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Republicans 2016: What to Do With the Donald?

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley

Handicapping a frontrunner who (almost certainly) cannot win

Whatever you think of him, Donald Trump is a stick of dynamite thrown into the presidential pond. All the boats have been rocked, and given Trump’s potential for more explosiveness, the political waters show little sign of settling down anytime soon.

Donald Trump is so special that we’ve created a category (and perhaps a word) just for him in our Republican presidential rankings: “The Un-Nominatable Frontrunner.”

Trump’s tier has partial precedents. Remember when then-Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN), businessman Herman Cain, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich led national and/or early state polls at various times in the 2012 cycle? There was no way that any of the trio was going to end up as the Republican nominee for president. You could say the same about former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the early stages of the 2008 election.

Friends, this is also true today for The Donald. Or perhaps we should say: If Trump is nominated, then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong.

History has shown that presidential nominations tend to follow a certain set of “rules.”

First, the nominee has to have widespread backing from party elites — those in public office (many of whom will have to run on the same election ticket), the people in party leadership positions, large donors, and the heads of factional, well-funded organizations outside the party structure but still under the broader partisan umbrella.

No question Trump has plenty of his own money — if he chooses to spend it — so he may not need sizable donors. But in every other respect, Trump comes up short or altogether empty with party elites. Not only does the Washington, DC crowd want nothing to do with him, but some segments of the party that typically fight the Republican establishment are staying far away. For instance, the Club for Growth, which often supports primary challengers to sitting GOP members of Congress, dislikes Trump. RedState’s Erick Erickson, also a frequent opponent of party leadership, disinvited Trump to an event he held in Atlanta last weekend.

Second, a likely nominee needs a layered, professional organization that has been carefully constructed at the national level and in each of the early critical states. Trump has some of this, but all reports suggest he is throwing together most of his organization, only now hiring seasoned second and third-level aides that are essential to victory.

Trump’s campaign has had a seat-of-the-pants feel to it, with the candidate relying on his easy access to TV anchors and reporters who are always eager to air Trump’s latest stream of consciousness. But Iowa and New Hampshire, in particular, are not won by sound bites and celebrity coverage.

Third, a party winner is a disciplined politician who knows the language of politics and the dangerous curves that exist all along the campaign trail. As the first debate proved beyond doubt, Trump has little knowledge of any of this, and contempt for what he calls “politically correct” conventions. Short cuts in politics catch up with a candidate sooner or later. Moreover, as experienced pols know, you don’t win the votes of those you insult.

Finally, veterans of politics understand that many voters become more cautious and thoughtful as the real Election Day — primary or general — approaches. One’s vote for president is special, with enormous consequences; after all, this is the most powerful office in the world, still possessing the ability to end civilization as we know it.

Answering a polling question early in the campaign is far different than casting a ballot. Is Trump the kind of person to whom most Republicans (or Americans generally) would entrust the Oval Office? Would voters want to welcome Trump into their homes on television every evening for four years, not as an entertainment show host whose antics can be amusing, but as president of the United States, whose words can move markets and start wars?

Trump is an early season fling for many people, fun while it lasts but doomed to breakup somewhere along the path to the nomination. There have already been some signs this week that his polling may — may — have peaked. Moreover, we need to constantly remind ourselves that few people are paying very close attention to the race right now.

That’s not to say Trump won’t have consequences for the GOP. For example, somehow the party is going to have to reconcile Trump’s supporters with a more establishment nominee. Some candidates will be able to foster unity more easily than others — and this assumes Trump does not run as an independent in fall 2016.

The Summer of Trump is unlikely to turn into a Year of Trump, much less four years of President Trump. Current frontrunner? No question. The Republican nominee for president? Doubtful in the extreme.

Table 1 shows our revamped and streamlined rankings of the 17 Republican presidential contenders. Analysis of the five candidates we believe have at least some chance of winning the nomination, followed by 11 others that we do not think have much of a chance but might influence the race, is below the table.

