By Alex Castellanos
Welcome to the real start of the 2016 GOP nomination process. This is what the World Wide Wrestling Federation would look like if Vince McMahon had not rigged the cage matches.
With a complete lack of confidence in my ability to predict the outcome of this episode of Wrestlemania, let’s look at the state of the race.
If I had to bet today, I’d put my money on Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination and, as the underdog, becoming the next President of the United States.
It hurt to say that but let’s look at the GOP nomination process. To borrow an insight from Brad Todd of OnMessage Media: “Bush has to beat Christie, Christie has to beat Rubio, Rubio has to beat Cruz, Cruz has to beat Trump and Trump has to beat 50%.”
Our most likely scenario today? Ted Cruz wins Iowa. Then Donald J. Trump rebounds in New Hampshire, and that’s the barbed-wire, no-holds-barred, steel-cage match for the GOP championship. I’d bet on the relentless salesman to erode Ted Cruz in that battle. As James Taylor sings in “Line-en Up,” (superb lyric, by the way) “They’ve got waves out on the ocean, they’re gonna wear away the land.”
As many have noted, after Paris and San Bernardino, voters are concerned about locking their doors at night and keeping the nation safe. The argument for Dr. Ben Carson has diminished. Carson’s fall, however, has uncapped Senator Cruz to consolidate substantial support within the Tea Party and evangelical lanes. With Cruz’s substantial war chest, robust ground game, and best-in-class social media presence, he’s going to be hard to stop in Iowa, South Carolina and the March 1 SEC primary contests.
However, Donald Trump continues to grow both as a candidate and a leader. He has demonstrated a brilliant ability to renew his campaign when many suspected he would exhaust himself. Increasingly, Trump makes other contenders look unimportant.
Mr. Trump’s assault on the Clintons for their “War On Women,” for example, has elevated him into a general election-style matchup with Hillary Clinton. More importantly, Trump has again shown GOP voters he is the only Republican candidate with the fortitude to take on the Clintons and give as good as Republicans usually get. For a Republican Party maddened at seeing an inbred Washington establishment rationalize decades of failure, reward itself for the same, and then wipe the floor with those who object, Trump is a righteous avenger — and he still has room to grow.
Republicans are progressively more comfortable with Mr. Trump, not as a Republican or a conservative, of course, because he is neither. Instead, Republicans see Trump as a turnaround CEO, coming to save their near-bankrupt company.
GOP primary voters have no illusions about Donald Trump. They know Mr. Trump is neither “one of us” nor capable of leading the country in an authentically Republican direction. None of those debilities matter. In desperate times, the hard-nosed CEO increasingly appeals as the best choice and, perhaps, last chance to clean up our balance sheet and stop bullies from kicking sand in America’s face.
Is there a more optimistic, though slightly less likely scenario for those of us who would prefer not to see Trump or Cruz as the Republican nominee? Glad you asked. Yes, there is, and it begins like this:
Donald Trump sinks a bit as we move closer to Iowa.
It is telling that Mr. Trump is doing better in national polls than those in Iowa and New Hampshire. In my experience, this is often a “tell”, as they say in poker: It may indicate that the nearer we get to picking a president, the less value there is in supporting Donald Trump.
To a few of his supporters, Trump may have more utility as protest candidate than as a credible American President. He has forced politics and the GOP to change and made Washington contend with the silent majority. Now, thanks to “The Donald,” it is a vocal majority. To some degree, Donald Trump has already won an important election. A portion of his appeal has been successfully spent.
Another share of Mr. Trump’s vote, and it doesn’t have to be “yuge” to disappoint him, aggregates people who slow down passing car wrecks. Unlike other candidates, a few Trump supporters are gawkers, not voters. Eventually, they will move on.
Additionally, Democrats who identify as Republican leaners give Trump 43% of their votes. These are Reagan Democrats who are no longer comfortable in the Obama-Sanders party of unearned rewards, anything-goes-morality, and foreign policy pillow-fights. Their attraction to Mr. Trump is cultural but they are not Pavlovian GOP voters or caucus attendees. They are less inclined to brave the snow, take time from work to vote in a GOP primary, or wait in line in democracy’s cold, political darkness to caucus for three hours — and Mr. Trump doesn’t have the organization to deliver them.
So, in my admitted fantasy, Trump underperforms in Iowa just enough, while Ted Cruz wins the Hawkeye State big. Then, the world explodes.
The eight days between Iowa and New Hampshire speed by with the subtlety of an air-horn and the grace of a Russian weightlifter. New Hampshire is deluged with mind-numbing, negative TV ads, dragging the state’s average IQ to subterranean levels. Political commercials become wallpaper and make no difference. Journos begin to buzz about Senator Ted Cruz as a potential president….
And that scares the living hell out of many Republicans and most Americans.
New Hampshire Republicans look up in the sky and, oh-oh: One of our missiles has lost guidance and is on its way to hit grandma’s house.
Then, rebound. Granite State voters realize they have the greatest possible purpose: They must once again save America from the ethanol-guzzling Iowans who make poor choices and eat pork-chops on sticks.
New Hampshire’s mission, in eight stormy days, is to validate an alternative to Cruz. If not Trump, the state picks from a smaller field of three.
As the GOP retreats to New Hampshire, as did the Imperial Russian Army from Poland, Marco Rubio is initially blocked by a surging Cruz, breathing flames, roaring out of Iowa.
But research informs that Rubio could surprise in New Hampshire: He is the 2nd and 3rd choice of more New Hampshire voters than any other candidate. That, however, is where Rubio may remain unless he takes his campaign to the next level. Though Rubio appeals to both outsider and establishment voters, the outsider lane is clogged by Trump and Cruz, and the establishment lane may not thin out until after New Hampshire. Rubio has not one ceiling to break, but two.
Rubio’s more serious challenge, however, is that campaigns need to grow. His campaign has not. His “new” message has grown “old” and stale because it has not advanced much beyond his brilliant announcement speech.
Other campaigns have evolved into, well, campaigns. Rubio’s practiced crusade seems limited only to its candidate and that candidate, limited only to one speech. Nevertheless, Rubio has the most powerful endorsement of any Republican contender: Hillary Clinton’s. He’s the candidate the Clinton’s would least like to see on the other side of the fence.
And Jeb “The Tortoise” Bush, to some surprise, is still in this race and contending! Bush’s campaign is showing a faint and trembling heartbeat, surprising signs of life in New Hampshire! Where was this Jeb! six months ago? Yes, among Republicans, Bush’s favorable ratings are equaled by his unfavorable ratings, but early in a crowded field, only the voters who love a candidate matter. Bush only needs to convert a small group of those voters to score in the mid 20%, win the Establishment Primary and move on to fight again.
In this unsettled year, the establishment lane also remains open for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. When other candidates are attacking you, you know you are doing something right. Campaign pros tell me Christie’s crowds in New Hampshire are double and triple what they were a month ago. In New Hampshire, retail campaigns matter and Christie’s town hall performances are unmatched by any candidate other than Donald Trump. If I had to invest today, I’d spend a portion, though not all of my nest-egg on Christie stock. He is a long-shot who is undervalued.
Sum it up and our most likely matchup is Cruz v. Trump down the home stretch. It is less likely, though still possible, we find ourselves with a race between Senator Cruz in one corner and a renewed Rubio, Bush or Christie in the other. But even this optimistic scenario gives establishment Republicans little encouragement.
After New Hampshire, as we head for South Carolina and the March 1 SEC primary, the establishment lane will consolidate — but the outsiders will amalgamate, too. That’s where the math begins to hurt.
Today, Cruz has one-third of the GOP, Trump has a third, and the remaining establishment third is split between Rubio, Bush, and Christie. Even if the establishment lane comes together, it’s still two against one. The GOP has become an outsider’s party. Trump’s legacy and that of the 2016 “outsiders” will be lasting. For the near future, the GOP will be a more Trump-like, populist party, not the evangelical party of Ted Cruz. Whether it is an angry and dark populism that rails ineptly against Washington, or an optimistic and visionary populism that decentralizes our outdated top-down government, empowers people bottom-up, and opens up America’s economy to the future remains to be determined.
If Ted Cruz and not Donald Trump were to become the Republican nominee, there is increasing concern among the GOP Washington establishment, in which I confess card-carrying membership, that he would lead the GOP to ruin.
Cruz’s strategy for the general election is to polarize the electorate, inflame and turn out the GOP faithful. Cruz would pit the Republican base against the Democratic base. That would be great strategy if general elections disallowed swing voters.
The cost of Cruz’s polarization strategy? Surrendering the middle and the future.
