On “This Week,” with George Stephanopoulos Sunday morning, George asked, “Can Donald Trump be stopped?”
My awkward response was, “What if he already is?” With that, let me offer an admittedly contrarian argument that Donald Trump has not yet sealed up the GOP nomination — and Saturday in SC may have been the turning point leading an underdog Marco Rubio to a win.
First, let me confess my growing respect for Donald Trump, who remains the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Mr. Trump is a much better candidate and, yes, leader than ever imagined by the condescending GOP establishment, yours truly included, which he is routinely thumping. Donald Trump is far from the impulsive decision maker he often appears. His bright mind, keen instincts and business skills have given him superior preparation for a Presidential campaign and, perhaps, for a Presidency. One-third of Republicans seems to think only Donald Trump offers sufficient change to make America great again.
My concern with Mr. Trump remains what it has always been, that he is not a conservative who believes in reducing the power of the all-consuming, all-knowing, all-controlling collective state which is sapping the life of this country. As he has noted, he would just manage big-government better than the “losers” now running it. My fear is that he would rescue our old top-down government, not the average American it crushes.
In that sense, Mr. Trump has not yet grown beyond a Better Business Bureau version of Hillary Clinton. However, he has demonstrated an astonishing capacity to learn and lead. If he becomes the GOP nominee, I will put his yard sign on my lawn, preferring the ambiguity of Donald Trump to the certainty Hillary Clinton.
And let’s give credit where cash-flow is due: Mr. Trump is winning. As Jon Ward notes in his smart piece, “Trumps Rivals Are Not Trying to Compete for His Voters.” Other GOP candidates have limited their appeal to working class voters to the ritualistic wearing of the plaid work shirt or, digging deeper into inauthenticity, loosening their ties and rolling up their sleeves, as if giving a speech is similar to ditch digging.
Donald Trump has set these working-class voters on fire.
Attending a Trump rally is like attending a religious event. If not for themselves, for their country, Trump supporters are searching for healing. In South Carolina, where previous GOP winner, Newt Gingrich, had drawn only a few hundred, Donald Trump drew over 8,000 people.
The price of Trump’s intensity, however, is breadth. Simultaneously maintaining a sizzling cult brand as a cool mainstream brand is beyond difficult.
So far we know that Donald Trump’s support is fanatically reliable, willing to walk over ground glass to vote but so, increasingly, are the Republicans he is alienating.
This is a national nomination contest. Voters may cast their ballots in states, but the battle is being waged on screens on all our devices all at once, across our country. We have gotten to know these candidates. We have invited them into our homes every day and night for months. We have particularly gotten to know Donald Trump, one of the most intensely polarizing figures in our political history.
Assaulting Donald Trump may reinforce the doubts of anti-Trump voters, but Mr. Trump seems to be doing an admirable job of that himself and winning primaries despite it.
If anyone thinks a negative TV ad about Trump’s business record of bankruptcies is going to change this race, they are smoking dope. The man attacked Apple, waded into a fistfight with the Pope, embraced Obamacare mandates, praised Planned Parenthood and still won the South Carolina Primary by double digits. Accusing Trump of being a fraud or a failure is unlikely to gain traction since those arguments fly in the face of voters’ experience: They have seen Mr. Trump “tell it like it is” and, against great odds, succeed.
Some have written about the necessity for other GOP candidates to “take on Trump” or that the GOP hasn’t tried to stop him. I don’t know what contest they have been watching. Other candidates have slammed Mr. Trump in ads and even Fox News, the most powerful institution in the Republican firmament, have taken their best shots at Mr. Trump and he has prospered. Instead of running a campaign, he has become a cause, expressing the legitimate frustration of working-class Americans and their rebellion against Washington’s limp, self-perpetuating elites.
I would not hold my breath waiting for the next few million in negative ads against Donald Trump to be more efficient than the last $40 million. They will confirm that Donald Trump is Donald Trump, but that’s about it.
Mr. Trump’s vulnerability is entirely different: He has not yet understood that crushing his opponents and winning his party’s nomination are not the same thing.
Donald Trump does not need to win over the GOP establishment, as if he would ever try, but he does need to grow his vote beyond the 32.5% he received in SC. That is less, by the way than the 35% he received in NH. He hovers around 35% in national polling.