Table 1: Crystal Ball rankings of 2016 Republican presidential primary field

First Tier: The Real Contenders
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Jeb Bush
Ex-Governor, FL
•Conservative gubernatorial resume
•National Bush money and organization, has already raised huge sums
•Personifies establishment, which typically produces GOP nominees
•Bush fatigue is real — Jeb cannot avoid George W.’s negatives
•Support for Common Core and immigration reform
•Personifies establishment, which grassroots loathes
Scott Walker
Governor, WI
•Heroic conservative credentials
•Checks boxes for many wings of party
•Lack of polish, too-conservative positions could hurt him with party leaders worried about electability
•Does lack of college degree matter?
Marco Rubio
Senator, FL
•Dynamic speaker and politician
•Potential appeal to party insiders & outsiders, plus Hispanics
•Generational contrast with Jeb…& Hillary
•Went left on immigration, hurt him with base
•Surprisingly anonymous for seeming top-tier contender
•Blocked by Bush in home state?
Ted Cruz
Senator, TX
•Dynamic debater & canny, often underestimated politician
•Anti-establishment nature plays well with base
•Strong early fundraising
•Too extreme?
•Disliked on both sides of the Senate aisle
•Strong Tea Party support ensures establishment resistance to candidacy
John Kasich
Governor, OH
•Long moderate-conservative record plus two terms as swing-state Ohio governor
•Could be fallback for GOP establishment forces
•Potential New Hampshire appeal
•Supported Medicaid expansion, backs Common Core — shares some of Bush’s liabilities but lacks Jeb’s immense funding
•Unscripted style can lead to unforced errors
•Jon Huntsman 2.0?
Second Tier:
The Un-Nominatable Frontrunner
Donald Trump
Businessman and TV personality
•Can command the stage, has freedom to say anything
•Draws crowds & media; high name ID; riveting figure
•Billionaire, can self-fund if he wants
•GOP holds mixed views about him, more negative than most of real contenders
•More novelty than plausible nominee
•Makes outlandish & controversial statements
•Strongly opposed by GOP leadership
Third Tier: The Influencers
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
•Still largely unknown, no firm base of support
•Can she raise big money & build credible political operation?
Ben Carson
Neurosurgeon and activist
•Adored by Tea Party grassroots
•Good on TV
•Political outsider, no baggage from office
•Little chance of establishment backing and funding
•Can he build a credible political operation?
Mike Huckabee
Ex-Governor, AR
•Well-known from his Fox News program
•Strong support from social conservatives
•Southerner in Southern-based party
•Disliked by establishment for economic populism & social views — party leaders don’t think he’s electable
•Small fundraising base
Rand Paul
Senator, KY
•Support from libertarian and Tea Party wings
•National ID and fundraising network; benefits from father’s previous efforts
•Dovish views on national security are out of GOP mainstream
•May be losing support from father’s base by altering positions
•Poor fundraising so far
Chris Christie
Governor, NJ
•Commanding speaker and stage presence
•Very high name ID
•Honeymoon in NJ is long over
•Weak favorability among Republicans and general public
Rick Perry
Ex-Governor, TX
•Strong campaign team, better candidate than in 2012 •Bombed in much weaker 2012 field & failed to make first primetime debate
•Fundraising drying up
Bobby Jindal
Governor, LA
•Deep and wide experience
•Knows how to toss red meat to base
•Better on paper than on stump
•Deeply unpopular in Louisiana
Rick Santorum
Ex-Senator, PA
•Credibility with social conservatives
•Been around primary track
•Yesterday’s news
•Not as economically conservative as others
Lindsey Graham
Senator, SC
•Prominent Obama critic
•Media savvy and hawkish views on foreign policy
•Vehemently disliked by grassroots
•Immigration reform efforts hurt him with conservatives
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
•Record as tax-cutter
•Military record, intelligence officer during Cold War
•Not strong on the stump
•Largely anonymous in party

The Real Contenders

Despite the gigantic field of Republicans, we have long maintained that only a small number of these candidates could actually wind up being the GOP nominee. We reorganized our presidential ratings to reflect this. At the end of the day, we consider it very likely that the Republican nominee will come out of the following quintet of Real Contenders: former Gov. Jeb Bush (FL), Gov. Scott Walker (WI), Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Ted Cruz (TX), and Gov. John Kasich (OH). Cruz and Kasich are new additions to our top tier but their odds of winning the nomination are significantly lower than the other three, while we regard Bush, Walker, and Rubio as having relatively similar odds.

But each of these five candidates has the potential ability to rally enough support — electoral and monetary — so that he ends up carrying the GOP banner into the 2016 general election.

Our trio of top candidates remains unchanged — we’ve long had Bush, Walker, and Rubio in some order in the first tier of Republican contenders.

To those three we have added Cruz and Kasich as the other top-tier Republican options. To be clear: Both are behind the top three in our eyes, but we also think they stand above much of the rest of the field. An unlikely Cruz nomination would represent a triumph of the most conservative elements of the party, while an unlikely Kasich nomination would mean a win for the party’s least conservative voters. Given Sen. John McCain’s (AZ) nomination in 2008 as a favorite of the party’s left and middle — plus former Gov. Mitt Romney’s (MA) primary triumph four years later — Kasich’s path has more historical precedent than Cruz’s. On the other hand, the GOP base has moved substantially to the right in recent years.

