March 15, 2016

Election poker hands

It's interesting to see how various parties are playing their hands this primary season. It's as if this were a long poker game.

Hillary Clinton is trying to bluff her way through emailgate even as another technician has pleaded the 5th amendment right to not self incriminate in her server scandal. With one already given immunity and another seemingly on the same course, it's starting to look like it's not Hillary's word against a single technician with a grudge, but rather at a minimum, two voices and some potential eventual email evidence. Should she bluff her way through the primaries, then get indicted, does she have to fold her hand?  On the other hand if the FBI cannot compile enough evidence, she can fall back to her stale argument of a "vast right wing conspiracy" to indict her and her bluff might actually succeed.

The FBI meanwhile seems to be playing its hand slowly and deliberately.  That's prudent given the effort will require significant evidence to get an indictment. Another factor is that the Justice Department is still headed by team Obama, who could choose not to pursue anything, or proceed at a snail's pace until Clinton is eventually elected.

Team Obama at the White House are playing their cards very close to the vest.  Early on it seemed like Obama would have backed Joe Biden had he decided to jump into the race.  He's kept Clinton at bay as much as possible during his tenure. He's not a huge fan of hers, though I'm sure he'd prefer her to any of the Republican nominees as the next president.  Obama, largely a lame duck president now, ironically has the most options here.  He could pursue a scorched earth policy towards Clinton and have Sanders become the nominee (ideologically perhaps his most preferred option), or have Biden suddenly parachute in to the convention as the savior nominee (perhaps thinking he can drive the Biden agenda more directly than he could with Sanders).  He could hold off on prosecution of Clinton until finding out who the Republican nominee will be and do the calculus on the general election probabilities before deciding what to do with Clinton. 

Sanders on the other hand is calling  (in the poker sense) Hillary's bet every round by trying to just stay close enough to remain competitive.  This effectively stretches out the game until she's either indicted, or her appeal to primary voters declines while his rises. It might work since he's garnering chips (in the form of the donations) to remain in the pot, but he also needs to draw some better cards by winning enough primaries to (a) make up ground in the delegate count and (b) cause many super-delegates to reconsider their support for Hillary.

Meanwhile on the Republican side, it appears Rubio decided to trade in his entire hand for a new set of cards. It was a gamble, and it appears it hurt him.  He went from a pair of nines to a pair of twos by getting into a gutter slug fest with Trump.  It's benefited the other three candidates in polling and hurt Rubio.  After Florida, he's going to have to fold.  Or, he could stay involved through the convention hoping his delegates can push someone over the top and earn himself a VP or similar slot in the process.  But those are long odds if he doesn't produce in Florida.

Kasich is betting that he'll get a few good cards dealt his way after Ohio. It's possible but it's a long shot. His best bet is that he outlasts Rubio and picks up Rubio supporters at a faster rate than Trump or Cruz, which he likely would do.  Going into northern states it might be enough to catch him up to Cruz, but not Trump.  His got to outplay Cruz next and then tackle Trump.  It's a great strategy if the primaries were to last another 18 months.  They're not, and at best Kasich is realistically playing for second place.

Cruz is betting on the same thing as Kasich - outlasting the non-Trump contenders.  It's a great strategy for him if it were currently January and we were down to 4 candidates. Now it's dependent on the other poker players folding so he can get the lion's share of their chips.  Neither Kasich or Rubio seem inclined to fold, particularly Kasich.  Cruz seems unable so far to improve his hand through messaging.  The second amendment and evangelical arguments are not going to outperform a jobs and economy message, they're just not. Cruz should have pivoted to jobs much more forcefully than he has and done so 4-6 weeks ago.  On the economy, his messaging has been positive but even less substantive than Trump's.  "Go to my website" for details is not effective.  Tell us Ted, and not tomorrow, yesterday. You could still draw a winning hand if you stop wasting time upping your bet and standing pat on your current hand.

Trump has the high hand right now. He's just trying to keep it that way by trying to draw the one last ace he needs to cement his position.  That ace would be locking up dubious conservatives by mentioning the Supreme Court situation. If he can convince conservatives he'd appoint originalist justices, he'd get that ace and he'd be a lock to win the primaries.

Interestingly it seems like the Republicans have been viewing the primaries and the general election as two separate hands while the Democrats seem to view the entire election cycle as one big game.  Maybe they feel inevitable and that no matter who the GOP nominee is, he'll be an also-ran loser in the general election.  After everyone has played their hands, we'll know who played the smartest hand.
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