Guest Notes

Presidential notes

5 January 2019

9:00 AM

5 January 2019

9:00 AM

Insiders and Outsiders

Buckle up, US political junkies!  We are now just moments away from the starting gun being fired in what will be a gripping 18 months of theatre – the Democratic presidential primary to decide the 2020 anti-Trump.

Firstly, will Trump be challenged for the Republican nomination? No. The GOP is now Trump’s party.

Never-Trump Republicans while not extinct are critically endangered with several of their loudest voices retiring from politics prior to the recent midterms to ‘spend time with their family’ (i.e. they were going to lose their primary).

In 2016, Trump upended a Republican convention that has ruled since the universal adoption of primaries in 1976. Republicans are conservative- minded and so the winner of the primary has been the runner-up from last time bar George W. Bush in 2000 (who had massive establishment backing.)

Democrats are often the opposite.  Democrats instinctively root for underdogs and so an outsider has a much better chance of winning. Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were not on the national radar before winning.  But it’s mixed.  Walter Mondale, Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton were well known and backed by their party’s establishment.

So in a Democratic primary both insiders and outsiders can win. The difficulty with predicting the 2020 anti-Trump candidate is there is a dozen potential underdogs and no ‘establishment’ candidate unless Hillary jumps in.

The most powerful attribute for political success is resilience – and Hillary has a tonne of it. Some in Camp Clinton say she will run and others say she won’t. There hasn’t been any polling yet so the only data we have is the betting markets and they say Hillary 2020 is a longshot; a $1.00 bet returns around $45.

The early favourite is the former Attorney-General of California and first term senator Kamala Harris. She has so many parallels with the most successful Democrat this century she is known as the female Obama. She has an exotic family background – a Jamaican father and a Tamil Indian mother. Like Obama she has a cool self-assurance, a likable smile and is from the party’s left.  Harris is $5.10.

In second place is Beto O’Rourke who was the Democratic senate candidate in Texas recently. He did remarkably well in ruby-red Texas only losing by 2.6 per cent and his Hollywood good looks have garnered plenty of recent attention. But he did lose to Ted Cruz who lost to Trump in the 2016 GOP primary. That’s not a winning narrative.

In third place is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren at $12.50. What she lacks in Harris’ charm is her passionate advocacy of left-wing economic causes.  It’ll help that she has had ongoing public spats with Trump which will endear her to the primary voters. She recently attempted to clean up her Native American ancestry narrative but that backfired.

Representing the far left of the party is Bernie Sanders who is beloved by primary voters, particularly after it came out post his 2016 withdrawal that the Democratic machine manipulated the outcome.  Bernie’s biggest strength is sincerity.  Unlike Hillary who has reinvented herself multiple times Bernie is a proud socialist and was way before it was cool to be one in Democratic circles. But surely what must go against him is age. Bernie is 77 so would be 87 if he finished a second term. He’s going to run and he’s reasonably competitive at $16.

The other candidate weighed down by age is Joe Biden. Biden ran for president in 1988 and in 2008. On neither occasion did he poll well but his profile as a working-class centrist was what Obama needed as a VP in 2008.

Had Biden been the Democratic candidate in 2016 I suspect he would have outperformed Hillary, but since he didn’t it’s hard to see him mustering up in 2020. Biden is $13.

Then there is the celebrity candidates. Oprah Winfrey has dropped a hint or two but seems to have backed off – why risk a legacy as a legend by losing? Oprah’s $48. The other big name to watch is Michael Bloomberg.  For years, Bloomberg has toyed with a run but he’s never bitten the bullet.  Donald Trump is rich but Bloomberg’s wealth towers over his fellow New Yorkers’. Bloomberg has been a Republican, Independent and now a Democrat where he appears most at home. He too is old (76) but he’s in terrific shape. I can’t help but think Bloomberg has been laying awake at night thinking, ‘if that crass Trump can do it then surely I can.’ Bloomberg is around $28.

Then there is another two dozen who have signalled they are pondering a run. At least half will, but it’s almost certainly going to be a waste of time. Trump will win again. Betting markets don’t agree; they give his re-election chances around one in three.  Trump is growing more comfortable in the office but more importantly, since Grover Cleveland failed to get re-elected in 1896, every US president who has replaced the opposing party in the White House has won a second term bar Jimmy Carter. Americans (like Aussies) like to give their national leader a second go.

The GOP’s performance in the recent midterms was reasonably positive and that was a referendum on Trump versus an empty chair.

When the Democrats finally settle on a candidate, the public will have a head to head contest and the anti-Trump will have undoubtedly collected baggage from the primary. Lefties will grumble if it’s a centrist and vice-versa. On top of that 2020 is the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower (the equivalent of our First Fleet) and that will set off a wave of patriotism that will surely boost the incumbent.

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