm and put the whole electoral map into play.
His opening salvo about Mexican rapists – calculated I think to grab and fix attention – and subsequent pronouncements, like calling for temporarily banning Muslims from entering the country – suggested a man of the right- maybe even the far right – but he’s really a politically-incorrect centrist, a polymath of political incorrectness who actually takes on Fox and boasts about his great relationship with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer.
Now that is politically incorrect.
He really is all about the deal, and I thought, in the tradition of the Square Deal, the New Deal and the Fair Deal, America might be ready for the Art of the Deal – DJT as LBJ – knocking heads together to get stuff done.
Cruz’s campaign imagery is bellicose. He is leading a crusade of Red America against Blue America and its New York values. But Trump offers a purple nationalism.
Somewhere midway through his second term, they would begin re-chiseling Mount Rushmore.
But then, Iowans snapped me out of my Trump reverie.
They preferred Cruz to Trump.
Maybe the spell has been broken.
Maybe even for Trump
“I think I might come here and buy a farm. I love it here.”
To “buy the farm” is to die. Right.
So now it’s on to New Hampshire, which is exquisitely more time-concentrated and geographically-compact than Iowa, for what should be one of the great weeks in American political history.
(When Delta clears me to leave Des Moines, I am headed back to Austin and then, a week later to South Carolina. The Statesman’s Ken Herman is in New Hampshire.)
In order to get a better feel for the week ahead, I spoke yesterday to two of New Hampshire’s best political minds – Dave Carney and Mike Dennehy – each of whom has strong Texas ties.
Carney has been a top political adviser to Gov. Greg Abbott and former Gov. Rick Perry. Dennehy, who directed John McCain’s winning campaigns in New Hampshire in 2000 and 2008, was running Perry’s campaign in Iowa last year, before Perry bowed out.
Carney and Dennehy had very similar takes on the lay of the land in New Hampshire.
Here is some of our conversation.
FR: What did you make of Trump’s relatively humble concession speech? How are things shaping up in New Hampshire for Cruz, Trump and Marco Rubio?
CARNEY: Rump had two options. He could have blown it up or did what he did. He’s not throwing in the towel quite yet.
He’s still formidable but he’s not bullet proof.
South Carolina’s going to be really important, New Hampshire is going to be a real test.
He has this huge lead and you know Cruz has a real shot here to put another dent in the Trump inevitability. If they do the same thing they did in Iowa in terms of their modeling and turnout. Everyone said more than 150,000 turnout and Trump is going to win and all this stuff, and (the Cruz campaign) actually knew what they were doing.
I don’t know what their numbers are in New Hampshire but they have a very good shot to perform well and Rubio’s biggest problem is all these other establishment candidates in New Hampshire are really invested. Honestly, I don’t see Christie or Kasich or Bush pulling out and he’s competing with all those folks and that makes it very difficult to make an appearance here and win.
And it’s clear, the anti-establishment folks out-rule the establishment folks not just in Iowa but here in New Hampshire and across the country and it’s going to be very difficult to see how, until some of these four musketeers decide to drop out, it’s very difficult for any of them to do well. They’re just dividing. up their voters so much, it’s just hard to make a statement.
FR: Doesn’t Rubio arrive in New Hampshire with a head of steam?
CARNEY: In Iowa, he swung hard to the right, but it’s not really helpful in this environment to be perceived as a flip-flopper. It may have helped him in Iowa a little bit.
FR: Is Rubio seeking the same votes as the “establishment” candidates?
CARNEY: It’s a complete overlap. You look to people supporting Rubio, they are establishment folks, and these are the same folks who are supporting Kasich and Christie and Bush. They are all from the same camp.
The thing is, though, that everyone is doing so poorly in NH in that lane. It’s not like you’ve got this, “I’m with a winner,” type support.
When you’re at 7 or 8 percent you’re not riding any headwinds. That’s really people that are for you. It’s not like it’s based on name ID, because your name ID is not as good as Trump’s. It’s not momentum, because you’re not winning. If one of these candidates was 16, 15 percent, maybe. How many fair-weather friends does someone with six percent have.
And all three of those guys have a much better organization in New Hampshire than Rubio, have spent more time, know more people, they don’t take time off to watch football. Kasich and Christie have really campaigned hard in New Hampshire. I think that gets them some loyalty from people because they like them, they know them and they met them. It’s not an ideological or a political thing. But you have seven days, a lot can happen, and people are buying Super Bowl ads.
The real story in New Hampshire is, will Cruz be able to consolidate the conservative bloc, which is about 35 percent of our vote, and is he able to do that. He’s not going to get 35 percent of the vote, because some of those people are with Trump, obviously, but is he able to come in a decent second here, and when it comes into a two-man race, and when he gets to Super-Duper Tuesday, and if it’s Trump and Cruz, I think Cruz will have a little bit of an advantage geographically and speaking the language
FR: What does Trump need to do to rebound?
