My Picks for Nevada (D) and South Carolina (R)

Yes, we've got two primary races to be decided this Saturday, in two different states and two different parties. Democrats in Nevada and South Carolina Republicans will both vote on the same day, for no real logical reason. Confused? Well, it'll only get more confusing, since next week Republicans in Nevada will caucus and South Carolina Democrats will vote in their primary -- on different days. So at least this week we'll be able to see two results on the same evening.

Before I begin prognosticating on the Silver State and the Palmetto State, though, I've got to bring my record up to date. If you're playing along at home, you can check your picks against my record so far, because I believe everyone should be accountable about their wild predictions (me, most especially).

Heading into New Hampshire, I had a pretty dismal record from Iowa: 0 for 1 for Democrats and 1 for 3 for Republicans. Overall, this added up to only one correct pick out of four. Like I said, pretty dismal. New Hampshire, however, boosted my overall totals, and my record now stands at:

Total correct 2016 Democratic picks: 1 for 2 -- 50%

Total correct 2016 Republican picks: 3 for 6 -- 50%

Total overall correct picks: 4 for 8 -- 50%.

As one commenter (to my previous "picks" article) noted, I am now doing precisely as well as flipping a coin. Woo hoo! Well, that's somewhat unfair, since flipping a coin could indeed work for the Democratic race, but you'd need (at least) a rather odd 5-sided coin to predict the Republican races, so far. Get out the old Dungeons-and-Dragons dice!

Seriously, though, I did fairly well in New Hampshire, correctly picking Bernie's win (an easy call), but incorrectly predicting Bernie would win "by 12 percent." In fact, the margin was ten points higher, making my bold prediction of 12 points (some were predicting single digits) look pretty timid in hindsight. On the Republican side, I chose Trump, Kasich, and Rubio. I was pretty pleased to see Kasich fulfill my gut-level guess, but obviously I hadn't counted how much Rubio hurt himself in that last debate.

OK, enough with the old news, let's take a look forward to Saturday's races.

South Carolina (Republicans)

All the available polling shows that picking South Carolina's top three winners is going to be pretty easy -- merely a matter of whether Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio wins second to Donald Trump's first. I'll get to that in a minute, but first a note about fourth and fifth places is necessary.

There are three Republican candidates who are looking more and more like afterthoughts in the 2016 campaign. Ben Carson, in particular, really needs to throw in the towel and just admit that he peaked way, way too early. John Kasich just isn't going to catch fire, and also should consider hanging up his spurs. None of that is very controversial -- it's pretty much conventional wisdom at this point. But the third conclusion is a very tough one for many Republicans to swallow, because as the Washington Post aptly pointed out today, South Carolina is truly Jeb Bush's last stand. If Bush can't even make it into the top three, then he will become "Exhibit A" for the concept that money can't always just flat-out buy elections. Bush's campaign had more money than Croesus, and it did him precisely no good whatsoever. He's come in fourth place and sixth place in the first two contests. Another fourth-place finish (or even fifth, if Kasich outdoes him this Saturday) means that Jeb's race is essentially over. If you can't even manage a top-three finish with over a hundred million dollars to spend, then you are obviously not the candidate the voters want -- and you should realize that, sooner rather than later.

Will Jeb actually end his campaign after South Carolina? Maybe, maybe not. He'll most likely drag things out until Super Tuesday (he's certainly got enough money to get him there), although perhaps not. He is a "party first" kind of guy, and the pressure from within the Republican establishment for him to clear the field for Rubio will become overwhelming. So we'll see what happens, but I wouldn't be all that surprised if Jeb dropped out of the race after Nevada (if not right after South Carolina).

So much for the also-rans. South Carolina polling shows the clear choice for who is going to win the state, and his name is Donald Trump. This will give Trump two wins out of three, and will immediately bury all that "Trump will never be the Republican nominee" magical thinking, once and for all. If Trump wins South Carolina, even David Brooks will have to admit he's been wrong about Trump all along, to put this another way.

Roughly fifteen or twenty points back in the GOP polling, there is a tight race for second place. Neither Ted Cruz nor Marco Rubio is going to win South Carolina, but they both want the bragging rights of being "the only Republican with a chance against Trump." If Cruz places second, he'll have one third-place finish, one second-place showing, and one outright win to tout. If Rubio edges out Cruz, he'll have one second-place finish to go with his third-place showing in Iowa. So both candidates are fighting for the first second-place finish either of them will have. Cruz will have hit the top three in every primary so far, so Rubio really has the most to gain from a good showing this Saturday.

