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State of the 2016 race: One year out

<p>It was Saturday night and Donald Trump was live from New York, playing a caricature of himself for laughs. “It is wonderful to be here,” Trump bragged about his “Saturday Night Live” hosting gig. “I will tell you this is going to be something special. Many of the greats have hosted, as you know, this show, like me, in 2004.” </p><p>More than 700 miles away, Hillary Clinton was all business as she wrapped up her second South Carolina swing in as many weeks. She had appeared Friday at a forum with her putative rivals. She spent Saturday trying to lock down key constituencies of the modern Democratic coalition: gay-rights activists and African-Americans. </p><p>The split screen of the two front-runners — one leveraging the entertainment value of his bid, the other attempting to wrap up her party’s nomination as early as possible — offers a snapshot of the state of the race with a year to go before Election Day. The Democratic Party’s divide is a familiar one, with a progressive candidate challenging the establishment choice and attracting not just supporters but true believers. But while Clinton appears to be shoring up her support and widening her lead, the Republican side remains splintered, with no signs of coalescence on the horizon.</p><p>Remarkably, eight Republicans have led respected national surveys since early 2014: Trump, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie and Rand Paul. In contrast, the Democratic contest has been the picture of stability. Clinton has led every national poll for two years running, and<a href=”http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/us/2016_democratic_presidential_nomination-3824.html#polls” target=”_blank”> only twice by less than double digits</a>.</p><p>“It’s a mess,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Poll. “The Republican schism is more serious and more recent — they have a fundamental outsider-establishment divide that we see in Congress, around the country and on the campaign trail. The only point of unity is their dislike for Hillary Clinton.” </p><p>Today, two outsiders with no political experience between them — Trump and Carson — combine to top 50 percent support in most of the recent GOP primary polls. Bush, the son and brother of the past two Republican presidents, wallows at a tenth of that. And the first candidates to drop out entirely were the longest-serving governor in Texas history, Rick Perry, and the Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, who became a conservative folk hero for crippling the state’s unions. </p><p>That uncertainty led Karl Rove, the Republican uber-strategist, to speculate about the prospect of a brokered convention in the pages of The Wall Street Journal last week. And GOP strategists are wrestling with self-doubt about their understanding of the electorate. </p><br><p>“It’s kind of like Magellan sailing around the world for the first time,” a top Republican operative said of the 2016 GOP primary. “No one knows what the New World is going to look like when we get there. But the conventional wisdom has been thrown out the window.” </p><p>For those reasons, many on the Republican side view the present chaos as a preliminary phase of the campaign, with a shakeout to occur even before the first contest takes place in Iowa on Feb. 1. </p><p>“We’re registering a mood right now,” said strategist Kevin Madden, a former top adviser to Mitt Romney. “The Trump and Carson candidacies are convenient vehicles for sending a message about their mood. They’re not interested in the status quo. At a certain point we swing back to where the premium is who can be in the Oval Office on Day One, who is going to offer our party the best chance to win in a general election. That’s when those candidacies get more seriously challenged.” </p><p>At the moment, the outlook on the Democratic side offers far more clarity. Clinton is coming off the best month of her campaign. She emerged the victor in the first debate; she looked bigger than her GOP interlocutors on the Benghazi Committee; she saw Joe Biden take a pass on challenging her; and she rallied a large crowd of supporters at the high-stakes Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa. </p><p>For now, at least, the biggest threat Clinton faces is herself. Even as she trounces her Democratic opponents — Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley — in recent polls, the majority of registered voters still do not view her as “honest and straightforward.” In a<a href=”http://www.quinnipiac.edu/news-and-events/quinnipiac-university-poll/national/release-detail?ReleaseID=2274″ target=”_blank”> Quinnipiac poll</a> in late August, the first three words that came to voters’ minds about Clinton were “liar,” “dishonest” and “untrustworthy.”