Reality Bites

Face It: It’s a Two-Man Race for the GOP Nomination Now

Let’s stop pretending. Rubio ain’t happening. The other establishmentarians? Feh. It’s Trump vs. Cruz.

01.15.16 4:55 AM ET

You know the story about Richard Nixon and Pauline Kael? Here’s the gist: Kael, The New Yorker’s film critic, is said to have expressed disbelief that Nixon had won the presidency because she didn’t know anyone who’d voted for him. It probably never happened but it sticks around, particularly in the minds of conservative pundits, because it’s a clear illustration of what the right thinks of as elite disconnect from the lives of everyday Americans. Worldly, affluent, well-educated urbanites like Kael live in a tiny, isolated social bubble, making them much less knowledgeable about American life and culture than they think they are.

That bubble may have something to do with why so few reporters and pundits saw Donald Trump sticking around. Things inside the bubble, where plenty of journalists reside, are comfortable; much of the rest of the rest of the country, meanwhile, seems to think America is dying. And so here we find ourselves, just a couple weeks from Iowa, with Trump still the runaway frontrunner. Far from watching his support dissolve as the first primary contests near, it’s actually solidifying, and he’s improving as a debater and a candidate. 

The only other candidate making waves is Ted Cruz, another guy a lot of us sort of wrote off some months ago as too divisive and off-putting to win, and he had a very good night Thursday. I still hear people say that Marco Rubio is destined to have a big bounce, or that Jeb, with his resources, can somehow mount a comeback. And I guess they could. The only problem with these theories is that, right now, there’s approximately zero evidence to back them up.

We’ve entered, it seems to me, a two-man race for the GOP nomination. There is Trump, there is Cruz, and then there’s a bunch of guys who just won’t win.

Let’s talk about those other guys, the four Republican establishment hopefuls: Jeb, Marco, John Kasich, and Chris Christie. Actually, it’s probably a little misleading to even pretend that there are four Republican establishment hopefuls. Kasich has barely made an impression and is despised by much of the conservative activist class who see him as a smug crypto-liberal. Jeb has spent many, many millions and it’s done nothing but make him more and more unpopular. And the fact that we’re even talking about the scandal-plagued, squishy, and deeply unpopular governor of New Jersey just highlights how profoundly weak this field turned out to be when faced with Trump.

This is all to say that if you’re a Republican who doesn’t like Trump or Cruz you have one real option left, and that’s Rubio.

Rubio is, at least in a traditional sense, the best politician in the whole bunch. He’s the most articulate, which he showed again at the debate on Thursday, another in a series of strong performances. He knows policy, and how to talk about it. He’s young and attractive.

But the best candidate on paper isn’t working out in real life, at least not in any meaningful sense. He hasn’t been able to capitalize on Bush’s utter and ongoing collapse. And of course his back-and-forths on immigration over the years have done him considerable damage. The only plausible path to victory for him I’ve seen, via the conservative Twitter pundit Dan McLaughlin, presupposes both a Trump collapse and Rubio losing the first three contests before racking up enough delegates in blue states to narrowly overcome Cruz.

Maybe Rubio gets that last-minute surge. But I really doubt it. Plenty has been written on why Trump has owned the polls for such a long time (the best explanation, to my mind, was from David Frum in The Atlantic). So without delving into the psychology of the Trump supporter, let’s just take a look at why he’s still looking so hot, and why we shouldn’t get optimistic about the Jebs and Marcos of the race.

First, there are too many of these establishment-type candidates, and they spend all their time bashing each other. (For a particularly embarrassing example of this “kill the other electable guy”-ism, go here.) But even if this crowd suddenly thins out, I’m still skeptical that anyone is going to be able to stop Cruz or Trump. More on that in a moment.

But for now, let’s look at the early states, particularly New Hampshire, which is long-fetishized by establishment GOP consultants because it’s supposed to be where all the nice, moderate Republicans are, the ones who always go for the Romneys and McCains after some crazy person wins Iowa. This time around, however, Trump is by all accounts running away with New Hampshire, with the rest of the field stuck squabbling over a distant second-place finish.

That probably has to do with the fact that Trump does quite well with those nice, moderate Republicans. In fact, they’ve been an important part of his coalition all along, which belies the idea that he’s filling the role of right-wing radical we’ve seen rise and fall in previous years.

And that’s an important point, because the theory of someone overtaking Trump and Cruz depends a lot on the idea that there’s a natural order to GOP primaries. The base spouts off, various unelectable candidates rise to the top of the polls, and then the moderates turn out to crown their champion, the eventual nominee, while conservatives fall in line because they want someone who can beat the Democrat. You know, someone like Romney. And here we are, with Trump looking like he could potentially do as well with moderate-to-liberal Republicans as good old Mitt.

That’s not to say that Trump will definitely be the Republican nominee. Charlie Cook thinks that Republican voters will eventually sour on Trump after they’ve finished “venting their spleens,” start taking The Donald’s unpresidential temperament into consideration, and settle on another candidate, most likely Cruz. Ross Douthat, who is as pessimistic about Trump’s chances as anyone on the right, recently suggested a rather similar theory and also identified Cruz as a major beneficiary of a late-stage Trump collapse.

Both of these scenarios are, at the very least, plausible, and underscore why Cruz still has a real shot at the nomination. Plus, a Cruz victory would likely keep the party more or less intact, while a Trump win at least raises the prospect of a split. Preventing the all-out dissolution of the GOP may, in the end, prove to be a powerful motivator among Republican voters, and Cruz could at least promise to keep the party united through the election.

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That’s a strange place to be in, with Cruz as the peacemaker in a party that looks increasingly open to nominating a liberalish reality show star with an authoritarian streak. As much as we’ve become inured to the idea of Donald Trump transforming himself into a political figure of real consequence, picturing him giving a State of the Union address is still almost too absurd to comprehend. How could America elect such a man, and how could someone as profoundly unlikeable as Cruz really emerge as the sensible alternative, the last hope for keeping the GOP at least somewhat recognizable?

For many of the people in my profession, that’s going to take some time to absorb. A large portion of that America outside the bubble is lashing out against its elites and the institutions they run, from the major parties to big business, from the media to the federal government.

The reasons for this are too many to flesh out here, but after decades of stagnant wages, pronounced economic inequality, crumbling infrastructure and a series of lost and unnecessary wars, the people who have run our political system, and that included the press that covers it, have invited a populist revolt. And I suspect the political media’s inability to understand and anticipate the appeal of Trump and Cruz in part stems from the role we played in the destabilization that produced them.

We’re all Pauline Kael now.