It might seem inconsequential that Lindsey Graham suspended his presidential campaign earlier today, but make no mistake, the decision had a point. It was all about helping the Republican establishment and hurting Donald Trump.
Graham, a U.S. senator from South Carolina, declared his bid for the presidency in June in large part to fight Rand Paul’s support for isolationist foreign policies. Paul led in a number of primary polls in early 2014, when many Republican voters thought the United States was doing too much to try to solve the world’s problems. Then, as the threat from the Islamic State group grew, Paul’s bid began to collapse and Republican voters became a lot more hawkish.
This led me to write that Graham “may have already won” when he entered the race. It wasn’t that I thought Graham had a chance of winning the Republican nomination, but rather that most of the Republican candidates already supported at least fairly hawkish positions on most foreign policy issues. Marco Rubio, the favored candidate according to the conventional wisdom, is especially hawkish.
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That post was written before Donald Trump entered the race, however. To say that Graham despises Trump is to say that Red Sox fans hate the Yankees. Graham has said that Trump is a “complete idiot,” that he was on valium during a debate, and that he can “go to hell.” That dislike is based on Trump’s foreign policy views and more.
Yes, Trump has made some outrageously hawkish statements, such as threatening to “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS.” But overall, Trump is arguably the least hawkish candidate in the field, besides Paul. As I did in June for the Graham post, I went to OnTheIssues.org and collected all the statements candidates have made on foreign policy. While most have similar positions, Trump’s opposition to the Iraq War, his relatively friendly statements toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his hesitancy to support any further involvement by the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State make him dovish by comparison.
|CANDIDATE||HAWKISH POSITIONS||PERCENT HAWKISH|
|Marco Rubio||31 out of 31||100%|
|Carly Fiorina||13 out of 13||100|
|Rick Santorum||24 out of 25||96|
|Mike Huckabee||19 out of 20||95|
|Lindsey Graham||56 out of 59||95|
|Chris Christie||17 out of 18||94|
|George Pataki||13 out of 14||93|
|Jeb Bush||25 out of 27||93|
|Jim Gilmore||10 out of 11||91|
|Ted Cruz||14 out of 16||88|
|Ben Carson||17 out of 22||77|
|John Kasich||15 out of 21||71|
|Donald Trump||17 out of 31||55|
|Rand Paul||11 out of 48||23|
So how does Graham’s getting out of the race help the establishment and hurt Trump? Graham was only at 0.7 percent in the HuffPost/Pollster.com aggregate when he exited the race and never rose above 1.1 percent. He never got above 0.8 percent in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Even in his home state of South Carolina, Graham was at just 1.8 percent.
But that underestimates what Graham had going for him in the Senate and South Carolina: a lot of support from the establishment. As Perry Bacon of NBC News pointed out earlier this month, many Republican senators didn’t rally behind Rubio out of deference to Graham. The same held true in South Carolina, where a lot of local officeholders wanted to give Graham time to make or break his presidential bid on his own. Graham’s departure from the race allows these party leaders to potentially coalesce around a single candidate. (It also gives South Carolina business leaders, who have been largely behind Graham, a chance to move to another candidate.)
We at FiveThirtyEight have long argued in favor of “The Party Decides” thesis, which posits that candidates who are the clear favorites of the party’s leaders, donors and officeholders have a strong chance of winning. So far, the party’s establishment hasn’t pushed a candidate to the forefront; the candidate with a nominal lead in the endorsement primary, Jeb Bush, is far behind in the polls.
Even if Graham’s exit doesn’t change the contours of the Republican race, it’s a sign that there’s plenty of time for the race to change. As long as Trump is a threat to win, there will be pressure on candidates who are sucking up establishment oxygen to leave the race, and party leaders will be pushed to rally around one candidate. Stay tuned