Ever since Donald Trump vaulted to the top of Republican presidential primary polls, GOP strategists have clung to the view that he could be defeated the same way so many other insurgent candidates have: First, party actors would settle on a single candidate to represent the party’s institutional wing; then, slowly, that candidate would consolidate institutional and stakeholder support, until, by late January or some time in February, he would enjoy plurality support, if not majority support, of primary voters and eventually clinch the nomination.
This is how Mitt Romney fended off late favorites like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in 2012, and how, in slightly more chaotic fashion, John McCain climbed out of purgatory to win in 2008.
Two things changed in the 2016 cycle. First, Trump established dominance like no other insurgent candidate ever has. Though dark horse after dark horse charged into the race, none of them were able to truly split the reactionary vote with him. Second, no Romney or McCain-like figure ever emerged. Jeb Bush, who was tailored for that role, faltered almost immediately, paralyzing the establishment and fracturing its support among several (currently four) candidates with whom party leaders would be satisfied.
Nevertheless, the smartest minds in the GOP have maintained their faith in the old model. So committed to it are they that they’ve devoted a great deal of effort in recent days to damaging the first plausible competitor to Trump—Ted Cruz—because Cruz, equally detested and unelectable, also spoils their strategic analysis.
Nearly all available public evidence suggests this conception of the race isn’t just wrong, but laughably simplistic and far from representative of GOP voters’ preferences. The tragic thing for Republican leaders is that as poor as this strategic analysis seems to be, the other approaches available to them are just as bad or worse.
The fatal conceit of establishment Republicans’ strategy is its belief in a zero-sum relationship between the candidates that would satisfy them and the amount of support those candidates have within the GOP electorate. That a fixed segment of voters will behave in a way that perfectly mirrors the establishment’s political strategy. That if Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich enjoy a combined 25 percent support of Republican voters, then winnowing that “lane” down to one will yield a single candidate with 25 percent support.
If this were true, you’d expect any one of those candidates’ misfortunes to redound to the benefit of one or more of the others. Instead, poll after poll suggests that as other candidates falter, it redounds more to Trump and/or Cruz’s benefit than to anyone in the not-quite-hermetically sealed establishment cocoon.
Perhaps there are no “lanes” at all, or perhaps the lanes function very literally in that changing from one to another is easy and appealing when the one you’re in is backed up. The widely expected consolidation we were all promised is playing out more like a defection to leading, insurgent candidates. It may just be the case that voters whose first choice is a brash executive like Chris Christie, or a Cuban-descended avatar of the Tea Party like Marco Rubio, might see Trump or Cruz as a more natural second choice than another candidate with establishment backing.
Under the circumstances, you might have expected mainline Republican operatives to remain neutral in the Trump-Cruz feud, reflecting a last-best hope that the two would damage each other, or at least prevent one another from running away with the race.
Instead, terrified by the possibility that their theory of consolidation would work on behalf of a candidate (Cruz) whom they despise, many of these operatives have forged alliances of convenience with Trump, in order to arrest Cruz’s popularity before Monday’s Iowa caucuses. The problem is that this, too, is redounding to Trump’s benefit, rather than to the benefit of anyone else running.
If Cruz were to win in Iowa, where he was leading until this week, he would at least buy the establishment time to regroup after New Hampshire, where Trump leads mightily. Instead, the party’s faith in its own power to defeat Trump, mano-a-mano-a-mano-a-mano-a-mano, has increased the chances that he will sweep the first three contests and never look back.