Cruz is unapologetically conservative on a range of issues, and his uncompromising profile may be problematic in a general election. But there’s little question that his attitudes jive with the views of many potential Republican primary and caucus voters. Should Bush, Rubio, and/or Walker have problems, one can see a path for Cruz. His campaign and Super PAC surrogates have raised more money than anyone not named Bush in the GOP field, and Cruz is one of the better speakers and debaters in the field.

Similarly, should the Republican establishment find itself in a crisis because some or all of the top three don’t prove their mettle on the campaign trail, Kasich has the profile of someone who could step into the void: He is governor of crucial swing state Ohio; he combines a relatively conservative record with a moderate-sounding outlook; and his campaign and its allies have the potential fundraising ability to bankroll a serious bid.

We saw on Thursday night how one or more of our top three contenders could stumble. There were very mixed reviews of the Republican debate, often with conflicting analyses about who really performed well or poorly. Bush and Walker earned criticism for being bland and invisible at times. Neither was brilliant, but perhaps their blasé night was in part a result of being on the same stage as Trump and having more to lose than win from standing out. Rubio received lavish praise for his performance, though a debate with 10 people, one of them Trump, naturally produces memory fog.

Still, Bush hasn’t looked comfortable in the spotlight in recent weeks, struggling to deal with questions about foreign policy and women’s health. At the same time, some observers see him shifting to the right to shore up his conservative bona fides. He remains vulnerable to right-leaning attacks on Common Core and immigration policy, not to mention the legacy burden attached to yet another Bush White House candidacy.

All in all, Bush has work to do. While it’s a fool’s errand to overemphasize early polling toplines, Bush’s second-place position behind Trump in the New Hampshire primary polling average (and narrow lead over Kasich and Walker) differentiates him from Mitt Romney: According to RealClearPoliticslist of polls, the 2012 Republican nominee never trailed in the Granite State. Bush’s early strategy largely rests on winning New Hampshire while performing credibly in Iowa. But at the moment, it’s obvious that he lacks a firewall — Florida is not scheduled to vote until March 15, so it’s not among the early states — making him a weaker frontrunner than Romney despite the massive war chest Bush has at his disposal.

As for Rubio and Walker, it’s possible that neither of them can make their candidacies as formidable as they imagine. For Rubio, his problem might be an old issue that haunts him: immigration. His position has been difficult to nail down, and his past vote for comprehensive immigration reform will surely be a target. More broadly, Rubio also has not yet had a big moment in this race, nor does he have a clear stronghold among the early states. But like Walker, he is both broadly liked in the party and not as well-known as he would like.

Walker’s possible trouble may be more in presentation. He’s now a national candidate, which means saturation coverage and attacks. Walker is battle-tested from Wisconsin, but there’s nothing like a presidential race — and he has much to learn, and not just about foreign policy. Many party leaders appear inclined to gravitate toward the more polished Bush, Rubio, and even Kasich before him, which could make a difference in a close contest. On the flipside, Walker does have an early-state foothold — Iowa, where he consistently polls at or near the top of the field (the rise of Trump has lowered his numbers there, though).

Should some or all of the top three contenders wilt, the other two first-tier candidates may be able to take advantage. Yet, just as the Bush-Rubio-Walker triumvirate has problems, Cruz and Kasich have flaws that will be exploited. As mentioned earlier, Cruz is a hard-right candidate. Though he’s posted impressive fundraising numbers so far, the party establishment will be wary of Cruz should his candidacy pick up steam. Cruz’s abrasive interactions with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and other colleagues, along with his leading role in the government shutdown in 2013, have made him a bête noire in establishment circles. Of course, this is part of his appeal to the conservative grassroots, but the party leadership still has a great influence on the outcome. It’s hard to win at anything without friends among your peers.

Meanwhile, Kasich is the media’s favorite GOP underdog candidate, in part because he isn’t dogmatic and has earned widespread popularity in his key state. Kasich went over his Republican-controlled legislature’s head to expand Medicaid in Ohio, a move sure to generate fierce criticism should he become a threat to the leading candidates. He also backs a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, and he has previously been open to creating a route to citizenship. These positions will attract some center-right votes, but they may also put him squarely in the crosshairs of the same conservatives going after Rubio.

