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Russian hills 2016. Round One. Early states

Finally what everyone has been expecting from the US presidential election has happened. Donald Trump scored his first crushing victory over his opponents in the Republican Party primaries while Hillary Clinton suffered an equally crushing defeat from her party opponent Bernie Sanders.

Yevhen Kurmashov Yevhen Kurmashov , Director of political programmes, Gorshenin Institute

It was late in the evening in Kiev when primaries were held in the second of four early states –New Hampshire. This means that half of the early states – Iowa and New Hampshire –is behind. The primaries will then be held in South Carolina and Nevada, to culminate on 1 March during the Super Tuesday when preliminary voting will be held in 12 states at once, after which the key trends in further competition will be overall clear.

From sociology to practical results

It is important that now observers, voters and establishment of both parties and donors are gradually building the capacity to assess the potential of one or another candidate based not on social surveys but on the practical results of voting as candidates move forward in the primaries. It should be noted that the forming sociology is one of the main technological tools in US campaigns. The staffs of absolutely all candidates very actively use this tool and this election race is no exception. Reputable sociological companies and media corporations as well as candidates' staffs and their superpacks all publish the results of their measurements. No-one gives the wrong figures while PR and consultants get creative about formulating questions which would benefit their candidates.

For instance, several weeks before the primaries, acting on a huge number of studies which presented him as the most comfortable competitor for Hillary Clinton in the general election of the Republican Party, Donald Trump's staff organized a survey among Democratic Party voters. The interviewers asked them whether they would support Trump in the autumn election, and it turned out that 20 per cent of the respondents did not rule the option of supporting Trump if he became a candidate. Thus Trump's team showed that their candidate is not just the leader of the intraparty rating but has a great potential on the opponent's electoral field. Senator Marco Rubio for some time was the only Republican candidate whom the national public opinion polls put 2-3 per cent ahead of Hillary Clinton if they face each other in the general election. His staff ran these figures all over the media, which shored up his position not only in the party fight but in the eyes of the party establishment and donors.

The subject of a detailed study concerns not only the sentiments of TV viewers right after each round of debate but the statistics of Google queries. The victory in intraparty debates in the eyes of TV viewers is another chance for every candidate to improve their intraparty rating ahead of voting in separate states. The publication of search engine stats can even be used as an anti-crisis effort as Donald Trump's staff has recently demonstrated. Shortly before 1 February, when the Iowa primaries was due, Trump made a scandal by refusing to take part in party debates on the Republicans' Fox News TV.

In parallel to the debate, Trump's team held a mini campaign to try and prove a theorem that one can win a debate even without actually taking part in it.

One of the arguments used in this campaign was the statistics of Google queries on the day of the TV show, according to which Trump was far ahead of the other Republican candidates.

Opinion polls proved to be rather accurate in regard of the New Hampshire primaries. In any case, pollsters were right when they predicted the intraparty victories of Trump and Sanders. As far as the Republican primaries were concerned, it was not clear until the very last moment how the places, from two to five, would be distributed, and the main intrigue – how much Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz would get – hung loose.

Fight of senators

After the Iowa victory, it was critically important for Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas, to come second after Trump, albeit with a wide margin, to keep his tactical advantages and the image of the main competitor and alternative to Trump. The victory in Iowa does not mean much as far as the intraparty confrontation in the long-run is concerned, although this victory always gives a candidate a very important psychological and media advantage in the short space between the first and second states.

Cruz has really turned out to be the top story of the news week which happened between Iowa and New Hampshire. The real victory in Iowa has successfully shaped the strategic line of his HQ, which is to impose a personal duel on Trump and position him as Trump’s main intraparty opponent. On the eve of Iowa, Cruz launched a large number of personal attacks on Trump, highlighting his blatant mistakes such as rude remarks about the citizens of the state and his position on abortions. Conservative Iowa, where Cruz’s Protestantism played a major part, brought him a convincing victory over Trump, but the victorious tread expectedly broke in New Hampshire, where Ohio governor John Kasich came second with 16 per cent and Cruz third with 11.5 per cent. However, compared with Donald Trump’s almost 35 per cent, Cruz’s results look very modest. It is surely not enough to keep the image of Trump’s main opponent, and South Carolina and Nevada will be decisive, as he will have to prove that his result in Iowa was not an accident.

