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Republicans 2016: The Presidential Shake-Up Continues

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Watch the Rising Sons of the Sun Belt

The Donald Trump Show continues to dominate the airwaves and the polls, and the other candidates seem mere apprentices by comparison.

The billionaire’s appeal is very disproportionately tilted to the blue-collar half of the Republican electorate — many are the old Reagan Democrats who have long since defected from the party of their fathers. Much of the college-educated half of the party, by contrast, views Trump with disdain, but they are fractured and split among the rest of the contenders.

Will the anti-Trump majority in the GOP ever coalesce around one or two of his opponents? Surely that will happen eventually, but will it be in time to stop Trump’s nomination?

The Crystal Ball has been consistently skeptical of Trump’s chances to be the GOP nominee, and we remain so. It would be easier to make our argument if we could explain precisely how and by whom the real estate mogul will be dethroned, but that is unknowable at the moment. We’ve noted before that every now and then, a major party goes off the track and nominates a presidential candidate doomed to defeat, but this is a rare event. It could happen in 2016, given the strength of the Trump phenomenon, but a betting person would still wager against it.

The most reasonable assumption is that the party leadership — in concert with Trump’s rivals as well as allied groups and donors — gradually will convince enough of the rank-and-file that Trump’s nomination would lead to electoral disaster in November. Notice that Trump’s exceptionally controversial (and likely unconstitutional) call for suspending all Muslim immigration earlier this week united his opposition — both fellow candidates and senior Republicans from Paul Ryan to Dick Cheney. There is remarkable unanimity behind the scenes that a Trump-led GOP would not just forfeit the White House but produce a Democratic U.S. Senate and see substantial Republican losses in the U.S. House as well. This is heresy to Trump’s devoted followers, but we’re inclined to believe that experienced Republicans who’ve actually won elections have solid instincts in these matters.

The Trump effect is now probably long-term, meaning that even if he falls by the wayside in the nomination contest, he will continue to be a factor. Maybe he will run as an independent. Maybe he will make life difficult for the eventual GOP nominee from his permanent headquarters on Twitter. Or maybe it’s simply the accumulation of his offensive statements on videotape that will be used by Democrats to taint the fall Republican ticket.

An aside: How in the world will the Republican Party ever reunify behind its nominee in time and with sufficient enthusiasm to win next November? Right now, it appears that the party must depend on its members’ deep-seated, intense antipathy toward Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to do the trick — neither of whom, it should be emphasized, are all that popular with the general electorate at the moment. In addition, the international situation, coupled with domestic terrorism, may be the extra fuel needed for the GOP to prevail. Finally, in a partisan age, we should expect Republican voters to rally around the party in the general election, although a divisive nominee will test this expectation. All of this will be revisited another day, when the smoke of the nomination fight finally starts to clear.

Trump’s main opponents in the future may be two Rising Sons of the Sun Belt, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, 44-year-old Cuban Americans who are serving freshman terms in the Senate.

At least on paper, the smooth and telegenic Rubio possesses all the elements needed to put together a winning coalition for the nomination, and possibly the general election. No one knows whether that will remain true after he goes through the fire of withering attacks from Republican and Democratic opponents. Conservative enough for most GOP factions (though not all — the anti-immigration wing is suspicious), Rubio has become the private favorite of many establishment officeholders who realize he may be the only contender who can get the party back to control of the presidency. Rubio’s potential is great, and he has steadily moved forward in polls and funding, but he has yet to achieve critical mass. He’s in need of one or more electoral breakthroughs in February that can transform his potential into reality.

Meanwhile, Rubio’s Senate colleague, Ted Cruz, has positioned himself nicely for a surprise victory over Donald Trump in the lead-off contest in Iowa on Feb. 1. If it’s a clear, clean win, Cruz will get a rocket boost and the kind of blanket media coverage that has eluded him so far. At the very least, Cruz should finish strongly enough to catapult him into other primaries and caucuses, especially in the South.

