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Is The Republican Establishment Losing Control Of The Party?

The 2016 Republican presidential primary field is unusually large and unusually unsettled, and the first debate earlier this month didn’t do much to change either of those things. So we gathered FiveThirtyEight’s political writers in Slack to talk about the state of the race. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

micah (Micah Cohen, senior editor): Harry and Nate, a Fox News poll released Sunday found Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz leading the Republican primary race, and a lot of people are saying the outsider/angry wing of the GOP is ascendant. Is something going on? The Republican Party’s last two nominees came from its establishment wing. Is that wing losing its grip?

hjenten-heynawl (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I think it really depends on the definition of what is an outsider and an insider. We can look back to the 2012 cycle and see where things were in November of 2011. We had Newt Gingrich taking the lead from Herman Cain. Gingrich, Cain, Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann added up to greater than 50 percent of the vote, and Mitt Romney became the nominee. If I’m the GOP’s establishment wing, I’m far more concerned not with what the outsiders added up to, but that there is no insidery candidate who is doing particularly well.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Well, Harry, you just pre-empted the disagreement we were supposed to have. One thing Republicans had going for them in 2012 is that there weren’t a lot of establishment choices to pick from. Romney, obviously, then Tim Pawlenty, then (if you’re going by endorsements) the pre-“oops” Rick Perry might count. This time around, the establishment vote might be split five or six different ways. Of course, it will probably consolidate around one or two candidates. But it could take some time.

hjenten-heynawl: Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Is it merely delayed and not denied? We already see some of that going on in the Ipsos polling where Trump gains when the contest is down to just him, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, but Bush and Walker gain a lot more ground.

natesilver: Harry, I think we’re both bearish on Trump, in part, because as the field consolidates, he isn’t likely to pick up that much second-choice support.

micah: Wait a second — Trump has a quarter of the vote. Carson and Cruz together have another 20 percent or so, and not a single establishment candidate is in double digits (Bush has 9.9 percent in the Huffington Post’s Pollster average). Doesn’t that say something about the mood of the GOP electorate?

natesilver: Well, all the usual caveats apply to looking at polls in August. There’s a lot of window-shopping going on. And also — I’m sure Harry can expound on this point — Republican voters might not divide the field into “establishment” and “anti-establishment” camps as neatly as people like us might.

hjenten-heynawl: Right. Look back at 2011. You would have thought Romney was in trouble because every so often a new alternative would pop up — someone against the establishment. But the polling clearly showed that Romney was going to pick up his fair share of the support once the alternatives started falling away.

natesilver: Still, one thing that’s unambiguously different this year is that you have so many candidates running.

micah: Here’s an argument: Trump is such an unusual candidate — he’s crazier than a Gingrich or a Cain — that his leading the polls right now is indicative of something unusual brewing among Republican voters. And the GOP establishment might have a tougher time reining that energy in this election than in past cycles. And the post-debate Carson bump, even if it’s temporary, backs that up

natesilver: Maybe Trump belongs in a third category.

  1. Moderate/establishment
  2. Very conservative
  3. Trump

micah: So add to that the fact that, as Harry said, there’s no establishment candidate looking too good at the moment. If you’re Reince Priebus, aren’t you sweating a little?

hjenten-heynawl: I think 1996 can be instructive here. No candidate got into the 30s in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Eventually Dole emerged. But I think the difference again is that Dole was in a class by himself among the more “establishment” candidates. Walker, Rubio, Bush, Kasich and even Christie are going to divide a lot of this vote, and none of them look all that strong right now.

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natesilver: We keep coming back to the fact that there are 17 [expletive deleted] candidates, including eight or 10 who could be plausible establishment nominees.

micah: Couldn’t that mess up the normal consolidating process we expect to happen?

natesilver: You could draw some parallels to the 1972 Democratic race, when George McGovern won with establishment support split between Muskie, Humphrey, etc.

