The Ascendancy of the Angry Outsider
Both Donald Trump and to a lesser extent Ted Cruz have cultivated and fertilized a vast and underestimated undercurrent of discontent on the GOP electorate. Polling data has consistently shown a disdain morphing into an outright anger of those in the GOP who have been perceived a "part of the Washington Establishment" and as "betrayers" of the voters. As recently as 2012, the "establishment" candidate in Mitt Romney successfully wrested the nomination from the outsider candidates, but Mitt Romney is not running this year (or is he...see primary scenario #3 below).
However, in 2016 there is a palpable anger in the base. From this perspective, the GOP controlled congress has compromised and has not opposed President Obama nearly enough. Polling data also suggests an anger toward candidates who are identified as moderates or RHINOs (Republican in Name Only). The aforementioned Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich are collectively hovering around 10% in nationwide polls. Yes, nationwide polling does not mean much in late December with the first primary five weeks away, but the consistency of these results suggests that something real is at work here.
In my view, there are three things have driven the GOP electorate in this direction.
- Immigration, a huge issue to the GOP base. Trump's wall and keeping Muslim immigrants out has a lot of fans in conservative quarters.
- Security and terrorism, post Paris and San Bernadino are making this an election where perceived toughness matters.
- Unrelenting opposition to President Obama and to any in the GOP who compromise. Compromising = traitorous behavior.
Now for a look at the angry outsider candidates:
Trump's policy views and rhetoric clearly has played well to this large block of voters. Bombastic rhetoric which normally would disqualify a candidate from the normally staid GOP now seems to increase the support for those who say it. Trump (no hard core conservative by the way except for immigration) can also argue that due to his personal wealth he cannot be corrupted by "special interests" who have other candidates at their beck and call. So far it is working as his national polling numbers are now approaching 40%. I think this support is unstable (but I have been wrong about Trump's longevity throughout, so what do I know...).
Ted Cruz has quietly built his organization and has thoroughly distanced himself from his peers in the Senate to the point of being actively disliked by his colleagues. But in 2016, this is political gold when trying to win primary voters. In addition, as a born-again Christian, Cruz is well positioned in Iowa and states with high Evangelical populations. At this point I see him as the chief rival to Trump.
Although his campaign appears to be fading, Dr. Benjamin Carson (who actually is not that angry, but evangelicals really like him) had a spike of support as he focused on his soft-spoken honesty - even though he has a tenuous grasp on actual policy. For many of these angry voters, policy expertise doesn't matter and in some cases is actually a negative.
Is Rubio the only hope of the Establishment?
Senator Marco Rubio occupied an interesting space in this contest. He is to the right of the more moderate triumvirate mentioned earlier. However, he is not as far right as Cruz and not bombastic like Trump. He could be a candidate who can unite the party and polls well against presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. However, he is an apostate on immigration policy and thus far has failed to consolidate his support.
So What Now?
This picture will likely remain muddy for some time. As long as there are many candidates all taking some of the vote it will not be easy for a clear front-runner to emerge in terms of delegate accumulation which is how presidential nominations are won. To win the nomination, a candidate must secure a majority of the delegates at the party convention that will be held in July. The total number of delegates is 2,472 with 1,237 being the magic number for a simple majority
Below are some plausible scenarios...
- One of the candidates breaks through and secures the nomination by the end of April. In primaries, winning begets winning as funding and media attention can create an inevitability for the candidate in the lead. Plus, after March 15, most of the GOP primaries are "winner take all" in terms of winning delegates. Prior to March 15, delegates are awarded proportionately to how candidates do in the voting within each state. So it is likely the contest will initially be relatively close in terms of pledged delegates, but after March 15 one candidate can quickly build an insurmountable lead. This is how Romney was able to outdistance his opponents in 2012.
- It is a war of attrition until the last primaries in June. Two or more candidates keep winning states and delegates and this goes down to the wire. One candidate secure the majority of delegates late in the game, similar to the Obama-Clinton contest of 2008 and the Ford-Reagan battle of 1976.
- The dreaded "Brokered Convention". This is the least likely scenario and involves an end game in which no one candidate secures the majority of delegates. In his situation there would be intra-party dealing to come up with a nominee from among the current candidates or possibly one who did not run at all in 2016. Paging Mr. Romney...
I think scenario 1 is most likely at this point. A long and drawn out nominating process will harm the GOP's chances in November, chances that are already likely under 50%. The party hierarchy will try very hard to deny the nomination to Trump as he is almost universally viewed as destructive, unable to win in November, and worse yet - a drag on GOP candidates in Senate and Gubernatorial races. But if this happens there is the possibility of...
Wildcard - Trump Runs as an independent
So say Trump ends up losing the nomination.He has the motivation, money, and supporters to mount an independent bid for the presidency. Most analysts, including me believe this would make a much easier path for Hillary as it would effectively split the opposition. in 1992, Ross Perot did not elect Bill Clinton, but certainly took a few states away from George Bush This truly would be the GOP nightmare scenario. Could Trump actually win a three way race? I would say very unlikely if not impossible.
As the caucuses and primaries draw near, a clearer picture will emerge. Going to be a fun year for political junkies regardless of what happens.