</p><p>The email controversy that has plagued Clinton’s campaign for six months continues to fuel those impressions — and it’s not yet behind her. The FBI is still probing Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was at the State Department. </p><p>In addition, Republican strategists are hoping she is pushed too far left in the primary by self-described democratic socialist Sanders, making her general election battle more difficult. </p><p>“Hillary Clinton is in a better position than she was three weeks ago, but there’s still problems that are taking place in the primary that are going to spill over into the general election,” said Madden, pointing to her move leftward on the issue of gun control. “She’s going to have a hard time making the case to some of these swing voters in the traditional battleground states. She still has a problem with male voters, and the issues of trust relatability.” </p><p>Inside Clinton headquarters, the focus is still on winning Iowa, New Hampshire and building a good organization in the March states. Even in private, an aide said, there are never meetings or discussions about general election strategy. </p><br><p>Still, for the first six months of the year, sources said, both Bill and Hillary Clinton were very concerned about Bush and the challenges he would pose as the Republican nominee. But that focus has shifted recently to Rubio, the charismatic Florida senator rising in the polls as he promises to turn the page on “yesterday.” </p><p>The same is true inside the David Brock-led network of super PACs backing Clinton — a source familiar with their inner workings says they are also zeroing in on Rubio, in particular his stances on immigration and personal finances. Of course, the Brock empire is just as confounded by the GOP primary as Republicans are: Super PAC officials have ordered up a dossier on Donald Trump, just in case. </p><p>In historic terms, there are powerful crosscurrents buffeting the 2016 race. The political party holding the presidency rarely wins a third consecutive term. Then again, the party in power usually performs well when the economy is humming — and there has been private-sector job growth every month for more than five years, as the unemployment rate has plunged to 5 percent. </p><p>The Electoral College landscape and presidential-year turnout currently favor the Democrats, who take consolation in the nation’s shifting demographics. Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Obama, has pinned to the top of his Twitter page the fact that the 2016 GOP nominee would need to win 30 percent of the nonwhite vote to win the election if he or she carried the same share of the white vote (59 percent) as Mitt Romney in 2012. </p><p>But Obama’s two White House terms have papered over an enormous hollowing out of the Democratic Party. Since his election in 2008, Democrats have lost more than 900 seats in state legislatures nationwide, 69 seats in the House, 13 in the Senate and 12 governorships. </p><p>Justifying their latest loss — in the Kentucky governor’s race last week — the Democratic Governors Association blamed the “unexpected headwinds of Trump-mania” and declared it to be “the Year of the Outsider.” </p><p>And yet the party is poised to nominate the ultimate insider: someone who has actually lived inside the White House before, a former senator, secretary of state and first lady. </p><p>“She’s a wrong nominee in a wrong year and they’re about to coronate her,” said Henry Barbour, the Republican National Committeeman from Mississippi and influential party strategist. “And that’s good for Republicans.” </p><p>But as vulnerable as Republicans view Clinton, some worry about a repeat of 2012, when Romney emerged from a prolonged primary cash-poor and competing against a tested and fully built-out Democratic infrastructure. That’s one of the reasons Romney’s old campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, founded America Rising, a GOP research outfit, to batter Clinton throughout 2015 and early 2016. </p><p>All of these forces are playing out against a backdrop marked by signs of deep discontent and frustration within the electorate. Even as the economic picture has brightened, the voters’ mood has darkened, creating conditions ripe for insurgent candidates. </p><p>“What we’re seeing in polling — outsiderism is one way to put it — is also populism,” said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster and strategist currently unaligned in 2016. “Not trusting of institutions, whether it be Big Business, media, Congress, Washington. It’s on the left and on the right.” <br /></p><br><p><br />Candidates in both parties have sought to capture that sentiment — if there’s a common denominator, it’s antipathy to the nation’s capital and the established political order. On the left, Sanders talks in terms of a “political revolution.” On the right, Paul calls for destroying the Washington machine while Ted Cruz talks about defeating the Washington cartel. Huckabee went so far as <a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=33&amp;v=npCUVY5XU8k” target=”_blank”>to light a match in one</a> ad, calling Washington a strip club that deserved to burn.</p><p>Then there’s Bush, who stretched <a href=”https://twitter.com/ZekeJMiller/status/652178797870059520?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw” target=”_blank”>to declare</a> last month, “I’ve never worked in Washington. It’s just not part of my DNA.”</p><p>Some say precedent will prevail, with Clinton steamrolling the progressive resistance and Republican primary voters eventually settling on a more traditional candidate, one who isn’t at war with the GOP establishment. </p><p>“For Donald Trump to win the Republican nomination it would mean that everything we know about politics would have to either be irrelevant or wrong,” said Stuart Stevens, who served as Romney’s chief strategist. “I just don’t think that’s the case.” <br /></p><br>

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