We add two cautions here. First, the month of January will see lots of gambits by all the candidates, and there’s more than enough time for this playbook to be upset and for the polls to move. Second, Cruz’s turn at bat will occasion intense media scrutiny of his weaknesses, including unpopularity that stretches almost across the board among his colleagues in the Senate (though in the age of Trump, that may help Cruz). It’s going to be fascinating to see if and how the electability standard is applied to Cruz. He insists that millions of conservative whites who abstained from voting in 2008 and 2012 will come out to vote for him in November, transforming the Electoral College picture. Yet a large majority of the GOP strategists we’ve consulted reject that theory, believing Cruz to be so conservative that he’ll be restricted to the deeply Republican states that together possess not even 200 electoral votes.

The most striking reversal of fortune in recent weeks has been the decline of Ben Carson. Many have pointed to his demonstrable lack of knowledge about foreign policy, which has been emphasized in the wake of the horrible ISIS-directed or ISIS-inspired terrorist killings in Paris and San Bernardino. However, Carson’s fall in the polls may have as much to do with style. Republicans now want toughness and decisiveness, and a policy not tempered by any mercy for a merciless foe. Trump has no more international knowledge and experience than Carson. Yet while Carson is soft-spoken and uncertain in this area, Trump is blunt, if characteristically simplistic: just find the Islamic extremists and kill them.

In short, the high personal regard in which most Republicans hold Carson is proving insufficient to sustain him as a presidential candidate. Trump and Cruz are the initial beneficiaries.

We mentioned earlier that some of the GOP establishment is willing to accept Rubio as a necessary instrument to stop Trump and Cruz. But Rubio is not the first choice of party insiders; they worry that he’s too green, among other drawbacks. The original “old Republican” favorite was, of course, Jeb Bush. To this point his campaign has flopped. When he effectively announced he was going to run on Dec. 16, 2014, Bush was universally seen as a top candidate and by most, the frontrunner.

What a difference a year makes! Bush has been measured in single digits — sometimes low single digits (2% or 3%) — in national polls, and he is nowhere close to leading even in his chosen battlefield of New Hampshire. This fall from grace is due to three factors: (1) Bush is more moderate than the new GOP electorate on issues such as immigration; (2) Bush is a surprisingly poor debater and has candidate skills well below those of others; and (3) The dynasty factor has proven a heavy burden — three presidential Bushes is one too many, even for Republicans.

Can Bush come back? We’re not going to rule out the possibility, given his cash reserves and the wiles of the Bush machine, but it’s not looking good. When we heard that Bush’s able Super PAC media consultant, Mike Murphy, had produced a 15-minute commercial for Bush this week, we honestly wondered how many voters would devote that much time to watching this particular candidate. Bush has much greater policy depth than most of his foes, but his presentations often appear to be sponsored by Sominex.

Many in the GOP also hoped that Ohio Gov. John Kasich would perform well in the campaign because the Buckeye State is absolutely critical to a Republican victory in November 2016. Unfortunately for Kasich, his debate performances have mostly been duds, and like Bush, he’s seen by the right-tilting base as too moderate. Kasich’s one chance to change the calculus is New Hampshire. That may be Bush’s chance, too.

However, a third establishment fallback, Gov. Chris Christie, is also depending on New Hampshire. With the mainstream establishment candidates all splitting up the more moderate vote, it makes it more difficult for any one of them to prevail. Still, Christie has inched up in the Granite State polls, due in large part to his laser-like campaign focus on a Northeastern state not far from New Jersey, and lately boosted by the enthusiastic endorsement published by the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper. The terrorist attacks have given added value to his patented, take-no-prisoners, gruff-and-tough style (Trump is infringing on the patent, and has had more success with it than Christie).

If Christie gets his New Hampshire upset, it will certainly give him new life, especially in moderate states of the Northeast and Midwest, but he’ll encounter strong resistance in more conservative areas, including the South and the Rocky Mountain states. Activists regard his stance on gun control and some other social issues as “soft,” and many Republicans still resent what they interpreted as Christie’s embrace of President Obama during the Super Storm Sandy mess right before the 2012 election.

