Republican and Democrat presidential contests part company this weekend. Republican voters go to the polls tonight in the South Carolina primary; three time zones later, Nevada Democrats will vote in caucuses. Nevada Republicans vote three days later, while South Carolina’s Democrats vote next weekend. (You can see the whole calendar at the Green Papers.)
The most likely Republican result is that it will complete the winnowing of the field to three candidates: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. The other two serious candidates, John Kasich and Jeb Bush (Ben Carson is also still on the ballot, but nobody any longer takes him seriously), have the same imperative: to remain a going concern, each needs to beat the other decisively, and to beat or at least get very close to Rubio.
That’s possible, but it doesn’t look very likely. In Kasich’s case that’s because he doesn’t have much money and South Carolina is naturally poor territory for him; in Bush’s case, it’s because voters just don’t seem to like him.
Trump, Cruz and Rubio will stay in whatever happens, but tonight could shift the dynamic between them. If Trump wins big, as the polls suggest, establishment panic will go into overdrive. If Cruz is a long way back, and particularly if he’s behind Rubio, he’ll start facing a lot of pressure to withdraw and throw his support to Rubio as the only viable anti-Trump candidate.
On the other hand, if Cruz does unexpectedly well, getting close to Trump or even beating him, that will give him a big boost going into the Super Tuesday races on 1 March, which include plenty of favorable territory for him. Democrats will be salivating at the prospect that the GOP could end up having to choose between Trump and Cruz.
Speaking of the Democrats, Nevada will see Hillary Clinton start as a narrow favorite against her rival, Bernie Sanders. Despite his big win in New Hampshire, most observers still think Sanders is a very long shot for the nomination: the betting odds give him only about one chance in six, a number that has barely moved in the last month.
For what it’s worth, I think that’s about right. Sanders is trying to repeat Barack Obama’s achievement of 2008, coming out of nowhere with an unconventional, grassroots campaign to upset the establishment’s overwhelming favorite – as it happens, the very same favorite.
But I don’t think he can do it. If anything, Clinton seems now the one better placed to replicate Obama’s strategy; as David Wasserman explained in a very interesting story last week at FiveThirtyEight:
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Hillary Clinton is relying on a coalition that looks almost the opposite of the one she assembled in 2008. Eight years ago, she prevailed among working-class whites while losing well-educated whites and African-Americans to Barack Obama. But her path to overcoming Bernie Sanders and winning the 2016 nomination now appears to rely on a marriage of upscale whites and African-Americans.
If that coalition could prevail against the establishment last time, you’d think it shouldn’t have too much trouble now with the establishment on side.
Of course it isn’t quite as simple as that. Many of the high expectations that were held for Obama have been disappointed, so Sanders has some reserves of discontent to draw on, and his somewhat grumpy charisma has an appeal to the young. But he seems to be facing an uphill task.