Ultimately, we see Kasich (and Bush, at least in rhetorical and image terms) as positioned a little to the left of the conservative center of the GOP, while Walker and Cruz are to its right. Rubio is harder to place: He’s ideologically in the conservative group, but stylistically more moderate. So perhaps the nomination will be decided by whether a couple of the party’s factions can unify behind a single candidate in this group.

The Influencers

The remaining 11 candidates not named Trump on our list do not, we believe, have any real chance of winning the nomination. But instead of focusing too much on what they cannot do, let’s examine what they can do: influence the race in some way. These candidates, or a few of them, might help determine the identity of the nominee.

There was near-universal acknowledgment that former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who badly lost a 2010 Senate race in California, dominated the early “kid’s table” debate last week. The positive buzz was reinforced during the main event when Fiorina was featured decrying President Obama’s pending nuclear deal with Iran during the earlier session — a free campaign ad for Fiorina during the middle of the most-watched program in cable news history and by far the most-viewed primary debate ever. There’s already an indication that a flood of news coverage is moving polls in her favor, at least in the short term.

It’s impossible not to lump Fiorina in with former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has consistently polled in the mid-to-high single digits nationally.

Fiorina and Carson stand out by being the only female (Fiorina) and black (Carson) Republican candidates. They also share important attributes with Trump: They have never held elected office and made their names outside of politics. If and when Trump gives up his national lead, it’s possible that one or both of these candidates might pop up to the top of the heap, at least briefly. Trump, Fiorina, and Carson have all made waves, which does speak to a hunger for outsiders in the GOP. But just because they are enjoying some success in the race doesn’t necessarily mean they will be there at the end of it.

The flip side of Fiorina and Carson’s lack of political experience is that the burden of proof is on them to show that they can build the kind of state-level organizations needed to win individual caucuses and primaries. If they cannot, their best moments might be limited to the pre-voting period, like last cycle’s prominent but never-elected contender, Herman Cain.

Next is former Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR), who showed again during the debate that he’s a force with a distinct audience: evangelical Christians. None of the other candidates can match the former pastor’s cultural connection to these voters who play a major role in many Republican contests, such as Iowa and South Carolina, as well as several Southern states that will make up the so-called SEC (Southeastern Conference) primary on March 1.

Sen. Rand Paul (KY) and Gov. Chris Christie (NJ) engaged in a tense spat during the debate about domestic spying programs, with Paul making a libertarian argument that such programs are overblown while Christie defended them and mocked Paul’s criticism. Both of these candidates are fading, and the aggressiveness of their exchange suggested they were trying to make a splash to boost flagging efforts. If anyone from the kids’ table climbs into the next debate — Fiorina? — someone on stage in primetime a week ago will have to be dropped. Christie and Paul are the likeliest candidates.

However, both could influence the voting in New Hampshire. Paul’s father, Ron, actually finished second there in 2012. Meanwhile, Christie is in direct competition with Bush and Kasich in the Granite State. The New Jersey governor could take votes from both, or if he drops out, free up votes for more moderate contenders.

Former Gov. Rick Perry (TX) and Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA) have more appeal in the states with higher evangelical populations, though the news that Perry has stopped paying his staff must raise existential questions about his campaign.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (PA), who (like Huckabee in 2008) was his party’s runner-up in 2012, has a somewhat similar profile to Huckabee, but the former Arkansas governor is a more important factor in the race now.

Huckabee, Santorum, Perry, and Jindal will all set their sights on Iowa more than less conservative and evangelical New Hampshire. Walker and Cruz are doing the same. If these candidates all stay in the race, the eventual winner in the Hawkeye State may break 2012’s record, held by Santorum, of the smallest percentage of the caucus vote ever received by any Republican winner (24.54%, just ahead of Romney’s 24.51% that year).

Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC) could play a similar role to Paul and Christie in his home state of South Carolina should he remain in the contest that long. But if Graham doesn’t show strength by mid-February, the senior senator from the Palmetto State may not want to be embarrassed on his home turf.

To the extent that former Gov. George Pataki (NY) or former Gov. Jim Gilmore (VA) could influence the race, it may also be in New Hampshire, where they are campaigning more extensively. It’s hard to imagine either getting traction there — or anywhere, really — but a percentage point or two could affect the order of finish in a contest with so many names on the ballot.

Our presidential tiers have not seen their last shuffling. We try to expect the unexpected, just as the Trump bubble demonstrates. Monthly debates, a quickening pace, and a torrent of spending will upend our rankings in ways we can only guess at between now and the start of actual voting in Iowa next year.

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

Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Geoffrey Skelley is the Associate Editor at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Political Commentary by Larry Sabato

See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik

See Other Political Commentary by Geoffrey Skelley

See Other Political Commentary

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