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Opinion| Eric Fehrnstrom

Taking stock of the presidential race

From left: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush.
From left: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

It’s the last day of 2015. What better time to take stock of the presidential race, as people start to pay closer attention. Let’s sort through the entrails of the past year and see what it portends for the future.

Donald Trump: There have been plenty of hand-wringing stories seeking to explain Trump’s rise. Is it wall-to-wall press coverage? Social media? The key to understanding the contest for the Republican nomination is immigration. Once you have the key, you can unlock all the mysteries of the race. The Republican Party started out encouraging candidates to support comprehensive immigration reform, a massive error in political judgment. Trump went in the opposite direction, and has been rewarded with a commanding lead. Now Trump is threatening to resurrect Bill Clinton’s checkered history with women as a way to answer Hillary Clinton’s gender attacks. There’s a reason why Apollo Creed’s trainer didn’t want to fight a southpaw like Rocky. Unorthodox opponents are unpredictable and hard to beat.

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Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio: In the battle for second place, the mainstream money is betting that Rubio will emerge as Trump’s main challenger. But remember, immigration is the key to understanding the Republican race. Rubio’s greatest vulnerability isn’t missed votes or his messy personal finances. The reason Cruz is pulling away from Rubio is that voters have sorted out who was on which side during the ill-fated battle over the Gang of 8 immigration bill, which critics derided as amnesty. Despite Rubio’s attempt to muddy the waters, he voted for the bill and Cruz voted against it. And as the poet said, that has made all the difference.

Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, John Kasich: These guys needed two things to happen in order to have a legitimate shot. First, a thinning of the field that would enable the establishment to rally behind a single candidate, and second, Ben Carson had to remain strong in order to divide the outsider vote with Trump. Neither came to pass. Supporters are hoping for a revival deeper in the election calendar. But politics has laws, just like the physical universe. One of those laws is that winning creates momentum. Losing in February makes it harder to win in March.

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Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina: Sometimes it’s just not your year.

Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Jim Gilmore, Rand Paul: Ibid.

Hillary Clinton: The conventional wisdom is that Clinton’s on a roll, but in last week’s Quinnipiac poll, 6 out of 10 voters said she is not honest or trustworthy. Despite the positive media, she still hasn’t overcome her biggest albatross, which is that most Americans think she is a liar. Falsely accusing Trump of being featured in ISIS recruitment videos may have cheered her partisan supporters, but it reinforced one of her worst characteristics. Added to that is the burden of being known as chief apologist for President Obama’s inept foreign policy. How big a burden? A CNN poll this week found that three-quarters of Americans are unsatisfied with the way things are going in the war on terrorism.

Bernie Sanders: Republicans used to struggle with the question of whether Obama was a socialist. On one hand, he wanted to “spread the wealth around.” Yet Obama was a Democrat, so he couldn’t be socialist, right? Now, thanks to Sanders, not even the party’s chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, can explain the difference. Win or lose, the Sanders candidacy is going to make the ground shake underneath the Democrats for many elections to come.

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Martin O’Malley: Exactly one person showed up for an O’Malley rally in Iowa two days ago. After a long discussion with the candidate, the voter left uncommitted. ’Nuff said.


Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst and media strategist, and was a senior adviser to Governor Mitt Romney.