Part II: Probing the Republican primary with professor Vincent Moscardelli

Professor Vincent Moscardelli, interviewed for yesterday’s piece on the Democratic primary, also considered the Republican primary in an interview with The Daily Campus.

Moscardelli, of the University of Connecticut’s Storrs campus, is a scholar of American politics, counting Congress and elections among his specialties. In his capacity as professor at UConn, he teaches American government, congressional politics and political leadership.

The questions began, of course, on the media juggernaut of election season: Donald Trump. Can he win? Moscardelli isn’t sure. He cited the conventional belief among political scientists that “the eventual nominee is the nominee preferred by party elites,” which Donald Trump is not. The Republican primary may not adhere to this generally-held conviction, though.

“The longer this (Trump’s lead in the polls) goes on, the more it calls that conventional wisdom into question,” Moscardelli said. “But if he does win, it probably demonstrates two things. First, it would demonstrate that party elites have lost their hold on the nomination process. And second, it might demonstrate that campaigns matter.”

The assertion that “campaigns matter” – rather than predispositions by wealthy and powerful party members – can be seen in Jeb Bush’s descent.

“According to the conventional account, Jeb Bush should be doing much better than he is,” Moscardelli said. “And yet he’s never really gotten out of the gate despite raising more money and securing more endorsements than anyone else. Perhaps that’s because he really hasn’t run a particularly good campaign, nor has he performed particularly well in any of the debates.”

Professor Vincent Moscardelli of the UConn Political Science department. (Screenshot/UConn Political Science Website)

Comparing the Republican and Democratic primaries begin at numbers, according to Moscardelli. That is, the size of each field of presidential candidates.

“Obviously, the biggest difference is that the Democratic field is much, much smaller,” Moscardelli said. “Part of that is because Hillary Clinton’s nomination appeared to be a fait accompli for so long…the relatively large number of candidates in the Republican field also makes handicapping that race a little tougher.”

In other words, the wide-open Republican race is difficult to predict, even more so than the tight Democratic contest between (mostly) Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

That being said, Moscardelli offered a tentative prediction on who he thought would triumph in the Republican primary.  

“My hunch is that Rubio will wind up winning the nomination,” Moscardelli said. “But that’s not really based on data as much as just my instincts about presidential politics… I do think Rubio would be a stronger candidate than either Trump or Cruz, so perhaps that’s why I think Republican primary voters will eventually settle on him. But I certainly wouldn’t bet any money on that prediction!”

On the topic of Ted Cruz, Moscardelli compared him to Trump in their collective posturing as “anti-establishment” candidates, adding that he doesn’t think Cruz would fare well if made the Republican nominee because “some of his positions will appear more radical in a general election setting than they do in a primary setting.”

The two terms of President Barack Obama have significant implications for both the Republican and Democratic primaries. On the Republican side, he is a symbol, a scapegoat, even, for Democratic, big-government politics.

In Moscardelli’s analysis, the most unifying issue for Republicans is that “the president has done a bad job.”

“President Obama is the most polarizing American president in over a century,” Moscardelli said. “Republicans in the electorate despise the president and his party to a degree we haven’t seen since the advent of modern public opinion polling.”

To back up this claim, Moscardelli said that before the 2010 midterm elections, “more than 50 percent of Republicans surveyed in the American National Election Study said that they ‘never’ trusted government in Washington to do what’s right. Never. Think about that for a minute. It’s one thing to say seldom or some of the time.  It’s another thing entirely to say ‘never,’ and yet a majority of respondents who self-identified as Republicans said ‘never.’”

In Moscardelli’s analysis, the most unifying issue for Republicans is that “the president has done a bad job.”

What does that mean for Republican primary politics?

“I suspect the eventual nominee will be able to convert that emotion into a successful turnout operation in 2016,” Moscardelli said. “Demographically, Democrats tend to have the advantage in presidential electorates. In fact, Mitt Romney thought he was going to win in 2012 because he underestimated the diversity of the group of people who turned out to vote in 2012.  But I suspect 2016 will see high turnout among segments of the society that tend to support Republicans and that Democrats will have to work a bit harder to turn out their voters. That could make things interesting.”

Things are already interesting, with Trump leading nationally but heavily challenged in the early primary polls. A RealClearPolitics average of all major polls has Donald Trump with a slim lead at 32.7 percent, Cruz close behind at 26.9 percent, Rubio at 12.6 percent, Ben Carson at 7.6 percent and candidates Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum all polling below 4 percent. Trump has a much larger lead in the New Hampshire primary at 33.3 percent. Cruz, Kasich, Rubio, Bush and Christie are in a close contest for second place, polling at 12.6 percent, 11.9 percent, 10.3 percent, 9.4 percent and 6.9 percent, respectively. The rest of the Republican field is polling under 4 percent. Nationally, Trump is leading 36.2 percent to Ted Cruz’s 19.3 percent, Marco Rubio’s 11 percent, Ben Carson’s 7.8 percent and Jeb Bush’s 5 percent. The rest of the Republican field is under 4 percent. 



Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu.