2015 was a year of campaign surprises

JEFFREY BROWN: A holiday weekend enjoyed by all, we hope, including the candidates for the presidency, but, today, back to the campaign trail, and, for us, a chance for an end-of-the-year look at what's been a most surprising race for the White House.

For that, we're joined by the Politics Monday team, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, and Tamara Keith of NPR.

Hello on Monday on this Christmas weekend — week.

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Hello. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: We know it has been a crazy race, right, unexpected in many ways.

But, Amy, you start, and start with the Republicans. Do you remember a moment along the way where you said to yourself, this is not what I was expecting?


AMY WALTER: There have been so many of those moments, Jeffrey.


AMY WALTER: But I think it's when Scott Walker dropped out of the race.

JEFFREY BROWN: Scott Walker was it, huh?

AMY WALTER: It was Scott Walker dropping out, because it really made me realize that everything I had assumed about what this election was going to shape up to be was actually not working out that way. I mean, Scott Walker on paper looked like the perfect bridge candidate for the Republican Party, right?

JEFFREY BROWN: He seemed like the guy, yes.

AMY WALTER: And for him to drop out this early, and that combined with Bush's struggles, really said to me that, boy, the biggest surprise in this race is not the rise of the outsiders, but the real vacuum on the establishment side and how incredibly inefficient and ineffective the establishment has been in sort of making themselves important in this race.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tamara, was were your moment?

TAMARA KEITH, NPR: My moment happened at an ice cream stand in Burlington, Vermont.

JEFFREY BROWN: Had to be. Right? Yes.

TAMARA KEITH: And it was after Bernie Sanders had announced he was running for president, but before he had had any of those really big, well-attended rallies. And at the time, the conventional wisdom was really Bernie Sanders is running to push his agenda and to push Hillary Clinton to the left.

That was the mantra. He's just running to pull Hillary to the left. Well, I was interviewing his best friend at this ice cream stand — or one his best friends — and he said, no, Bernie Sanders is running for real. Bernie Sanders is in this to win. He's not in it to push a message. And it's really proven to be true. He's out there. He's pushing to win.

Just one other moment was a town hall meeting Hillary Clinton had in Keene, New Hampshire, and she asked everyone in the room, if you have had a connection to substance abuse, raise your hands, and almost everyone in the room raised their hands. And it was really this remarkable moment and is a reflection — this is a presidential campaign where almost every candidate is talking about addiction and drug abuse and heroin, and it's because New Hampshire is a first-in-the-nation primary state, and it's a really big issue there. And that moment really encapsulated it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you're seeing, both in a way, and particularly what you said, Amy, not so much it's the candidates, but also just where is the power within the parties?

AMY WALTER: Exactly. Who is driving this campaign?

And we have been used to over the years to the power of the elites, whether it's the media, or the donors, or the party that could ultimately shape the campaign. In this case, especially on the Republican side, they have had little to no impact.

Now, that doesn't mean, as we move forward, they won't, but it's clear the super PAC spending certainly hasn't helped Jeb Bush. The attacks by elite conservative media haven't done anything to stop Donald Trump. And when you look just at the overall polling, the number of people in the Republican primary who say we want somebody who has zero experience in governing is over 50 percent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there anyone on the Republican side — Amy picked Scott Walker as her, what happened to him?

Is there anybody on your side that doesn't get much attention now that you keep wondering why not?

TAMARA KEITH: Well, on the Democratic side, covering the Democrats, there was a time when you really thought Martin O'Malley would catch fire, and he just never has.

He has stayed in the low single digits the whole time. He's the Maryland governor, former Maryland governor. And he on paper looks like a perfect candidate.

JEFFREY BROWN: You still have to tell us that, right, which is a sign right there.

AMY WALTER: Exactly.

TAMARA KEITH: Yes. He still has incredibly low name I.D. He still is just working hard and not really getting anywhere. And it's kind of surprising.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, fast forward. Now we are going to look ahead a little bit.


JEFFREY BROWN: Iowa is less than — well, about a month away. Right? Do you still think, as we sit here now, that these first primaries are — well, how important are they? Are they all-important?

AMY WALTER: They are still very important.

JEFFREY BROWN: Very important.

AMY WALTER: They are still very important. Let me underline.


AMY WALTER: I still think they are going to winnow the field down.

We're not going to have all these 13 candidates now on the Republican side. And we may lose Martin O'Malley, too. But I think the real question is going to be, what does Donald Trump do if he doesn't win one of those early states? Our assumptions about this race have always centered around Donald Trump. Where is he? Is he first? Is he going to be, you know, running as an independent candidate? What is his message? How are the candidates reacting to him?

If he doesn't win an Iowa or a New Hampshire, the entire premise of his campaign has now collapsed, right? The entire premise of his campaign is, I'm a winner, and you're all losers, I'm in first, you are not.

What he decides to do is also going to have an impact on what happens to the rest of these candidates.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see happening?

TAMARA KEITH: My crystal ball is hazy.


JEFFREY BROWN: Come on, come on. How many of these faces?


TAMARA KEITH: I think that Amy is right. There will be far fewer faces after Iowa and New Hampshire.

And I think, also, Super Tuesday is very heavily weighted to Southern states and I think that it is going to change the dynamic. And it's hard to campaign in all of those states. It takes money and it takes hard money, not just super PAC money.


And what we know from the past campaigns — and I know they haven't been a good guide in this election, because everything we seem to have learned last time isn't happening this time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which I forced you to say at the beginning.

AMY WALTER: I know. See, I can admit where I wasn't so clear on my crystal ball.


AMY WALTER: But here's what we know.

We know that the events that start to happen when voters start voting really accelerates the process. All the polls that we have had up until now, all the assumptions that we have had up until now, they can change overnight, when voters actually start casting ballots.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. We will be back next week, the new year. Happy new year.

AMY WALTER: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Amy Walter, Tamara Keith, thanks so much.


TAMARA KEITH: Thank you.