Our back-of-the-pack tier is in rough order of the seven candidates’ longshot potential. Carly Fiorina is always an impressive debater, but she’s raised relatively little money and has faded. Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, and Lindsey Graham have pockets of support, especially Huckabee and Paul, but it’s a stretch to the point of breaking to imagine how they would ever get the nomination. And if we ever figure out why George Pataki and Jim Gilmore remain in this contest, we’ll get back to you.

From the very beginning of this cycle, more than a year and a half ago, it has been obvious that there would be a historically large number of Republican contenders and a fierce battle to claim the prize. But no one could have imagined all the twists and turns so far, and we are still more than six weeks away from the first real ballots of the nominating season.

Table 1: Crystal Ball ranking of 2016 Republican presidential candidates
 
First Tier: The Divisive Frontrunner
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Donald Trump
Businessman and TV personality
•Can command the stage, has freedom to say anything — and does
•Draws crowds & media; high name ID; riveting figure
•Billionaire, can self-fund if he wants
•Has committed supporters, but may have low support ceiling in GOP primary
•Produces many soundbites that can be used against him in ads
•Strongly opposed by a near-unanimous GOP leadership
Second Tier: Rising Sons of the Sun Belt
Marco Rubio
Senator, FL
•Dynamic speaker and politician
•Generational contrast with Jeb…& Hillary
•Starting to win support from party leaders, who may see him as their only plausible, winning nominee
•Went left on immigration, hurt him with base
•Is he raising enough money and building a strong enough organization?
•Hardline social issues positions might be giving establishment pause
Ted Cruz
Senator, TX
•Dynamic debater & canny, often underestimated politician
•Anti-establishment nature plays well with base
•Strong early fundraising and solid understanding that race is marathon, not sprint
•Disliked on both sides of Senate aisle and has few friends in party
•Can he unite the party, or is he just a factional candidate?
Third Tier: Paradise Lost
Ben Carson
Neurosurgeon and activist
•High favorability in party, well-liked by white evangelicals
•Political outsider, no baggage from office
•Total lack of campaign experience shows
•Heightened profile of national security & foreign policy in campaign weakens him
•Sedate tone a poor fit for moment
Fourth Tier: Establishment Alternatives
Chris Christie
Governor, NJ
•Commanding speaker and stage presence
•Improving his favorability amongst Republicans
•The rising establishment alternative in NH
•Large parts of party still don’t like him
•Big crowd of similar candidates in NH
•Doesnt fit ideological mood of party
Jeb Bush
Ex-Governor, FL
•Conservative gubernatorial resume
•National BushWorld money and organization
•Personifies establishment, which typically produces GOP nominees
•Bush fatigue is real and deep
•Well-known but not well-liked
•Establishment appears to be moving away from him
•Early ad blitz has not moved needle, numbers have only worsened
John Kasich
Governor, OH
•Long moderate-conservative record plus two terms as swing-state Ohio governor •Unscripted, combative style leads to unforced errors
•Jon Huntsman 2.0? Becoming better known, but not necessarily better liked
Fifth Tier: Back of the Pack
Carly Fiorina
Former business executive
•The only woman in the field, severe critic of Clinton
•Strong on debate stage & on camera
•Political outsider, no baggage from office
•Lost only race (2010 Senate) badly
•Major liabilities from time as HP CEO
•Seems over-reliant on debate performances, fundraising has been poor
Mike Huckabee
Ex-Governor, AR
•Has the kind of profile that appeals to blue collar social conservatives •Increasingly overshadowed by other socially conservative candidates
Rand Paul
Senator, KY
•National ID and fundraising network; benefits from father’s previous efforts •Dovish views on national security are out of GOP mainstream
Rick Santorum
Ex-Senator, PA
•Credibility with social conservatives •Yesterday’s news
Lindsey Graham
Senator, SC
•Media savvy and hawkish views on foreign policy •Vehemently disliked by grassroots
George Pataki
Ex-Governor, NY
•Very long elective experience in a big (Democratic) state — plus 9/11 experience •Zero grassroots excitement
Jim Gilmore
Ex-Governor, VA
•Military record, intelligence officer during Cold War •Totally left out of debates
•Largely anonymous in party

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Political Commentary by Larry Sabato

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