You will find my argument against Cruz here, The Kid No One Picked. His approach would not only bring the GOP a Mondale-like defeat, it would also define the GOP in such an angry and unkind way that we would not inspire the support of a millennial, suburban woman, and an aspiring minority voter for at least a generation.
Cruz’s narrow campaign is guaranteed to elect Hillary Clinton, who is doing something candidates rarely do: Mrs. Clinton is growing. With increased confidence, Secretary Clinton seems to be opening up, personally, to voters. It is still hard for her to penetrate what Peter Hart calls “the glass curtain” emotionally separating her from pesky constituents. However, Secretary Clinton has grown sufficiently relaxed in public to say “sorry” when late returning to the debate stage. Previously, many voters thought the mechanical Mrs. Clinton only needed, not bathroom breaks, but oil changes.
Additionally, Mrs. Clinton entered this election without a mission or purpose — but Republicans have come to her rescue. We’ve united Democrats for her: She is now needed to stop a Republican Party that looks like its going off the rails. Even a Clinton stumble in both Iowa and New Hampshire would likely be corrected as the process moves south and west.
Should Hillary Clinton be favored to beat Donald Trump? Not necessarily.
Donald Trump is above all a salesman. He is, as he constantly reminds us, the “Art of the Deal.” Trump would adapt, pivot, and do anything to make his next deal; winning the general election.
The Trump we see today would not be the Trump in November. Mr. Trump is not opposed to more big, old, top-down government in Washington. He is a corporatist who thinks the only thing wrong with Washington is that losers and morons, not Donald Trump, are running the place. Trump is little constrained by party or ideology. Unlike Senator Cruz, Mr. Trump would run left of Hillary Clinton when he found an opening.
Additionally, many swing and minority voters, seduced by Mr. Trump’s “tell-it-like-is” strength, make allowances for his over-heated rhetoric. They know he is saying what he finds necessary to close a deal. His hyperbolic declarations as mere “opening bids” in his political negotiations. Many voters have grown comfortable with Trump in their homes, as a man who has inhabited their televisions for decades.
You can hear Donald Trump taking to now: “Hey, that was the primary and now we’ve got to beat Hillary, am I right? She would be a disaster! And Bill Clinton walking around the White House with nothing to do all day! Oy! So we’ve got to beat these people, we’ve got to get these general election voters, right? We’ve got to make America great again!”
To date, Republican voters have forgiven Trump all his apostasies. In a general election against Mrs. Clinton, they would be more inclined to do the same. Could Trump repair all the damage he’s done to the Trump brand with minorities, women, young people, Americans with disabilities, menstruating newscasters, and everyone else he’s offended? Of course not, but for both political and business reasons, we can be assured Mr. Trump would make the attempt.
When he announced, I doubted Trump could repair his brand with Republicans yet that is what he has done. Elections don’t have to be unanimous. With a “new and improved” Trump, a bounce from a celebratory convention, and just a little progress with swing voters, Trump would enter the general election a breath away from Hillary Clinton, a candidate with a hard base, a low ceiling, and same worn Washington-elite agenda most voters have outgrown.
She may then learn what every Republican running for president will now tell you: Don’t underestimate Donald Trump.
Eight years ago, Mrs. Clinton couldn’t figure out how to run against a young, untested Barack Obama. She would find it even harder to post-up against the unpredictable Trump, a man who dominates both new and mainstream media and plays by no rules but those he makes.
“It’s always darkest before the deluge,” said Le Rochefoucauld. He could have been speaking about the 2016 Republican nomination. But this cloud may have a brighter lining. There is an inflection point coming for the GOP around March, when reality begins to set in.
At that point, the Republican Party will split nearly in two. One-half would be what Ben Domenech calls the negative, nativist, “welfare for white people” party of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz which finally gets what it has always wanted — a non-establishment, non-Bob Dole or Mitt Romney ballot test.
The other half would be a “shadow Republican Party,” a GOP of the future, a Republican party in waiting. That Republican Party, in the sunshine-conservative tradition of Ronald Reagan, would stand in relief to the Cruz-Trump party. In that optimistic party, next generation leaders like Marco Rubio and Cory Gardner would have the opportunity transform the GOP to succeed in a nation undergoing a revolutionary demographic, technological and economic evolution.
President Bill Clinton brought his party into the future with the “New Democrats.”
“New Republicans,” you will soon be in the batter’s box. It’s going to be a hell of a game. Your time is coming next.