CARNEY: The question is can they decide to invest in some ground game – obviously it’s too late for New Hampshire, but for South Carolina and Nevada – and do something to be a real campaign and not just run on the theatrics, the excitement and the entertainment. Because when you’re running off the publicity, that you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread, that you make the best deals, that everything’s going to be perfect, your worries are over, I’m leading in the polls, that’s great. Except when you’re not. When you’re not leading in the polls.
When you come in second and you almost came in third, and then you got a 24, 28-point lead in New Hampshire. I mean, he’s not going to win by 28 points in New Hampshire, and if he does, he’s going to be president or he’s going to be the nominee.
If you’re running off of momentum – Big Mo as they say – it’s great until you no longer have it.
That’s where Cruz – you’ve got to give those guys a lot of credit, because they haven’t bragged a lot about what they are doing. They’ve done it.
And the idea the they can turn out 190,000 people in Iowa and still win when every so-called, self-proclaimed expert said that anything over 150,000 and Cruz is toast. And they knew the exact percentage. They knew it was going to be four percent. And they knew that Rubio was going to almost crush Trump, I mean that would have been a disaster for Trump to come in third.
They spent almost the lowest, of all the serious candidates, they spent the least per vote. They have the most cash on hand of all the other candidates combined. Obviously, Trump can take a minute to write a check. Finding a checkbook would be his biggest problem.
Cruz is running a very thoughtful, methodical campaign that’s based on message and mechanics and money. They’ve got the 3 M’s. Unlike Huckabee or Santorum, who won Iowa and said, “OK. I won Iowa. Now what do I do? Take a Greyhound bus to New Hampshire or South Carolina?” They have an infrastructure and they’ve invested wisely.
This is of course, apparently. They have done some really good stuff from a management point of view. It’s given them the ability to not have to win in New Hampshire to survive. They can get to Super Tuesday and be competitive and when it comes right down to it, and no one else is in the race and it’s between Cruz and Trump, where does the 40 percent of the establishment go in those states? Do you think Cruz will lose to Trump in a two-way race in Texas?
CARNEY Trump could invest in some resources to try to have a campaign organization.
It’s obviously very, very late. It’s probably too late for New Hampshire, but these other states, he could try to rectify or try to build an operation to help with the free media and the persona. He has to try to turn this into something real. He was the front-runner and he under-performed … and normally the front-runner over performs because of the momentum and enthusiasm going into the caucus or the primary.,
The only way to fix that is to establish a serious ground game and that would involve investing in some serious resources, particularly in the March 1 primaries.
I don’t know what their message is beyond Make America Great Again. It’s a nice, concise theme and he has had a very consistent message, but I don’t think it’s enough to get people to turn out at the level they are going to have to turn out for him to continue to be viable and successful.
The most hard-core Republican voters who disdain the establishment would be Iowa caucus voter and three out of four of them said, `No thanks.’ I just don’t think the message is getting through when you have 75, 76 percent of the voters in Iowa, who are a very small subset, but are the hardest of the hard-core – they gave the governors less votes than Ben Carson got. They hate the establishment. They hate what’s going on in Washington. They are hard-core true believers, and three out of four of them said, “screw off.”
If that’s their message, they need to either refine it or they need a better message. Because you can’t lose one out of five of your voters on Election Day, that’s a huge problem. Under-performing is a huge problem. Particularly when the whole point of their thing was bringing new people into the process. That was their whole schtick. When you look at the entrance polls, there were very few new registrants coming in.
They could still win. They could still get some momentum. Cruz could under-perform.
They could go to the winner-take-all states and really invest some money and still win but, they have to have some honest discussion with themselves.
The problem is that he is a creature of the national and political media and believes his own news clips I guess.
Pat Caddell is no idiot .He is one of the smartest political strategists and is behind the throne here and he’s the guy calling the shots, and either they’re not listening to Pat, or he’s not just connecting.
Last night Trump was pretty subdued and he’s almost 70 years old and is he going to put the effort into it? That’s’ the real dilemma. It was going to be fun: “I get on a plane. I go give a speech. Everyone loves me and I fly home.”
FR: What about Rubio?
CARNEY: I think Rubio is in a box, you know, because he’s got to stomp on these other guys in his lane and they are going to stomp on him, no question about it. No way Kasich and Christie and Bush are going to give it up in the next seven days.
So it’s going to be a mixed verdict coming out of New Hampshire to South Carolina. That will be the real key. Is President Bush going to be campaigning for his brother in South Carolina, that’s what they say. And then you’ve got Tim Scott coming out for Rubio today. Lindsey Graham is with Bush in South Carolina.