In my experience, the most significant factor determining the success of a general election candidate is whether he enters the contest with a divided party. Trump is winning primaries but like Pyrrhus of Epirus, more victories like those he is enjoying now could “utterly undo him.” Donald Trump risks winning the nomination and yet, being king of nothing.
There are only three things left that can change this race:
1. Winning. Winning creates momentum and begets more winning. Voters are social animals. We play the number one ball in golf, we rent from Hertz and drink Coke, and once we see other wildebeests going to the watering hole, we go as well, assuming the water is safe to drink. Winning will help Donald Trump— but not as much as other candidates, because both his vote and his opposition are firmer.
2. Geometry. When candidates drop out, the electorate is rearranged. Rubio has consistently been the most popular 2nd choice candidate in this race. A shrinking field helps Rubio more than it helps Donald Trump or Senator Ted Cruz.
3. A Meteor. The world changes when the unexpected hits a campaign, e.g., the FBI knocks on Secretary Clinton’s door or Michael Bloomberg announces he is going to run, even if Mrs. Clinton wins the Democratic nomination.
The bright folks at fivethirtyeight.com, modeling the projected vote based on state polls, national polls, and endorsements (an indicator of momentum) have Rubio and Trump in toss-ups in the critical March 1 states of GA and VA and NC on March 15. More importantly, they have Rubio one point behind in FL.
And these projected results were modeled before Jeb Bush dropped out of the race, releasing 5%-10% of the vote, and before Mitt Romney endorses Rubio, as expected.
Neither a Jeb Bush nor a Mitt Romney endorsement means much, in and of itself but young, untested candidates benefit more than others from a laying-on of hands. And Marco Rubio is not just collecting a few endorsements, but a wave of them which, in their totality, reduce the perceived risk of voting for the young Senator. See point 1, above: A flood of endorsements indicates momentum. More than any other candidate, Rubio’s watering-hole is attracting the wildebeests.
Georgia GOP Primary March 1 (projected results)
Virginia GOP Primary March 1 (projected results)
Trump could overtake Cruz to win Texas on March 1st and also win Michigan on March 8th without much challenge.
Then, however, we go to NC and Florida on March 15, where Rubio is doing increasingly well. From fivethirtyeight.com:
North Carolina GOP Primary March 15 (projected results)
Florida GOP Primary March 15 (projected results)
In Florida, as we see below, fivethirtyeight.com gives Trump a 49% chance of winning and Rubio, 39%. However, the trend lines for Trump are either static or declining while Rubio’s is ascendant.
To what degree these fivethirtyeight.com models are useful, I’ll leave for others to determine. It is worth nothing that their modeling captured the South Carolina race accurately.
South Carolina GOP Primary February 20 (projected results)
The good news? Ted Cruz is not going to be the GOP nominee. The candidate riding the white horse of moral purity has splattered it with mud. Cruz’s roughshod campaign against Ben Carson has gained him a reputation as a cheater. Donald Trump’s brutal pounding has taken its toll. Watching Cruz’s election night speech in South Carolina, even he was having trouble generating enthusiasm about his prospects.
Cruz has taken for granted that evangelical voters would support the most evangelical candidate. When the bus is racing towards a cliff, however, evangelicals want more than a minister to offer a prayer. They’d like somebody who knows how to drive to turn the bus around. Donald Trump is splitting the evangelical vote with Ted Cruz, and that is fatal for the Texas Senator. It wasn’t just his campaign but his argument for the nomination that was broken by his third place finish in the Palmetto State.
Can Marco Rubio still win this race? Yes, he can. Can he afford to make another mistake? No. Does he have a less likely than path than Donald Trump? Absolutely.
But Rubio has room to grow. We don’t know that Donald Trump does. And neither Trump nor Rubio has yet found the right moment to lift themselves out of this primary by explaining how their Presidencies would open up America’s economy and future differently than Hillary Clinton’s.
At the next debate, hosted by CNN and Telemundo in Houston this Thursday, we will see our first Marco v. Donald showdown. Donald Trump needs to expand his vote. After his drubbing by Chris Christie, Senator Rubio is positioned to surprise.
Approximately 60% of GOP delegates will be chosen by midnight March 15, only three weeks away. This is not a three-man race. Just in time, 2016 is giving us the two-man race Republicans always imagined, just not with the candidates we expected.