This post was originally published on Fox&Hounds, Thursday, February 4, 2016.
While Cruz and Trump were expected to dominate the field in Iowa, Senator Marco Rubio scored surprisingly well—finishing a close third. Perhaps that was attributable to the “Goldilocks effect;” many voters apparently found Trump “too hot,” Cruz “too cold” and Rubio “just right.” Is that a one-off phenomenon?
Unless Ohio Governor John Kasich, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or former Florida Governor Jeb Bush outscores Rubio in New Hampshire or South Carolina, the Republican nomination battle may settle down into a long slog, with the three Iowa leaders engaging in hand-to-hand combat through the remaining primary and caucus states and, maybe, into the July GOP convention.
The candidates who currently top the leader board have strengths and weaknesses that could make it difficult for any one contender to capture a clear lead. Senator Cruz has the organization and the evangelical/Tea Party firepower to make a big impact (as he did in Iowa), particularly in the south, but he scares many GOP leaders and voters in the center-right mainstream of the party.
Trump has his oversized personality and bravado, which are both strengths and weaknesses. He also has the deep pockets—if he should choose to dip into them—necessary for a long haul. Senator Rubio is personable and carries off his far right orthodoxy with a big smile that makes him look like a moderate in comparison to many of his rivals. Although he may turn out to be the last gasp of the Republican establishment—a plus and a minus—Rubio could remind too many of the party faithful of a 2016 version of Barack Obama (another appealing, but largely untested, political newbie).
If California remains a player until June 7, the race will be fascinating. In a closed primary, where only Republicans can vote, Cruz would be able to lean on a base of evangelical and far right voters, who although less numerous than in other states, still make up a sizable chunk of the GOP electorate. In a January Field Poll, 53% of California’s Republican likely primary voters identified themselves as “strongly conservative” and 42% identified themselves as “born-again Christian.” Cruz had the highest percentage of support of both voter groups.
The telegenic Senator Rubio would seem to be a good fit for a state too big for retail politics. The Donald, of course, would play the “Arnold Schwarzenegger” role of the celebrity outsider who wants to “blow up the boxes.” (Don’t forget that Schwarzenegger is about to assume the “Donald Trump” role, hosting “Celebrity Apprentice.”)
If all three now-top-tier candidates remain viable until June, it is hard to foresee who would come out ahead in delegates garnered from the CA Primary, in which 159 GOP delegates are distributed winner-take-all by Congressional district.
It is hard to imagine that the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders fight for the Democratic nomination will come down to California. Even with a big win in New Hampshire, it is doubtful that Senator Sanders can sustain momentum in states whose populations are more diverse than those of Iowa and New Hampshire. The rosy scenario for Secretary Clinton is to prevail in the delegate count before the uber-expensive California primary and without alienating Sanders’ base of younger voters.
By now, most of us are aware that it’s been decades since California played a meaningful role in the Presidential nominating process, but this year there is a glimmer of hope. Really. In the meantime, we can all watch as our national political soap opera plays out, lurching from one bizarre episode to another.