As for Marco Rubio, his decisive moment has already come, and largely his potential to go further was put to the test in New Hampshire. The third place in Iowa, very big advances and expectations from the establishment of the Republican Party, attention of numerous donors thanks to which Marco’s campaign has had no financial problems, the irritating advantage of Cruz who successfully "subscribed" to Trump’s anti-rating – that is how the scene was set for Rubio before 9 February. The confident second place in New Hampshire is the minimal result the young senator from Florida should have aimed for to prove his potential and keep his resource base. However Rubio was only fifth with 10 per cent of votes. This is a true ticket to leave the list of candidates for the Republican nomination in 2016.

A brief analysis of such a low result by Rubio shows the following:

 – Rubio initially made a strategic mistake by choosing Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz as the targets of his criticism and playing almost no part in the anti-Trump game. Whereas Ted Cruz and his team got the lay of the land right about Donald Trump being an unconditional leader of the run (and a big problem for the party), and started working with his anti-rating, Rubio got involved in an untimely and indirect polemic with Hillary Clinton. Later on, he started attacking Cruz who is by far not the main villain in the Republican primaries. As a result, he failed to secure enough support to get the necessary result both in Iowa and New Hampshire;

– Rubio’s youth and novelty in the competitive environment quickly turned from advantages into disadvantages after the senator had made a number of mistakes which exposed his political inexperience and immaturity. Moreover, several days before the primaries in New Hampshire, Rubio was caught making absolutely identical memorized statements in various circumstances, which gave more experienced opponents and journalists reasons to ridicule him. This situation perfectly (and unsuccessfully for Rubio) fitted the general derisive context created around his name;

– On the eve of New Hampshire, there was an awkward moment when influential Republican party member Rick Santorum withdrew his candidacy after the voting in Iowa in favour of Rubio, but later, appearing on the air of a prime-time evening show, he failed to answer the presenter's question about Marco Rubio’s achievements and accomplishments. Stumbling over words and losing grip under journalists' pressure, he could not name at least a single competitive advantage of Rubio over his opponents. This serious blunder became a topic for discussion and mockery on the eve of the primaries on 9 February, and Santorum’s absurd answers about Marco Rubio were used by Jeb Bush in a commercial launched on the eve of the primaries in New Hampshire;

–The establishment of the so-called "club of governors" consisting of John Kasich (governor of Ohio), Chris Christie (governor of New Jersey) and Jeb Bush (ex-governor of Florida) worked against Marco Rubio as well. Trying to improve their mediocre standing in the primaries during the last remaining days and debates, each of the "Republican governors" had been eagerly attacking Trump, Cruz and Rubio who had no solid executive background. Acting either in sync or independently, the Kasich-Christie-Bush trio made it very clear to the public why senators and billionaires with no experience in public administration could not claim the country's top post. Whereas Trump, at this stage of the campaign, already has a strong core electorate that does not pay much attention to the considerations of the distinguished governors, the Rubio-Cruz duet of senators has surely suffered losses to their ratings due to this attack.

These are only some of the problems to be analysed by Marco Rubio’s HQ in the course of preparations for South Carolina and Nevada.

As for Trump, his main problem is still Cruz, to whom Trump has a simple approach – a scornful and arrogant attitude. Trump is clearly aware of Cruz’s intention to provoke a large-scale conflict and limit the primaries to the Trump-Cruz duel, and consciously avoids this game. Instead Trump occasionally drops rude remarks – almost outrageous - about Ted, at the same time offering Cruz the lowest possible level of face-to-face polemic.

Almost finish for Jeb

Perhaps, the Iowa and New Hampshire results turned out to be most dramatic namely for Jeb. In yesterday’s primaries, Jeb slightly outdid Marco Rubio and almost reached Cruz, having received about 11 per cent in New Hampshire, but this result and this closeness in the rating are unlikely to make Bush happy. Polls say that Jeb still has a small chance of comeback in South Carolina with the second-third place, although Jeb’s financial reports indicate that sponsors have no trust in his potential any longer, while sociology and early results show that the party's supporters do not see him as a future candidate for president from the GOP.

