Trump, Sanders and Obama's Stagnant Ratings
Believe it or not, the presidential race has been astonishingly stable for the past six months. But will it stay that way for the rest of the "invisible primary" -- the period leading up to the primary season that begins next winter?
Here are five more questions for the next five months.
1. Panic or wait? The Republican nomination battle, while Trumpified, still consists of the first tier of Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio; a handful of potentially viable long shots; and some implausible nominees. Republican party actors have been slow to make their choice. Will the Donald Trump frenzy induce panic, pushing them to decide quickly and rally the party around one candidate? Or will they wait, prolonging the process, on the assumption that Trump fever will break soon? Recall that about half the time during the past few decades the parties have informally decided on their nominees by Jan. 1 of the election year.
2. Does the natural winnowing of the field still work? Some have speculated that the breakdown of campaign-finance rules will allow trailing candidates to remain in the race longer, because they'll be able to keep raising money. In the last several cycles on the Republican side, serious candidates who reached the formal announcement stage have dropped out long before the Iowa caucuses. If Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Chris Christie are all going strong by New Year's Day (or at least still going, strong or not), that could be an indication that something has changed.
3. Will Berniementum make Hillary Clinton and the Democrats take more liberal positions? Clinton's grip on the nomination remains as strong as ever. But will Bernie Sanders's popularity force her to pitch more to the most liberal Democrats for a while? Or will she be more free than ever to pitch to general-election swing voters, since having such an implausible nominee as her chief rival makes her position even more safe? In answering this one, keep in mind that many liberal Clinton positions, from raising the minimum wage to supporting the Iran deal, could be driven by her campaign's belief that those policies will sell to swing voters in November.
4. Back to the Republicans: Will the most conservative party actors settle on a single, viable candidate? And if so, can they bring conservative voters with them -- or will many in the rank and file scatter among Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Ben Carson and others who will be unacceptable to those in the party who care about finding a strong candidate and a strong president? The Republican nominee will be very conservative, regardless. But party groups that organize themselves pragmatically have a large advantage over those whose main aim seems to be acting out.
5. How's the economy doing? Barack Obama's approval rating has been stuck in the mid-40s for months, suggesting a moderately uphill climb for Democrats next year. Much of that is probably because many voters remain skeptical about the state of the economy. If that changes, for better or worse, or if major events affect his standing one way or another, Obama could move out of the narrow approval zone he's been in forever, and that would fundamentally change the 2016 general election.
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