The Politico Caucus is out this morning, a weekly look at the campaign by political insiders in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. The leadoff today suggests real estate magnate Donald Trump’s candidacy is primarily impacting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also having their candidacies diminished:
Donald Trump’s turn in the national spotlight is mainly taking a toll on Ted Cruz, the Texas firebrand running as an uncompromising, anti-establishment conservative.
That’s the assessment of this week’s POLITICO Caucus, our weekly survey of the leading strategists, activists and political operatives in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Roughly a third of Iowa and New Hampshire Republican insiders pointed to Cruz as the candidate who is damaged the most in their states by Trump’s rise in the polls and emergence as a media-grabbing protest candidate….
“Cruz needs to consolidate the rage-against-the-machine, anti-establishment block of Caucus votes (both the harder-edged evangelicals and tea party types) as his Iowa Caucus foundation upon which to build,” said [an] Iowa Republican. “Trump is sucking all the oxygen out of the room. While I seriously doubt most of those folks will ultimately caucus for Trump, his message is scratching their anti-establishment itch at a time when Cruz needs to start showing some momentum.”
Christie is being hurt for similar reasons, according to the Iowa and New Hampshire political insiders:
In New Hampshire, where Chris Christie’s hopes are riding on a strong finish, roughly a quarter of Republicans believe the brash and straight-talking New Jersey governor is also put at risk by Trump’s emergence in the field.
“Christie is the ‘tell it like it is’ candidate, but he certainly can’t hang with Trump in that regard,” a Granite State Republican said. “Without the oxygen of a niche, Christie is rudderless and grasping at straws.”
“Christie has placed all his eggs in New Hampshire’s basket, but Trump is right now occupying the ‘tell it like it is’ lane with gusto,” added another New Hampshire Republican. “Same thing with Ted Cruz. If you’re a voter looking for the most conservative alternative, it’s hard to see you landing anywhere but Trump.”
Walker’s campaign may not be competing directly with Trump for the same voters at this point, but it is competing for media attention, and may be suffering as a result:
A handful of participants noted that Trump distracted from Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor who announced his presidential bid this week and leads in Iowa polls.
Walker is “barely registering in voters’ minds because The Donald is such a compelling blend of hair, media catnip, and voter rage” even during his announcement week, said one Iowa Republican.
Trump and Walker “are both in the state today, and every local reporter is more interested in covering [Trump] than Walker,” observed a New Hampshire Democrat.
Walker’s disadvantage is likely to be short-lived, as it’s due entirely to unfortunate timing (announcing his candidacy the same week Trump dominated coverage). Every other GOP candidate will probably suffer the same fate so long as Trump remains the center of media attention. Cruz and Christie’s problems could be more substantial as each makes his pitch for support, however.
The Politico Caucus also turned its eye toward former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to identify what she’s doing right and what she’s doing wrong in her campaign. The consensus on the former is that she’s building a strong organization:
Asked to assess what Clinton is doing right, and wrong, in their states, almost every Caucus participant — Democrats and Republicans — answered the question of what she’s doing right by saying Clinton has pulled together a strong staff and is doing all of the little things right when it comes to being organized for the early state contests and beyond.
“Doing right: building and investing in a monster field operation. Scares the hell out of this Republican knowing that many of those staff will easily pivot to organizing for the general election,” an Iowa Republican said.
“HRC is building a campaign rooted in organizing,” added a New Hampshire Democrat. “I’ve been to several house parties & campaign events and there are always new faces present — faces that weren’t involved in the 2012 presidential race. There is absolutely no one taking this primary race for granted whatsoever.”
As for where she’s stumbling, the political insiders suggested she is inaccessible to voters and reporters:
New Hampshire Caucus members on both sides of the aisle pointed to a much-publicized Fourth of July weekend parade incident in which reporters were roped off and held back from the candidate during a Clinton swing through New Hampshire. That was an avoidable problem that instead became a big distraction, insiders said….
Clinton “needs to take some concrete steps to counter the media narrative that she is somehow shutting them out of the process and that this is a departure from the way presidential campaigns are normally run,” warned another New Hampshire Democrat. “Voters might start believing this even though it is more a case of her campaign trying to control its own narrative and not ceding it to the national media such that they are forced to incessantly talk about State Department emails, the Clinton Foundation, etc. rather than issues she wants to connect with voters on.”
Insiders also said she needs to allow voters to feel that they are spending quality time with her — something early-staters expect and require. One Iowa Democrat described her as a “candidate who seems allergic to real human interaction.” Several said it’s time for Clinton to start hosting bigger events, both to boost enthusiasm levels and to ensure that more people get to see her.
Clinton’s development of a better organization likely reflects her memory of the 2008 campaign, where she failed to develop a significant campaign infrastructure in states voting late in the process. Overcoming that problem, of course, simply means the campaign can now turn its attention to remaining shortcomings (true of all campaigns, of course).
As always, the Politico Caucus provides insights and analysis that are, at the very least, helpful in understanding the 2016 campaign dynamic.