First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
The GOP establishment's risky bet on Trump
Former Sen. and GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole made a pretty stunning admission yesterday: If forced to choice between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, he'd pick Trump. "I question his allegiance to the party," Dole said of Cruz, per the New York Times. But Dole added that Trump could "probably work with Congress, because he's, you know, he's got the right personality and he's kind of a deal-maker." (Dole told NBC's Andrea Mitchell last month that he "might oversleep" on Election Day if Cruz is the GOP nominee.) New York magazine's Jonathan Chait lists other parts of the GOP establishment that have warmed up to Trump -- including the Wall Street Journal's editorial page and Rupert Murdoch. And Cruz, not surprisingly, has fired back at the establishment. "We see the Washington establishment abandoning Marco Rubio and unifying around Donald Trump," he said yesterday, according to NBC's Vaughn Hillyard. But when you look at the feeling thermometer in the latest NBC/WSJ poll, the GOP establishment might be making a risky bet here on Trump:
Trump's overall positive/negative score: 29% positive, 58% negative (-29)
- Among African Americans: 9% positive, 81% negative (-72)
- Among Latinos: 22% positive, 69% negative (-47)
- Among women: 26% positive, 62% negative (-36)
- Among independents: 26% positive, 52% negative (-26)
- Among suburban voters: 31% positive, 55% negative (-24)
Cruz's overall positive/negative score: 31% positive, 35% negative (-4)
- Among African Americans: 19%-39% (-20)
- Among Latinos: 23%-34% (-11)
- Among Women: 31%-32% (-1)
- Among independents: 19%-41% (-22)
- Among suburban voters: 30%-34% (-4)
Now the assumption some Republicans might be making is that Trump would create a more unpredictable race against Hillary Clinton: If it's predictable Republican/conservative vs. unpredictable, go with the unpredictable. But looking at simply by the numbers, Trump would start the general election in a deeper hole than Cruz -- mainly because Trump is already so well defined.
Why GOP establishment candidates might have more of a chance if Trump beats Cruz in Iowa
Yet there's another reason why GOP establishment types might be rooting for Trump over Cruz right now: If you don't stop Cruz in Iowa, it's going to be hard for the establishment to stop either of them. Think about it -- Cruz carries Iowa, and that could catapult him to second place in New Hampshire, while Trump would remain in the catbird's seat in New Hampshire. That scenario could freeze out the establishment candidates like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich. But what if Trump beats Cruz in Iowa? Well, there's more of an opening for a Rubio/Bush/Christie/Kasich to finish second in New Hampshire, strengthening the establishment going into South Carolina and beyond. Of course, if Trump wins BOTH Iowa and New Hampshire, it could be game over for the GOP nomination. But on paper, there appears to be more of an opening for the establishment if Cruz DOESN'T win in Iowa.
What Sanders is missing right now
Democratic validators to parry the attacks against him: Turning to the Democratic race, it's been striking that since the Dem establishment and wonkish liberals began their political attack on Bernie Sanders -- "He's a socialist!" "He's unelectable!" "The GOP will destroy him!" -- the only Democrat who has pushed back on this critique has been Sanders adviser Tad Devine on MSNBC. Bottom line: Sanders doesn't have any well-known Democratic Party validators to back him up. In 2007-2008, Barack Obama had plenty of Dem validators going up when going up against the Clinton machine -- Tom Daschle, Tim Kaine, Deval Patrick, and Claire McCaskill (who's maybe been the most aggressive against Sanders right now). It's something to watch over the next 11 days: If 80% of the Democratic Party continues to hit Sanders here, and there isn't DEMOCRATIC pushback, can Sanders win that fight? By the way, Sanders uses a Simon & Garfunkel song in his newest TV ad.
Bush/Rubio/Kasich/Christie outspending Trump/Cruz over the airwaves by 14-to-1 margin
There are two stories to tell from our latest batch of ad-spending data. One, Bernie Sanders is now outspending Hillary Clinton over the airwaves. And two, the establishment Republicans (Bush, Rubio, Kasich, Christie) -- combined -- have outspent Trump and Cruz, $114 million to $8 million!!!!! Here are the numbers in terms of total spending so far:
- Team Bush: $58.8 million ($55.9M from Right to Rise Super PAC, $2.9M from campaign)
- Team Rubio: $32.6 million ($11.6M from campaign, $11.2M from Super PAC, $9.9M from 501c4)
- Team Sanders: $12.8 million (all from campaign)
- Team Clinton: $11.6 million ($11.4M from campaign, $200K from Priorities USA Super PAC)
- Team Christie: $11.4 million ($10.9M from Super PAC, $480K from campaign)
- Team Kasich: $10.8 million ($267K from campaign, rest from outside groups)
- Team Carson: $4.6 million ($4.4 million from campaign, $200K from Super PAC)
- Team Cruz: $4.2 million ($1.9M from campaign, rest from outside groups)
- Team Trump: $4 million (all from campaign)
- Team Fiorina: $1.0 million (all from Super PAC)
- Team O'Malley: $219,000 (all from Super PAC)
The GOP's relative silence on Flint
Former Bush 43 speechwriter Matt Latimer criticizes his party in a New York Times op-ed for being mostly silent about what's happening in Flint, MI (which is Latimer's hometown). "Flint was not mentioned in the last Republican debate. Though Ben Carson, a Detroit native, on Tuesday blamed local Flint officials for the troubles, unless I missed them, no tweets in solidarity have been issued from other Republican contenders. 'That's not an issue that right now we've been focused on' was the best Marco Rubio could say when asked about the devastation of this American city." In fairness, Cruz has spoken out against Flint. "What's happened in Flint, Michigan is an absolute travesty," he said. "It is a failure at every level of government, a failure of the city officials, a failure of the county officials, and the men and women of Michigan have been betrayed." But that has been more the exception rather than the rule.
Remember that Oregon standoff? It's still not over.And it's costing the state $100,000 a week
Finally, it's worth noting that standoff in Oregon still isn't over. The Oregonian: "Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday had harsh words for the federal government's handling of a 19-day occupation at the Malheur National Wildfire Refuge — calling the response too slow and saying it's left neighbors in Harney County lacking as tensions worsen. Brown, speaking at a news conference where she also laid out her 2016 policy agenda, also said Oregon officials should 'scrub' the state's budget next month to help offset the costs of the standoff. She put those ongoing expenses at $100,000 a week, with even more money spent during the first week of the standoff."
On the trail
Donald Trump campaigns in Las Vegas… Hillary Clinton makes three stops in Iowa, hitting Indianola, Vinton, and Iowa City, while Bill Clinton is in Las Vegas… Ted Cruz spends another day in New Hampshire… Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are in the Granite State, too… Ben Carson stumps in Iowa… Chris Christie and John Kasich are in New Hampshire… And Bernie Sanders also spends his day in the Granite State.
Countdown to Iowa: 11 days
Countdown to New Hampshire: 19 days
—NBC News' Carrie Dann contributed to this article, which first appeared on NBCNews.com.