In a nomination race like the Republican one, you could draw up a list of reasons to be skeptical of any candidate’s chances. Here are some reasons to be skeptical about Ted Cruz’s position in Iowa, for example. Here’s why Marco Rubio’s strategy looks increasingly precarious. There are also good reasons to be skeptical about Donald Trump’s chances of winning the Republican nomination:
- His polling in Iowa isn’t great, and he’s probably still the underdog there.
- There’s reason to doubt the strength of his ground game, in Iowa and other states.
- Trump’s favorable ratings and second-choice numbers are generally inferior to Cruz’s and Rubio’s, meaning that other candidates might benefit more as the field winnows.1
But the reason I’ve been especially skeptical about Trump for most of the election cycle isn’t listed above. Nor is it because I expected Trump to spontaneously combust in national polls. Instead, I was skeptical because I assumed that influential Republicans would do almost anything they could to prevent him from being nominated.
I’m in the midst of working on a long review of the book “The Party Decides,” so we’ll save some of the detail for that forthcoming article. But the textbook on Trump is that he’d be a failure along virtually every dimension that party elites normally consider when choosing a nominee: electability (Trump is extremely unpopular with general election voters); ideological reliability (like Sarah Palin, Trump’s a “maverick”); having traditional qualifications for the job; and so forth. Even if the GOP is mostly in disarray, my assumption was that it would muster whatever strength it had to try to stop Trump.
But so far, the party isn’t doing much to stop Trump. Instead, it’s making such an effort against Cruz. Consider:
- The governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, said he wanted Cruz defeated.
- Bob Dole warned of “cataclysmic” losses if Cruz was the nominee, and said Trump would fare better.
- Mitch McConnell and other Republicans senators have been decidedly unhelpful to Cruz when discussing his constitutional eligibility to be president.
- An anti-Cruz PAC has formed, with plans to run advertisements in Iowa. (By contrast, no PAC advertising has run against Trump so far in January.)
You can find lots of other examples like these. It’s the type of coordinated, multifront action that seems right out of the “The Party Decides.” If, like me, you expected something like this to happen to Trump instead of Cruz, you have to revisit your assumptions. Thus, I’m now much less skeptical of Trump’s chances of becoming the nominee.
Can we take this a step farther, in fact? Can we say that the party has decided … for Trump?
I’ve seen some headlines to that effect, but they’re premature and possibly wrong. So far, the GOP’s actions are conspicuously anti-Cruz more than they are pro-Trump. For example, although former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin just endorsed Trump, no current Republican governors or members of Congress have.
Instead, it may be that Republicans think of Cruz as the more immediate threat, and then plan to turn around and attack Trump later. But that’s a high-degree-of-difficulty caper to pull off. For one thing, Trump, who’s in a much better position in the polls than Cruz in states after Iowa, could rack up several wins in a row if he takes the Hawkeye State.
Just as important, there are few signs that Republicans have much of a strategy for whom to back apart from Trump. Four “establishment lane” candidates — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Rubio — are tightly packed in New Hampshire polls. That could potentially change before New Hampshire votes because of tactical voting.2 And whichever of these candidates perform worst in the early states will probably drop out.
But Republican party elites seem indifferent among these four candidates, when in my view some are more capable than others of eventually defeating Trump and Cruz:
- Rubio would seem to have the best shot. He’s easily the most conservative of the four, has the best favorability ratings and can make perhaps the best electability argument. His ground game may not be very good, but he has a decent amount of cash on hand.
- Bush and Christie probably rank next, in some order. It’s hard to imagine Republican voters coming all the way around to the patrician Bush after flirting with bad-boy Trump for so long — especially when Bush’s favorability numbers with Republican voters are in the tank. But remember that those dalliances with Trump are hypothetical, only contemplated in polls and not yet actuated with votes. Perhaps the Republican electorate that shows up to vote is more like the 2012 version, which supported Mitt Romney. It’s a long shot, but if it happens, Bush will have plenty of money and organization to extend the race.
- If the GOP electorate is in an angrier mood, then Christie’s personality overlaps the most with Trump’s. He’s a good debater, and his favorability ratings are on the upswing, although still just middling. But Christie entered the race with a lot of baggage that will receive more scrutiny if he surges in the polls. He also doesn’t have much of an organization beyond New Hampshire.
- Kasich’s outlook seems the worst of the four, combining Bush’s lack of appeal to conservatives with Christie’s lack of organization beyond New Hampshire. The one qualification to this is that Kasich has a more conservative track record than he lets on.3
So if I were ranking the four establishment candidates’ chances of eventually defeating Trump and Cruz, I’d put Rubio first and Kasich last. But if I were ranking them in terms of who seems to have the most momentum right now, the order would be just the opposite. Kasich has gained 3 or 4 percentage points in New Hampshire polls over the past month, while Rubio has declined slightly in New Hampshire and national polls, and his once-steady flow of endorsements has turned into a trickle.
These differences might seem pretty minor — there’s room for near-daily momentum shifts before New Hampshire votes. Obviously, it’s also possible that Republicans’ efforts to stop Cruz in Iowa will backfire.
Things are lining up better for Trump than I would have imagined, however. It’s not his continued presence in the race that surprises me so much as the lack of a concerted effort to stop him.
Check out the latest polls and forecasts for the 2016 presidential primaries.