You could also point toward a lot of differences from 1972.

micah: Like?

natesilver: Well, first of all, both parties learned a lot from 1972 and the disaster that was the McGovern nomination. Secondly, McGovern was very, very good at understanding the delegate rules — he made the rules, in fact! I wouldn’t expect Trump to have mastery of those, I guess. Third, McGovern was at least a Democrat, whereas it’s not clear that Trump is a Republican at all.

micah: It doesn’t have to be Trump. Isn’t Ted Cruz basically the George McGovern of 2016? Or couldn’t he be?

hjenten-heynawl: But what makes us think that Ted Cruz is going to win?

micah: I don’t think he’s going to win. I think it’s more likely this year than in past elections that the establishment could lose hold of the process. Certainly they don’t have much control right now.

natesilver: Betting markets give Cruz 25-1 odds against winning the nomination. That seems — about right?

micah: That seems fair.

hjenten-heynawl: I mean there is no reason for them to go after someone like Ben Carson who is a smart, nice guy … and who happens to be black in a party that desperately needs to do minority outreach. But you think for a second that most party actors think Carson and his politically incorrect statements will get near the nomination? There isn’t a reason for people to be taken down yet.

micah: But my argument is that the party actors may not have as much power.

natesilver: My concern, if I’m Reince Priebus, isn’t necessarily that Ted Cruz or Donald Trump is going to win the nomination. It’s that an establishment candidate eventually does, but it gets ugly.

micah: What does “ugly” look like?

natesilver: OK, let’s posit three degrees of ugliness.

  1. An actual brokered convention.
  2. The nomination is decided before the convention, but there’s genuine uncertainty about who the nominee will be after the last primaries.
  3. No candidate has technically clinched the nomination as of the date of the last primary, but the writing’s on the wall.

hjenten-heynawl: (If there’s a brokered convention, I’ll eat dinner in Brooklyn for a month.)

micah: [Editor’s note: Harry hates Brooklyn.]

natesilver: Harry, what chance would you assign to each of those outcomes?


  1. 5 percent
  2. 10 percent
  3. 25 percent

natesilver: So, we do have some disagreement. I think the chances are about twice that at each stage.

hjenten-heynawl: So you think we head into June 2016, and there’s still a centipede running around with its head chopped off?

micah: That’s a … metaphor. A chicken?

natesilver: I’d say there’s a 20 or 25 percent chance that there’s genuine doubt about the identity of the nominee in June. Yeah. But it’s category Nos. 1 and 2 that I’d be concerned about. Where, in essence, the party hasn’t been able to reach consensus until it gets in to the smoke-filled rooms.

micah: And how does that hurt the GOP? It makes it harder to rally behind the eventual nominee?

natesilver: First of all, if you look at the correlation between the share of the primary vote that the nominee gets and how the party does in the general election, it’s pretty strong. Though it could absolutely be a correlation without a causation. But I don’t think it should just be brushed off as an empirical finding.

hjenten-heynawl: It’s very strong.

natesilver: But if you reach the stage where there’s genuine doubt about the identity of the nominee in June, it means that some major constituencies within the Republican Party are going to feel dealt out of the process. And also, you have less time for the sort of healing that parties usually get in June, July, etc. Probably some big fights at the convention, which if nothing else harms the GOP’s ability to control the message.

micah: And I think the chances of that happening — whether 20 percent or 5 percent — are unusually high this year.

natesilver: Yeah, I figure the baseline probability is 10 percent or something, if you had enough of a sample size. So it’s got to be considerably higher than that.

micah: All right, then what’s causing that, Harry? Is it:

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the media in the spin room after the first Republican presidential debate, held Thursday in Cleveland.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the media in the spin room after the first Republican presidential debate, held Thursday in Cleveland.

John Minchillo / AP

hjenten-heynawl: I think you have two things going on here: First, this is a nomination that a Republican wants. There is no incumbent running. The president’s approval rating is stuck in the mid-40s, which more often than not means that a Republican should win the presidency. And you look at the generic presidential ballot, and it’s — at best — a tie for Democrats. So you have a reason for a Republican to run. Second, there’s no natural next in line — no one establishment figure who did well in 2012 like you had with Romney in 2008. Third, there isn’t any establishment figure out there who is a current governor and moderately conservative like George W. Bush in 2000. All are a little too hot or too cold. One might imagine Rubio with an extra electoral win under his belt being the perfect candidate.

