Now, the voters will decide

Published 11:42 pm Friday, January 22, 2016

Everywhere I go, people want to know who will win the presidential nominations. And I tell them, wait until the voters caucus in Iowa and vote in New Hampshire. Though we have seen the polls fluctuate back and forth between the so-called “outsiders,” represented by businessman Donald Trump, former neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson and GOP firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz, anything can happen on the Republican side. It’s like a TV show, but the GOP has gone from “House of Cards” to “Game of Thrones.”

On a good day, the Democratic contest is less volatile than the Republicans race — but, then again, so is Mount Kilauea. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has the lead in many national polls, but Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders seems to catch every break there is in this season of volatility. Just last week, hours before the Democratic debate, he finally put out his “white paper” on a single-payer health care system.

So who’s going to win? Well, the voters will decide, of course. And it’s hard for me to say for sure because this season is not as predictable as years before when voters usually settled on the candidate with the most experience in public office. You’re supposed to settle on a nominee. I have a feeling the Republicans may end up settling for a nominee. And for now, we can’t say with certainty that we know which way the voters will turn.

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Here we are, less than a year to go before the 45th president of the United States will be inside the White House reviewing his or her to-do list. There’s no question that the next president will inherit some vestiges of our war with ISIS. The next president is likely going to have to resolve squabbles with Congress on the budget, taxes and presidential nominees lingering in the pipelines. And yes, to paraphrase my colleague and good friend James Carville,  it’s still the economy stupid.

As voters, we are entitled to a robust debate. And with only days before the first caucus, the closing arguments will come into sharp focus. Both the Republicans and the Democrats will have one more opportunity to make their final pitches before voters head to their local precincts. Don’t expect the front-runners to slow down or the insurgents to not show up. There’s too much at stake.

Bitterness is evident, especially among the Republican candidates — which isn’t to say there’s not a good deal of testiness among the Democrats as well. Let’s take a look at where we are and some projections about where we’ll be when the votes are in.

By now, voters in the Hawkeye State are familiar with the candidates. Iowans really take their first-in-the-nation status seriously. On the GOP side, they are frustrated because they want to pick an authentic conservative who can win. Cruz has run an organized textbook campaign in Iowa. There are over 6,000 volunteers in Iowa alone. It has raised over $46 million this year and is has the resources to win. But what Cruz doesn’t have is the support of Gov. Terry Branstad or the former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. He’s not with Cruz and she’s definitely with Trump.

In fact, Iowa’s Republican governor said, “Anybody but Cruz,” and now former Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole followed on the heels of that by saying that Cruz would cause Republicans “cataclysmic” losses, and Trump would do better against Clinton. These announcements don’t happen in a vacuum; they’re nearly always coordinated. So it’s very likely that Trump is the Republican establishment’s pick over Cruz, which as Arsenio Hall would say, “Makes you go ‘Hmmmmm.’”

What’s complicating Cruz’s campaign is Trump’s injection of the birther controversy. Public Polling, a Democratic polling firm, did an exhaustive report last week, concluding that “the ‘birther issue’ has the potential to really hurt Ted Cruz.”

While 36 percent of Iowa voters aren’t aware that Cruz was born outside the U.S., when informed, 65 percent of that group said it made no difference in their vote. But, there are enough of those to whom his birth does matter that it could make a difference in a tight race.

Cruz both addresses and dismisses the birther issue, counter-attacking that the Republican establishment is backing Trump, which is the “kiss of death” in an election year where the leading candidates, including Trump, are anti-establishment.

Clearly, volatility exists. Should Trump win in Iowa before moving on to New Hampshire, a rapid unwinding of Cruz might begin to have a significant impact on the race on the GOP side.

For Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders is closing in Iowa. She can withstand losses in both early states. But it could get worse for her. Stefan Hankin, a Democratic pollster based in Washington, D.C., points out that the states that follow Iowa and New Hampshire are more diverse, which is where Hillary is stronger. While Sanders is still playing catch-up with minority voters, thus far his insurgent candidacy seems to have across-the-board appeal with progressive activists within the Democratic Party.

Whatever the outcome in the first two primary states, Hillary Clinton remains the most formidable, toughest candidate of all those running. But it’s going to be a street fight won only by engaging voters precinct by precinct.

So, here’s to you voters. It’s now your turn. Good luck.

Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.