Generally, apart from the obvious problems with the strategy and Jeb’s charisma, everything says that Jeb just failed to match the expectations and needs of the party’s voters in this electoral cycle. The rating leaders are provocateurs and populists Trump and Cruz, who are seen as rebels and revolutionaries within the party. The party elite considers them to be dangerous but does not have any serious candidates of its own. For some time, the establishment had been betting on Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, though their conservative messages and images do not work under new conditions.

Looking at Jeb’s ratings and the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, it would be logical to assume that the main problem of Jeb Bush’s campaign was a sloppy job studying and profiling his voters at the stage of working out a strategy. However, on the other hand, Jeb Bush has always been and still remains a representative of the specific political dynasty, and it is impossible to imagine him performing in Donald Trump’s style. At the moment, the only remaining intrigue about Bush is when he is going to drop out and whether he is to form any situational alliances.

Hillary Clinton. Fight against herself

As for Hillary Clinton’s result in New Hampshire, it came as no surprise. Opinion polls showed a clear trend towards a rapidly growing gap between Sanders and Clinton in the "granite state" long before 9 February. Psychologically, it was extremely important for Clinton not to lose the first two "granite states", Iowa and New Hampshire, and she succeeded. Yes, the victory in Iowa was minimal, and the public perception was that it was Sanders not Hillary who scored the victory, though their score in the dry intraparty standoff is 1:1 at the moment.

Tactically, Hillary Clinton is facing difficult 10 days before Nevada and slightly over two weeks before South Carolina, where she will have a good opportunity to recoup herself and slightly improve the overall situation. The most important thing is to begin to gradually restore the image of "irreplaceable Hillary" which has been seriously damaged by Sanders in the recent months.

On the other hand, there is no point arguing that Hillary Clinton’s election project is experiencing hard times. It is far from the steep dive but problems in managing the campaign and meanings are hard to deny. To add to the crushing defeat in New Hampshire, new nationwide measurements show that Clinton's lead over Sanders has reached a historical minimum of 3-5 per cent today.

Hillary clearly lacks the "here and now" action. We can see that she and her HQ have spent too much time retelling her political history and failed to notice how this campaign direction had replaced anything else. The campaign needs some aggression, boldness and novelty. The policy aimed at preserving Obama’s achievements multiplied by biographical stories do not seem to guarantee Hillary a confident advantage.

Staff reshuffle in Clinton’s team was announced shortly before the primaries in New Hampshire. According to US media, Hillary and Bill Clinton are most unhappy about two directions of the HQ's work – the formulation of messages and the implementation of a digital strategy. A number of campaign managers and strategists are likely to give way to other specialists.

However, all these staff changes and complaints about particular specialists do not deny a simple fact that the problems in Hillary’s campaign stem from the great self-confidence of both her manager and Hillary herself. As a result of this self-confidence, the Democratic Party's primaries turned into a duel.

The approximately equal figures of Hillary and Sanders in Iowa and the defeat of Hillary in New Hampshire are first of all the result of the primaries configuration allowed by Hillary’s team in this election. Taking into account that the anti-rating of the Clinton clan and Hillary herself among the Democratic Party voters is traditionally rather high, it is not surprising that her only opponent demonstrates such high score. When they face each other directly, the anti-rating will not disperse. It will be the source of the opponent’s rating, as shown by the rapid growth of Sander’s rating.

Considering the resources and capacity of the "team Hillary", we can only wonder how she could take such wrong decisions and stay in the open field with one opponent without any opportunity to moderate or influence the process of the primaries. After all, a year ago, Democratic Party was considering cancelling the primaries because Hillary Clinton’s candidacy seemed so obvious and unquestionable.

One can state with full confidence that while fighting Sanders, Hillary is fighting mainly against herself, and her further progress in the primaries depends solely on her and her team. It is already late not to notice Sanders, though Hillary’s advisers still have no clear formula of a confident victory over him. The worst-case scenario for Hillary would be if this victory in the primaries turned out to be unconfident after all. The geography and schedule of early voting leave no doubt about Clinton’s final victory in the Democratic Party primaries, where a lot will be decided in big states such as California, New York, Texas, Florida and Illinois. 

Yevhen Kurmashov Yevhen Kurmashov , Director of political programmes, Gorshenin Institute