But at the same time, you have the issue of all these nontraditional candidates. Republicans are very upset with Washington. Very, very upset. We see more people not wanting traditional Washington experience. They see that their party did well in 2014, so they think they don’t need to worry about electability. They don’t recognize that the president isn’t all that unpopular. So it’s a mixture of all of the above in my opinion.

natesilver: I agree that this is a very desirable nomination for Republicans to have.

Not a case like 1972, when Democrats were in pretty bad shape anyway. Or 1964 on the Republican side. And that will make the establishment even more insistent that it chooses someone electable.

Still, there’s a world in which the establishment is weakened, but not obliterated. In that world, I still don’t think Trump can get the nomination. But maybe it gets messy or (less likely) someone like Cruz gets pretty close.

hjenten-heynawl: Can I just say that it was no more than a year ago that the GOP was getting the establishment choices in Senate primaries. So I think it’d be wise to wait.

micah: But in the messy world you’re describing, eventually the GOP establishment has to settle on someone. Jeb! hasn’t exactly rocketed out of the gate. Walker’s faltered a bit. Rubio remains somewhat of a background presence.

natesilver: Yeah, maybe we’re being too abstract here.

micah: It’s a choice, not a referendum

natesilver: I wonder if the consequence of a weakened party establishment is that it can veto candidates, but not choose them. Do we think Jeb’s campaign is off to a bad start?

hjenten-heynawl: He hasn’t spent any money yet. Or not a lot anyway

natesilver: Yeah, that’s important. We saw that Kasich was able to rocket up from ninth to third in the New Hampshire polls or whatever just by spending a token sum there.

In the abstract, there’s no particular reason to lead the polls in August. Unless you’re worried about losing potential support from donors and staffers because they see you as nonviable. Which is a risk for, say, Kasich or Christie. But probably not for Bush/Rubio/Walker?

hjenten-heynawl: Bush and Rubio have more than enough dough to survive for a while. And again, here’s the thing: No one has a huge lead. Even Mr. Trump is mostly in the 20s. All it takes is one strong debate, one ad blitz, and I think you can find yourself at the top of the polls.

micah: To go back to this idea that maybe the establishment can veto candidates but maybe not pick them — who does that benefit?

hjenten-heynawl: It depends on what anti-establishment means.

natesilver: Rubio still seems like the most broadly acceptable candidate in the field. He seems underpriced at 15 percent in the betting markets.

hjenten-heynawl: One could argue that Kasich is anti-establishment in a sense.

natesilver: In a Huntsmanian way, Harry?

hjenten-heynawl: Right. Or a McCain 2000 way.

micah: That’s a stretch.

hjenten-heynawl: Why? Because you are an Acela corridor guy who thinks Kasich is the perfect Republican?

micah: No, because I think he’s a fairly mainstream Republican. Establishment even.

hjenten-heynawl: Look, when I think “establishment,” I think John Weaver.

natesilver: Didn’t you write that article, Harry? He’s weirdly adopting the stance of appearing more moderate than he really is. You’re supposed to do the opposite in the primaries. But maybe Kasich believes at differentiation at all costs. Which arguably is an OK near-term strategy. Then he’ll pivot, once it looks like he’s getting enough traction, and come after Jeb.

hjenten-heynawl: Trump is actually pretty moderate on health care, which is where Kasich has his biggest problem. A lot of this is attitude, not policy.

micah: Last question: When will we start to see the establishment really exert some pressure?

hjenten-heynawl: Look if I’m Reince, I get on that Acela first-class car, kick back with a corn-crusted cod, a little wine and see where things are in a month. I wouldn’t expect a lot of pressure until November or December.

natesilver: Yeah, I think Thanksgiving is a pretty good dividing point.

And part of what all these campaigns have to remind themselves is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, even though the media horde treats it as a series of sprints.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.