Nate Cohn has a good piece in the Times today looking at the reasons why Donald Trump probably won’t be the nominee. And there are very solid arguments ranging from recent history – Newt Gingrich was killing it right now in 2012 – to various more granular arguments about the polls. I confess I’ve struggled with this question a lot – not anything about Trump himself but the predictive question, can he win and do I think he will win? In general, I’ve got a decent record of predicting these things. And that’s mainly because, like a good pilot, when you’re in bad or uncertain conditions, you need to watch your instruments rather than what you see out the window or what you feel.
In politics, your instruments are a mix of polling data, history and what we might call a real-time analysis of the various stakeholders and interest groups affecting a given contest. As you might be telling yourself, the last of those three may not be that different from going by gut, which is sort of the counter to what I’m saying. But instruments-only-flying only tells you where you are and what is happening right now. This is prediction. So there’s no perfect analogue.
In any case, Nate makes a pretty strong case. But as even he seems to half come around to, the arguments against Trump winning have a number of key weaknesses. They largely come down to two things: 1) the sheer consistency of Trump’s lead and 2) the lack of a credible establishment standard-bearer.
Yes, all sorts of freaks went to the top of the polls in the 2012 GOP primary. But none of them were able to sustain it. Trump has been at the top almost since he entered the race and aside from a few weeks of boomlet from Ben Carson, no one has challenged him. Just as importantly, unlike Dem 2004, GOP 2012, GOP 1996 and a bunch of other races, there is simply no establishment figure to pull the party together in opposition to the renegade. Indeed, perhaps just as importantly there’s simply no unfractured or powerful establishment to make that happen. Jeb Bush is the logical person to do that but he has done so abysmally it’s hard to see not counting him out at this point, though John Kerry was doing quite poorly at this point in the 2004 race too – something I can’t get out of the back of my mind.
Without Jeb, Marco Rubio is the guy Republicans really need to nominate. But he just hasn’t shown the sort of strength or political acumen that’s required for the task. In a way that doesn’t surprise me. I’ve always found the guy unimpressive and green. But the GOP is in a position where if “Marco Rubio” didn’t exist they’d have to invent him. So why they don’t just take this “Marco Rubio” and make him better or pretend he’s better I’m not totally sure. I guess it doesn’t work that way.
This is why I think Ted Cruz’s current move in the polls is so significant. As Nate notes, it’s far easier for Trump to sustain this kind of dominance with a dozen other people in the race than with two or three people in the race as the field narrows in January and February. As long as Trump is strong with a couple months before the first contest, we’re still operating within a script we’ve seen before: the underperforming establishment candidate starts to get traction, the field narrows and we have the expected result. But what if that ‘other person’ turns out to be Ted Cruz – a guy who I think could actually do worse than Trump in the general?
This is when Marco Rubio needs to start pulling together support as the anti-Trump. But Cruz seems to be squeezing him out. Perhaps Cruz and Trump are fighting over the same voters and there will be plenty of ‘establishment’ voters left. But the numbers don’t seem to be bear that out.
That is one of the many things that makes the current Trump-Cruz phony war so compelling. Trump is baiting Cruz into the same smackdown he’s used to eat up Bush, Walker, Fiorina and others. But Cruz won’t take the bait. Like two zen masters facing off in a martial arts classic or perhaps two wizards do battle in The Lord of the Rings, we have an epic confrontation between two master who have trained for decades in the arts of assholery and bullying. But their powers equally matched, it is a stand off.
I keep thinking that Trump won’t pull this off and I’ll be kicking myself for not paying more attention to all the reasons why this sort of thing just does not happen. And basically I still think, things like this, things so catastrophic for a major party simply don’t happen. But each day it gets more difficult to imagine the scenarios required to prevent it. And if the savior is Ted Cruz, he could do worse in the general election than Trump. Somehow Marco Rubio needs to start coalescing support. But at the moment, it’s the reverse that is happening.
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