While the Republican presidential contenders were kumbaya-ing at CPAC, evidence continued to mount over which of them gets to suffer the embarrassment of winning 180 electoral votes. A USA Today poll found that 59 percent of respondents said they will or might vote for Clinton. It showed enormous improvements in personal qualities (Is she likeable? Is she honest?, etc.) since the first time she ran for president. Respondents even thought that she was six years younger than she actually is!
What the CPAC goings on tell us, combined with a burst of polls showing Clinton wiping out Chris Christie and just mopping the floor with Jeb Bush, is that as they face 2016, the Republicans are in a situation that has almost no precedent in the party’s modern history. In practically every nomination battle going back to Tom Dewey—I’m not even going to tell you the year, but trust me, that’s going back!—the Republicans have had a chalk candidate. The establishment guy, the early front-runner.
Dewey, Dewey, Eisenhower, Eisenhower, Nixon, Rockefeller, Nixon, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Reagan, Bush Sr., Bush Sr., Dole, Bush Jr., Bush Jr., McCain, Romney. These were the establishment nominees. You could make a case for William Scranton instead of Rocky in ’64, and you might argue, I guess, that at the start of the 1968 cycle, it wasn’t Nixon but George Romney, although he imploded in the pretty early innings. And anyway, I’m not sure Romney ever led Nixon in the polls. So these were the GOP establishment choices. You’ll have noted that only one of the whole bunch of them, Nelson Rockefeller, failed to capture the nomination.
Today? No chalk horse. Wide open. Christie was, but clearly isn’t anymore (by the way, Clinton leads him by 10 points—in New Jersey). Those who think Jeb Bush can step in and play this role are going on name and history, but they obviously aren’t looking at the numbers—Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee do just about as well against Clinton as Bush does. Establishment money might chase Bush if he got in, but there’s no evidence that votes would.
So this time it really could be almost anyone. The CPAC straw poll results suggest as much. It doesn’t mean much that Rand Paul won going away with 31 percent. He’s engineered to win CPAC straw polls. They’ll always overstate his support, although he is certainly among the front rank of aspirants right now. But look at the other numbers: Cruz, 11; Christie, 8; Rick Santorum, 7; Scott Walker, 7; Marco Rubio, 6. It’s a good bet that the nominee is going to be one of these people (counting Paul), and they’re packed in there pretty tight. That’s not a bad number for Rubio, whom the chattering classes have spent the last few weeks writing off (except Ross Douthat, who just yesterday suggested that a Rubio nomination was a distinct possibility.) I remember telling people in 2006 that I thought there was no way the GOP would nominate McCain in 2008, although I also said the opposite the following week.
It’s fascinating that this is happening at the precise time that the GOP establishment looks to be asserting control over the party at the congressional level. After two congressional election cycles during which the insurgent radicals started to take over, the establishment conservatives have said enough and started their own organizations to beat back Tea Party challenges to incumbents (the Times ran a good summary on this Sunday). The early sense is that for the most part, the establishment will succeed at this task. No more Christine O’Donnells on ballots. Most of the GOP incumbent senators being challenged from the right are probably going to end up winning their primaries. All those senators needed to see was what happened in Indiana in 2012, when the Tea Party wingnut beat the establishment Republican and then lost in the general, giving the state a Democratic senator even as Mitt Romney was beating Barack Obama there by 10 points, to conclude finally that they’d better clamp down on can’t-win-in-November extremism.
But it turns out they can’t contain it completely. It’s whack-a-mole, GOP style: They move to solve the problem at the congressional level, but lo and behold the mole pops up out of the presidential hole. If Christie is cleared, maybe matters will revert to normal. But even if he is cleared, he can’t turn back time; his image just isn’t what it was and never will be. He is already not quite Dole/McCain/Romney, the troika calumniated as sellouts by Cruz at his CPAC speech last week.
And thus the odds are strong that the GOP, for only the second time since 1944, is going to nominate an anti-establishment insurgent. Because, you know, they only lost in 2008 and 2012 because they failed to offer voters “a real choice.” Or so some of them say. So let them offer voters that choice. As they did in 1964, the voters will know what choice to make, and she’ll be a fine president.