It is a good time to review the unusual—maybe unprecedented—presidential contest, which exhibits striking fluidity and uncertainty, with a huge group of candidates on the Republican side, and an equally striking coalescence toward an early consensus on the Democratic side. Making predictions is folly at this very early stage, but it is not too early to examine conventional wisdom and some possible scenarios.
First, on the Republican side: Conventional wisdom—including most of the political scientists, pundits, professionals, and those in the betting markets—disdains the prospects of Trump, Carson, and Cruz, and puts Rubio in the driver’s seat. It is no wonder. History suggests that the party may flirt with an outsider but will end up with an establishment favorite. With Bush floundering and Kasich too much a compassionate conservative, Rubio is that man. And Rubio has the advantage of being young, Cuban-American, and just radical enough not to turn off the outside contingent.
But here is the most important and enduring fact of the GOP race so far. In every recent national poll of Republicans, including those with likely voters, with or without leaners, the breakdown is that the five main outsider candidates (Trump, Carson, Cruz, Fiorina, Huckabee) combine to generate between 63 and 70 percent support. The three main establishment candidates, Bush, Rubio, and Kasich, combine to between 12 and 19 percent.
Of course, there is a chance that as one or more of the outsider candidates falters, their supporters will gravitate to Rubio or one of the other establishment figures. Or that the outsiders will fragment in support, allowing Rubio, the establishment favorite, to do what Mitt Romney did in 2012. But it is a bit more likely that the bulk of those voters will opt instead for another outsider.
The vast majority of scholars and pundits, including but not limited to those who confidently predicted multiple times over the past four months that Trump had peaked and would soon be out of the race, and who are now gleeful that he has dropped to second in the latest CBS/New York Times survey, assume Trump cannot possibly win a nomination. But consider that Trump’s supporters are far more set in their deep support for him than Carson supporters, who indicate that they are more flirtatious than romantic at this point. And consider that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Trump is now investing more in building an infrastructure in early primary and caucus states than most of his rivals.
That does not mean that Donald Trump is on course to win the Republican nomination. But as veteran and savvy GOP politico Steve Schmidt told Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur, “Anybody who thinks Donald Trump cannot be the Republican nominee is smoking something.” If Trump falters or self-destructs, keep a close eye on Ted Cruz—well financed, inside and outside the campaign, and cleverly “drafting,” like a race-car driver, behind both Trump and Carson, waiting to surge to the lead if they both falter.
Now let’s talk about Rubio. He moves into a much stronger position if Jeb Bush’s evident disgust for a party process that now strongly favors the outsider insurgents, and his poor performance in debates and on the trail, lead him to follow Scott Walker and drop out. Then Rubio looks more like Mitt Romney in 2012, the acknowledged establishment favorite. But if Bush stays in—and why not, with so many candidates, so much uncertainty, and so long to go?—he will focus much of his firepower against his chief rival for the establishment crown, as he is doing now by calling Rubio the “Republican Obama.” My reaction to that was, “Hmm, a successful two-term president who enacted sweeping social policies via both legislation and executive action.” But, of course, most Republicans do not see it as a compliment.
For those who still see Rubio as, by far, the most likely nominee, consider the following scenario. Rubio finishes fourth or worse in Iowa; does not finish in the top three in New Hampshire; loses to Trump, Carson, or Cruz in South Carolina. Not much momentum for him at that point. Even a victory or second-place finish in the small Nevada caucuses would not help much. Then comes Super Tuesday, with a heavy concentration in the South, where the insurgent forces are especially strong. To be sure, there are some moderate states on Super Tuesday—Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota—but those are states where John Kasich and Jeb Bush are highly attractive. The next big opportunity for Rubio is March 15, when Florida joins Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. Kasich, if he is still alive and well, would be the prohibitive favorite in his native Ohio. But one can easily imagine Bush and Rubio canceling each other out in their native Florida, perhaps even enabling a Trump or Cruz (who might take some of the Cuban-American vote from Rubio) to win a plurality victory.
On paper, Rubio is still a strong contender. He is young, attractive, and articulate—and an impressive debater. And much can happen between now and February 1, when the Iowa caucuses take place, including a winnowing of the field. That winnowing may happen more rapidly in February and March, as candidates who don’t win anything in the first month don’t have the resources to compete on Super Tuesday or beyond. But I would be a lot less confident than the bettors are in the markets right now about Rubio’s inevitable path to nomination. The greatest likelihood is that, at minimum, the GOP race drags on through April, or even, as I wrote last month, right to the convention.
If Rubio or Bush are able to prevail, how would the insurgent candidates and their ardent supporters—including much of the influential tribal media in talk radio and blogs—react if their sense is that once again the establishment conspired to thwart the will of the people? They include the same people who have condemned the Freedom Caucus as sellouts because they refuse to block Paul Ryan’s ascent to the Speakership. The reaction to the budget and debt-limit deal crafted by John Boehner, with at least the implicit support of Ryan, may offer some clues in the coming weeks. Insurgent candidates could make a Rubio-led Cleveland convention a raucous and bitter one—or at minimum force Rubio to do as John McCain did in picking Sarah Palin, choose a running mate who is on the radical side to bring some stable peace to the convention itself.
On the Democratic side, the path seems remarkably clear for Hillary Clinton, after the best two weeks I have ever seen for a candidate. Two new polls show Clinton trouncing Bernie Sanders by nearly 40 points in Iowa. She might well still lose New Hampshire, but as the Democratic race moves to South Carolina, where her lead is overwhelming, and on to Super Tuesday, where she would be the prohibitive favorite everywhere but Vermont, she is likely to end the contest effectively before the end of March. The endorsement of Clinton by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a major figure on the populist left, shows the striking degree to which elected officials are rallying behind her—including, by the way, the governor of Vermont—in a fashion far more sweeping than, say, Walter Mondale in 1984 or Al Gore in 2000. Endorsements are not everything, and the populism that has made the Tea Party right such a potent force is also a force on the left. But the anti-establishment fervor is notably absent on the Democratic side.
It is still reasonable to expect a close presidential election in the fall. It is not a coincidence that parties rarely win three consecutive terms, something that has happened only once since the 22nd Amendment limited presidents to two terms. An open contest to replace a two-term president is framed by the choice between more of the same and change, and Americans tilt toward change. That is why the Clinton team worries about Rubio, who physically embodies change, more than the other Republican candidates. But if one party has a long and bitter fight to choose a nominee, against a backdrop of a civil war between insurgents and insiders in Congress and elsewhere, while the other unites early behind a nominee who can stockpile money, leisurely plan a convention, and work to consolidate support from all party and supporter factions, that is quite a contrast heading to next fall.