The race between Cruz and Rubio has gotten pretty vicious over the past week. In fact, the entire Republican race has gotten nasty (as evidenced by that knife-fight of a debate we all were subjected to, last weekend). But the biggest charge being made against Cruz is an especially pertinent one, since the evangelical vote is such a big portion of his base support. Both Rubio and Trump are blatantly calling Cruz a liar, repeatedly -- for his loose use of "facts" in his campaign ads and for the dirty trick he pulled on Ben Carson in Iowa. Being dishonest is one of the litmus tests for sincerely religious voters, to put it mildly. They'll normally forgive all kinds of sins, but lying can be a real deal-breaker. If the charge of Cruz being a liar sticks in any way in the closing days of the campaign, his support could fade considerably.

Right now, Cruz is still polling marginally higher than Rubio. However, the trend line is not good for Cruz. He's been slipping, over the past week, while Rubio has been slowly rising. These late-breaking trends are often indicative of who will turn out on primary day, so I'm going to go with the trendlines and against the absolute polling numbers and predict that Rubio edges Cruz for second place. This makes my slate of picks for the Republican caucuses in South Carolina: (1) Trump, (2) Rubio, and (3) Cruz. We'll see how I do Saturday night (maybe I'll be able to improve my coin-flip average).

 

Nevada (Democrats)

This one is sheer gut-level prediction. There are two core reasons for this uncertainty. The first reason has multiple parts: there just isn't all that much polling done in Nevada; it's a caucus state with low turnout; and voters can register at the caucuses themselves, which allows first-time or crossover voters the chance to be heard, even at the last minute. The second big reason that we've all got nothing tangible to base any Nevada predictions on is that the two polls which have appeared from Nevada show an absolute tie. One of them had a 45-to-45 dead heat, and one of them had Hillary Clinton up over Bernie Sanders by a single point, 48 percent to his 47. That's about as close as you can get, poll-wise. Especially since these are the only two polls which were even conducted this year -- there's no other data to contradict them, and there simply are no "trendlines" because you'd need more data to spot any trends.

In fact, to even get any competent analysis of the Nevada race, you've got to read the local Nevada newspapers. Here's a pretty good article on what the turnout Saturday night might mean for Clinton and Sanders, and here's another one on the general state of the Democratic race, if anyone's interested. Nevada, as I've previously noted, is the Rodney Dangerfield of early primary states: it just don't get no respect.

So what have we got? Hillary arrived in the state early and has done her best to build a powerful network within the state. She's got the backing of some heavyweight Unions (which play an outsized role with Democrats in the state), but Bernie seems to have generated quite a bit of support from rank-and-file Union members. Bernie arrived late to Nevada, but has built a formidable organization here since. A huge turnout might mean a Bernie win, but then that didn't work perfectly for him in Iowa, so who knows? Both campaigns have made unforced errors which might influence Nevada voters. A Clinton campaign bigwig tried to brush off Nevada as being "80 percent white" (to lower expectations for how well Hillary would do), which prompted some well-deserved ridicule from Nevada's most powerful Democrat, Harry Reid. But some Sanders campaign people tried to sneak into Union-only areas they weren't allowed in, which is kind of an affront to Union members. These are both pretty minor transgressions, but in such a close race they could have an influence.

Bernie has the most to gain by a Nevada win, clearly. If he wins two out of the first three states, then that whole "electability" argument for Clinton gets a lot less potent. He'll also be able to claim he's the candidate with the momentum on his side -- and he'll be right. Whether this helps him or not in South Carolina will remain to be seen, but he'll surely be pushing the idea hard if he wins Nevada.

Clinton, on the other hand, has the most to lose in the contest. If she loses, her campaign will start getting very desperate. If she wins, however, then things will settle back onto an even keel. She'll be able to tout her "firewall" of minority voters against Bernie's white liberal support, and if she wins South Carolina afterwards then she'll be right back on the track to being the inevitable nominee. Bernie's not going to disappear overnight or anything, but he will fade into the background for the Clinton campaign, which will then quite likely turn their sights to the Republican opposition. So while losing Nevada wouldn't necessarily mean the end of the road for Bernie, it certainly would make it a lot more difficult for him to convince enough Super Tuesday voters to allow him to continue with any hope of winning the nomination.

Essentially, due to the lack of polling and the lack of any trends breaking the tie, calling Nevada means deciding whether Hillary will edge Bernie out as she did in Iowa, or whether Bernie will outperform polling expectations, as he did in New Hampshire. Nevada's a caucus state, like Iowa, but Bernie's got the wind at his back after New Hampshire.

I fully admit that my prediction may be biased, but I'm going to go ahead and give the nod to Bernie Sanders to win the Nevada caucuses. My bias is that of a political wonk -- I'd like to see the Democratic race continue for a while longer, rather than watch it all be wrapped up before Super Tuesday even gets here. So take my pick with a grain of salt, if you choose. And, as always, please share your own picks in the comments if you think I'm wildly off base.

My final picks for this Saturday: Bernie squeaks out a win in Nevada, and South Carolina goes for (1) Trump, (2) Rubio, (3) Cruz.

 

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