What will it take for Republican elites to defeat Donald Trump? A couple weeks ago it looked like it would require them to reconcile themselves to instead nominating Ted Cruz—a widely disliked, factional candidate, but at least one moored in Republicanism and the conservative movement.
But today it looks as if defeating Trump will require something more like a miracle: the kind of implosion that Trump has managed to avoid for months on end, or the discovery that national and state-level polling has been massively and systemically overstating his support.
Evidence that Trump is cementing his advantages and exploiting his rivals’ weaknesses can be found everywhere. He announced Tuesday night that he would boycott Thursday’s Fox News debate and hold a competing, charitable event in Iowa, after the network declined to recuse moderator and Trump-antagonist Megyn Kelly. He has converted his polling lead (erroneous or not) into a series of endorsements from influential members of the right’s identitarian and evangelical wings. Last week, Sarah Palin went all in for Trump; on Tuesday, both Jerry Falwell Jr. and Maricopa County, Arizona County Sheriff Joe Arpaio made their Trump alliances official.
These are precisely the kinds of endorsements Trump needs to pull away from his closest rival, Ted Cruz, who was otherwise well-situated to consolidate the factions they represent. Trump is similarly sidling up to other religious right stalwarts in the race …
… precisely because they’re the candidates who can eat into Cruz’s support at the margins. The combined effect has been to accomplish exactly that. Cruz, who eked ahead of Trump in Iowa briefly last month, has begun to fade slowly, while Trump has resumed his rapid rise.
Against that backdrop, the Christian Broadcasting Network obtained video of Cruz addressing a group of pastors at a private event in Cedar Rapids Monday with a nervous message:
I will say right now, between Donald and me, this is neck and neck. It is an absolute dead heat. And if Donald wins Iowa, he right now has a substantial lead in New Hampshire, if he went on to win New Hampshire as well, there is a very good chance he could be unstoppable and be our nominee. And the next seven days in Iowa will determine whether or not that happens. So even if you’re thinking about another candidate, the simple reality is there’s only one campaign that can beat Trump in this state, and if conservatives simply stand up and unite, that’s everything.
But the best tells of all—what really gives away the party’s growing sense of hopelessness—are the strange and ill-suited tools Republicans are using to try and yank victory out of the jaws of defeat.
There are two schools of thought on the right about how Trump might still be deposed. They both rest on the hope that within the next week or two, party actors will effectively push three of the four mainline Republican candidates—Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich—out of the race by accreting around the other.
But there is a basic disagreement on the right about step one. A group of Republicans and party strategists—some aligned with Jeb Bush, others with Marco Rubio—believes weakening Cruz and closing his path to early victories is a predicate to any satisfactory candidate emerging to take on Trump: It must be Trump versus a single savior. To that end, Republican leaders have intimated that Cruz, not Trump, is too strident to win the presidency. They’ve even refused to vouchsafe his eligibility for the presidency from Trump’s attack on his Canadian extraction.
Other party actors object to the notion of helping Trump in any way, even if it’s only briefly and at Cruz’s expense. They prefer to maintain a kind of grudging neutrality through New Hampshire, at which point they’ll be better poised to truly join the race. In addition to being less reckless in its potential to hand the nomination to Trump, this neutral approach also carries the potential to keep Trump and Cruz supporters divided. Then a three-way race could develop, with the establishment candidate who emerges strongest from Iowa and New Hampshire consolidating about one-third of the vote. A scenario in which three candidates have one-third of the vote might go better in the long run, these Republicans believe, than a one-on-one race where Trump’s winning the whole way.
There are big problems with both strategies, but the one they share is that there’s no clear consensus within the party over who the savior candidate should be. And in that vacuum, the pretenders to that role are all attacking one another bitterly. If Cruz doesn’t fade, then the race is likelier to develop into a two-man race between Trump and Cruz than between Trump and an institutionalist—let alone into a three-man race.
If Cruz does fade, though, different problems emerge. One of them is that many of Cruz’s supporters are likely to defect not to Rubio or Bush but to Trump. Another is that, by the time the lower-tier candidates consolidate, Trump will have won Iowa, New Hampshire, and be well on his way to winning South Carolina, and running the table from there before the party even had a chance to get its act together.
These strategic approaches aren’t taken from harebrained, come-from-behind memos drafted by desperate staffers for fallen candidates. They are the approaches leading party strategists are actively touting. Under the circumstances, given everything that would have to fall into place, praying for a miracle might actually be a safer bet.