This is not the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning.
This paraphrase of a statement by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the Second World War seems to fit today’s American political scene. The 2016 presidential campaign will soon arrive at the moment when speculation gives way to voting.
Neither the Democratic nor the Republican race is settled. The cascading effects of upcoming caucuses and primaries may create surprising political outcomes. After a final flurry of guessing, we soon arrive at the last minute for pure pundits. That includes me, so here’s my last shot.
Hillary Clinton has long been thought to have the Democratic nomination locked up. Many women and men think it is past time for the U.S. to have a woman as president. And there is little argument that she has had a great deal of useful experience as First Lady, U.S. senator and Secretary of State.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, despite the self-imposed burden of having labeled himself a socialist, has made the chase for the nomination more of a contest than was expected. The anti-establishment candidate, he seems genuine, compared with a carefully programmed Clinton.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley awaits the moment when Clinton stumbles or Sanders defeats her in a primary A traditional Democratic liberal, he may hope that his party turns to him if it begins to doubt Hillary and fear Bernie.
Among the Republicans, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz now fight for the lead, but just a couple of state results could push others to the top. There are a dozen shades of conservatism, with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and possibly former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush available if the GOP wants some moderation.
Political history suggests that parties pick candidates considered to be at ideological extremes when they have only a long shot at election, usually because they face a strong incumbent. For example, take Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Democrat George McGovern in 1972.
But that is not the case in 2016. Nominating Trump or Sanders would not make sense, if a more moderate candidate could more easily win.
Suppose the GOP moved toward nominating Trump. That could encourage mainstream Republicans to consider voting for the Democratic candidate. But many have an ABC attitude – Anybody But Clinton. Could the general election polls swing to Sanders or, more likely, O’Malley?
Like all of the commentary before voting begins, this is pure speculation. Until now, the campaigns have winnowed out a few candidates, but they have not told us much about the possible final result. That has created a field day for pundits. Polls and debates have revealed little.
The almost daily poll results are of doubtful value. There are real questions about whether pollsters draw good samples of the population and if poll respondents are anything like the people who will participate in caucuses and primaries. And they do not forecast how the results of early races will affect later ones.
For example, can Trump remain a front runner in a field with many fewer candidates? Right now, there is no sign that he appeals to half of all Republicans, much less many Democrats or independents.
The debates have been devalued. There have been too many of them, too early and with too many participants. When the GOP encounters have had good audiences, it was because they were more like athletic contests than a serious discussion of differences among the candidates.
The Democratic debates have been relegated to relative darkness, because their organizers had concluded there was really no contest at all. Like the Republicans, the main objective for participants has been to avoid making mistakes or being topped by an opponent’s witticism.
Most political analysis has been questionable. Obviously Trump and, to a lesser extent, Sanders have thrown off the so-called experts. In part, that’s because the temper of country is difficult to read.
Are the voters fed up with government itself or do they want a stronger government to limit the major role of the wealthy and financial institutions?
Is there a moderate, non-ideological majority that will vote for candidates willing to compromise so that government can make decisions on meeting public needs?
Both parties have their national conventions in July. They will not be brokered, because there are no brokers, people who can deliver blocks of delegates. And even open conventions are unlikely. Nominees should emerge before then.
The only thing we can know for sure is that with the Iowa caucuses on February 1, the end game begins.