Bush and Rubio will clearly fight it out in South Carolina, but you’ve got Cruz and Trump moving along without much competition in their lanes.
If one of the other three establishment guys had broken out in Iowa that would be a totally different game because they are much better organized here in New Hampshire to take advantage of it . Rubio is just not that well-organized. He is just going off momentum , which will help him a little bit, but I just don’t’ see these other three guys collapsing to a point where Rubio is a clear winner here. I don’t see how he becomes a winner here
FR: What about Rubio’s argument that he would be the most electable in the general election.
CARNEY: The fool’s gold of primary voters.
A year ago that would have been a much more powerful message, in fact would be the overriding message – we’re going to nominate someone who will beat Hillary because Hillary is evil incarnate.
But clearly, nobody is afraid of Hillary anymore. No one’s afraid of her any more. That may be foolish on our side, but people are convinced that the FBI will recommend indictment, and the Justice Department will not indict her and there will be another Saturday Night Massacre, and it will be a total blowup in the fall. There are people that are convinced of that. Now maybe that’s wishful thinking for the vast right-wing conspiracy.
FR: How well do you think Cruz could do in New Hampshire? Does his religious language hurt him in among the least-churched states in America?
CARNEY: This is going to be a Donnybrook seven days. Ted Cruz is going to have every sling thrown his way from the establishment guys and the Trump folks.
He’s not trying to win the New Hampshire primary with 55 percent of vote. That’s not going to happen. There are still eight competitive campaigns in Iowa that are working hard. He doesn’t need to win over the atheist Republicans, which we do have. Or the pro-choice Republicans, which we do have. He doesn’t need many of these folks. It’s not that he wants to be a Johnny one note He has to talk about economic opportunity, and regulatory overreach, which he does, but I don’t think the religious language is disqualifying in New Hampshire. It’s not he general election and it’s not where its a two person race.
And Rubio has no exceptions (for abortion. Rubio is so hard-core on abortion that it would be hard to say that Cruz is out of step. And on immigration, Rubio is now far out there.
It’s like an eight-level Chinese checkers kind of deal, or is there a Chines chess maybe? It’s very complicated. Anything could happen really.
It’s going to be a long week.
FR: How do you rate Cruz’s prospects in New Hampshire?
DENNEHY: I think he can capture the 18- to 20-percent evangelical vote in New Hampshire, tap into some of the economic conservative folks, to potentially finish a strong second. That would be a tremendous victory for Ted Cruz in New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, the four establishment candidates continue to tear each other up. Rubio has to show movement next week. He has to come into second place to illustrate that he has momentum. Two third-place showings are not going to be enough.
Rubio has to coalesce the establishment vote in New Hampshire to show that he has momentum. But, you’ve got Chris Christie who’s connected to the Union Leader. You have John Kasich, who has spent his entirety here and has the support of the Sununus. And then you’ve got Jeb Bush, whose family has strong roots in New Hampshire. So, for Rubio to be successful, he has to knock all those guys down to two or three percent, and that’s tremendously difficult.
FR: How about Trump?
DENNEHY: I think Trump is in good shape in New Hampshire. I think it’s entirely in his hands now how he responds to Iowa. If I were advising Donald Trump, I would tell him as best possible to pretend that Iowa never happened, because he could bounce back in New Hampshire with a strong first-place finish. But if he wins with a margin that’s under ten percent, then his momentum will have entirely evaporated
I thought he sounded dejected last night, and that’s the last thing his supporters need. His supporters thrive on his energy. He’s got to get it back.
FR: Should Trump continue to pound on Cruz as “Liar, Liar, Canadian, Liar?”
DENNEHY: I think it would be a very bad strategy for Trump to continue to go after Cruz in New Hampshire. Cruz isn’t your concern in New Hampshire. His concern would be Rubio. I think he should stop and make sure that Rubio and the other establishment candidates stay down at seven, eight, nine percent.
Cruz is going to get his conservative vote in New Hampshire and probably not a great deal more.
I think he is a natural fit for 18 percent, but I think he could grow to 20 or 22 percent.
FR: What about Rand Paul in the Live Free or Die state?
DENNEHY: He’s done. Yup. He’s dropped so far back and I think he’s silly not to have even dropped out. There’s zero energy for him in New Hampshire and he’s been polling at three or four percent, and his four or five percent in Iowa is not going to get him any momentum.
FR: It seems odd. The idea was for him to build on his father’s movement, but instead it’s diminished.
DENNEHY: He undid it and lost what his dad had.
(Rand Paul just announced he is suspending his campaign.)