Next week, Iowa Republicans are expected to choose either an erratic New York billionaire or a detested U.S. senator as their party’s next nominee for president.
It’s Trump v. Cruz — and the Republican Party is somehow just along for the ride.
After a gut-punching loss in 2012, the Republican Party vowed it would be primed and ready for 2016 with a strong field of candidates who were less focused on serving up red meat to the base and more committed to fine tuning rhetoric that resonated with general election voters.
But it did not go as expected. Now Republicans are facing the very real prospect of a two-man race of their nightmares: Trump – a carnival barker who once donated money to the Clintons and has already alienated Hispanics and Muslims – or Cruz, a Canadian-born, government-shutdown loving, lightening rod.
So how did the Republican Party actually get here?
When he announced his candidacy in June and declared he would build a Mexican-financed border wall, it was easy for the party to think there was no way that voters would buy the empty promises Trump was pedaling.
“I’ll be the greatest jobs president that God ever created,” Trump said during his presidential announcement.
But Republican Party leaders were caught off guard by their own voters’ simmering discontentment. Conservatives were fed up with Washington Republicans. They had control of the Senate and the House but still had not managed to make good on campaign promises like repealing Obamacare or rolling back Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
Unlike in 2011 when Trump toyed with the prospect of running for the White House only to bow out, Trump began seriously campaigning and saying things that Republican voters wanted to hear. He made promises like, “I would do various things very quickly” if elected. Most dismissed his surge in the polls as a fluke, akin to the hot-potato GOP primary for the 2012 election where Rep. Michele Bachman won a straw poll in Iowa, then Herman Cain stole the base with his fired-up 9-9-9 flat tax plan. That same race included a moment where it looked like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum might be president. In the end, the GOP was rescued by the safe, reliable, grown-up Mitt Romney.
But Trump didn’t go away this time. He began beefing up his campaign’s infrastructure taking a summer of Trump into the fall. And, by the time Republican establishment woke up and began strategizing how to stop him, it was too late (not to mention potentially impossible to begin with.) The Washington Post reported that the party’s leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), were beginning to prepare for a brokered convention in early December, but a more likely scenario has always been that an insurgent candidate like Trump or Cruz may actually have a clear path to the nomination long before then.
A few disparate attempts surfaced this winter to block Trump. From a super PAC supporting John Kasich that sought to call Trump out for his bombastic comments to Trump Card LLC, a group run by Liz Mair, a former online communications director of the Republican National Committee, that has sought to elicit donations from fed-up donors. The effort has now morphed into a super Pac – Make America Awesome. Nothing has stuck yet.
According to a CBS News poll released earlier this week, Trump is leading in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina with 39 percent, 34 percent and 40 percent of the vote, respectively.
Mitt Romney’s paltry performance with Latino voters had dashed the Republican Party’s hopes of pushing out President Barack Obama on election night in 2012. Republican Party leaders vowed they were not going nominate another candidate who preached policies like self-deportation to win in the primary contest.
But the party never did invest in what it would have taken to seriously curb inflammatory rhetoric and push forward with immigration policies that didn’t pander to nativism.
Sure, there were a handful of Republican senators –including GOP presidential contender Marco Rubio– who worked in the Senate to pass comprehensive immigration legislation in 2013. The bill provided immigrants in the country illegally with a path to citizenship, but there was no will in the House of Representatives to tackle the issue. The efforts in the lower chamber collapsed quickly and House Speaker John Boehner had little appetite to push his conference forward at a time when he could not even get the party to agree on funding the government or raising the debt ceiling (or ultimately on whether he should be speaker).
So it is no surprise that in the 2016 election, immigration became –once again– a splintering point of contention. It was the metric by which a candidate’s conservatism was measured. Once Trump declared he was ready to deport 11 million rapists, thugs, and drug dealers — to use the Trump shorthand — candidates competing for the conservative wing of the party picked up his mantle of anger and ran with it.
When Jeb Bush left the Florida’s governor’s mansion in 2007, Barack Obama was just beginning to be a household name and Soulja Boy was about to top American music charts. In other words, a lot has changed since Bush was engaged in the day-to-day combat that is American politics. That, however, did not stop major donors from betting on him early. In part because of his campaign’s early organization and in part because of his family’s close ties to the establishment, Bush hit the campaign trail with a treasure trove of campaign cash.
According to campaign finance reports, the pro-Bush super PAC had raised nearly $103 million in the first half of 2015, far more than Romney had raised in that same time period in 2011. Bush wooed mega donors like Ray Hunt and T. Boone Pickens according to a report from Mother Jones. Bush’s strategy all along was to impress the establishment early, spook candidates like Rubio and keep others in his lane from jumping into the race. He was winning a lot of support, but it turned out his performance was not enough to monopolize it.
Bush surprised everyone as a wobbly and out-of-practice candidate. He fumbled over questions about the Iraq war. He stumbled over his position on whether he supported a path to citizenship, and in debates has shown himself to be a shrinking violet in comparison to verbose Trump. By the time donors grew worried, they had already given Bush enough money to keep his candidacy afloat long after it might have been time to bow out gracefully and give one of the other candidates more room to challenge Trump and Cruz.
In 2012, it was the sugar daddy mega donors that kept far-out candidates’ hopes of the GOP nomination alive. In 2016, it’s the undercard debate.
As if the Republican field were not wide and splintered enough, the Republican Party has continued to host two debates, one for competitive candidates and the other for those who are widely viewed as never winning the nomination. Instead of simply requiring candidates to meet a higher threshold in polls, Republicans have sought to be more inclusive.
That inclusivity has come at a cost. The kid’s table debates have been a sideshow for voters. They’ve given candidates like Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee a lifeline and stage when they are barely registering in early states. The debates have become so much of an inconvenience that one candidate Sen. Rand Paul did not even show at the last one.
When your 2012 nominee–who lost–is tempted to jump back into the presidential fray to save your party, you know you have a problem.
In January 2015, rumors were flying that Romney was seriously considering another run for the White House out of fear there wasn’t going to be a strong enough candidate to rally around.
The field is full, the resumes are long, but there is something missing: a clear man or woman to rally around.
Correction: The original version of this story referred to the entity “Trump LLC. ” The correct name isTrump Card LLC. We regret the error.