Chris Sautter: Trump wreaks havoc with GOP as Clinton coasts
Thursday, December 10, 2015 10:28 AM
WASHINGTON – In his breakthrough book “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus,” historian Rick Perlstein reveals how the Republican establishment in 1964 continued to be in denial about Sen. Goldwater’s rise to the nomination all the way to the California primary in June when he defeated New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. By then it was too late to stop Goldwater and he went on to an historic loss to President Lyndon Johnson.
Obviously, there are many differences between 1964 and 2016, but the similarities are striking. The GOP establishment this cycle has been similarly in denial about Donald Trump. Month after month Republicans and the media have predicted his demise as Trump has continued to ride high in the polls. Last week’s CNN/ORC poll puts Trump at 36%, 20 points ahead of bad boy Ted Cruz who is now in 2nd place nationally. Conservative outsiders have topped the field since July. Even if the establishment were able to take down Trump, he might not be replaced by anyone remotely acceptable to them.
Like 1964 when Goldwater occupied an empty field for months, there is a vacuum of message in the 2016 race that Trump has filled. At the outset of the cycle Republicans bragged about the quality of candidates in 2016. Grover Norquist, conservative president of Americans for Tax Reform, called them the “strongest field the Republicans have had since Reagan ran” in 1980. Instead, the politicians on Norquist’s list have since dropped out or are languishing in single digits due to their inability to connect with the Republican base. The abject failure of any of the establishment candidates to articulate a message that resonates is to blame for Trump’s success.
The national Republican Party is in total disarray as Donald Trump has dominated the early nominating process. Unless the dynamics change dramatically soon, the GOP is poised to nominate an unelectable presidential candidate who, because of his outrageous and sometimes racist positions, would provide Democrats with their most one-sided victory since 1964. The possibility of a deadlock in the process or that a third breakaway party could emerge from the turmoil is also increasing.
Just as in 1964, Republican Party leaders have no intention of allowing the outsider candidate to win the nomination. And, just as in 1964, establishment leaders have no idea whatsoever how to stop him. The more they attack Trump, the more his supporters dig in and his poll numbers rise.
Worse, new party rules designed to help an establishment candidate such as Jeb Bush lock up the nomination early may, in fact, now favor Trump because they bind delegates to the outcome of primaries and caucuses. If Trump wins early primaries, delegates are bound to him even if he begins to fade later. And, the process is more front-loaded than ever increasing the odds that Trump gets on a roll. The new rules mean Trump could very well arrive at the Republican Convention in Cleveland with enough delegates to, in effect, dictate the outcome even if he cannot win the nomination himself.
Political pundits have traditionally said that there are but “three tickets out of Iowa”—meaning that only three presidential candidates can emerge viable in the wake of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation event. If true this cycle, the Republican nominee would likely be one of Trump, Ben Carson, or Ted Cruz or possibly Marco Rubio.
Some observers, including Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, have predicted there will be more than three candidates coming out of Iowa this year. Even if that were the case, there is little room at the top for establishment candidates like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or John Kasich, none of whom are even seriously competing in Iowa.
Iowa puts more pressure on these establishment candidates to perform well—meaning finish in the top three--in New Hampshire or drop out. The only way to stop Trump is to get him in a one-on-one race since his ceiling seems to be no higher than 40%. Would Bush drop out or does his financial advantage assure he remains in the race until he runs out of money? Many are betting on the talented Rubio, who looks like he is still in college, to be the last one standing with Trump. But Rubio has to contend with both Bush and Cruz. You have to win or at least show to move on in presidential politics.
Just like 1964, the Republican establishment is perplexed as to what rank and file Republicans see in the frontrunner. In fact, there is nothing mysterious about Trump’s appeal. Like Goldwater, Trump’s appeal lies in his take-charge style, his willingness to speak his mind even when (especially when) it is impolitic to do so, and his success in the business world. Trump’s message of making America great again is pure Ronald Reagan. And, Reagan’s message descended directly from Goldwater, for whom he campaigned hard in 1964. For all of Trump’s controversial statements, no other candidate in the 2016 race has a message anywhere nearly as powerful as Trump’s.
Meanwhile the mess in the Republican race has eclipsed the Democratic contest, helping Hillary Clinton consolidate her support and avoid the brutal scrutiny of earlier this year. Clinton seems to have found her footing over the past several months. The e-mail controversy has faded and her solid appearance before the House special committee investigating Bengazi has reassured a majority of Democrats that she is the strongest candidate with the best chance of winning the general election. Currently, Clinton leads Bernie Sanders by 27% in the USA Today poll released late last week.
However, Sanders continues to poll well in Iowa and New Hampshire. One recent poll has him still ahead in New Hampshire but most Iowa polls give a slight edge to Clinton. Sanders will need to win both early contests to have any possible shot at the nomination. Short of a seriously unfavorable FBI report regarding national security breaches from her private e-mail server or a collapse due to unforeseen circumstances, Clinton will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee.
Of course, things happen in political campaigns and dynamics shift. We have witnessed such a shift in the past couple of weeks with Paris and San Bernardino. However, contrary to some predictions, those events appear to have strengthened both Trump and Clinton within their respective parties while Sanders and Rubio seem to have been hurt. If past is prologue, Republicans could be headed for a disaster of 1964 proportions.
Sautter is a Democratic media consultant based in Washington.