To hear the media tell it, the fix was in. The Republican primary was a two-man race, and “the establishment” had cast its lot with the Donald. Having cycled through the stages of grief over Trumpmania, GOP pooh-bahs had reached the bargaining phase, and their abiding distaste for the junior senator from Texas was poised to hand the billionaire victory in Iowa, setting him forth on an unstoppable path to the nomination.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Making America Great Again. While last Monday’s Iowa caucus drew an unprecedented number of voters, the requisite Trump bump never materialized. Instead, his Jacksonian coalition of Reagan Democrats, radical centrists, and disaffected GOP leaners was swamped at the polls thanks to a formidable Ted Cruz ground game and a late-breaking burst of support for Marco Rubio.
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The “establishment” dalliance with Trump plays directly into Cruz’s attempt to offer himself as the daring outsider, but it deserves further scrutiny, both for its motives and its inherent risks. The strange new respect for the Donald, his temperament, and his appetite for deal-making comes conspicuously, it’s worth noting, from those with skin in the game. Bob Dole and Orrin Hatch? Jeb supporters. Trent Lott? Kasich backer. Terry “anybody but Cruz” Branstad? Keeper of the ethanol flame (and tacit Christie ally.) So it might be a bit of a stretch to take at face value their “establishment warms to Trump” theme, given that a Cruz flop in Iowa would aid their respective candidates and parochial interests. Moreover, with Iowa in the rearview mirror, the tactical alliance with “the establishment” may have already reached its expiration date.
The threat of Trump is existential, whereas resistance to Cruz is more personal and petty.
The primary conceit of this purported preference for Trump hinges on his relative electability vis-à-vis Cruz. Both represent a likely albatross, the thinking goes, but Trump has the potential as a celebrity outsider to shake up the electoral map. There is a certain logic to this. As a conventional (if polarizing) politician, Cruz is bounded by the laws of partisan physics. While he’ll have no problem carrying the Republican base vote, it remains to be seen which states he might flip from blue to red. Trump, on the other hand, is sui generis, a human paradox who has flouted conventional wisdom and defied political gravity since his entry into the race. His ceiling is as unknown — indeed unknowable — as his floor. Even on the primary ballot, one of these things is not like the others. The fine line between likely voter and mere fan is one of the key factors that make this race so difficult to poll.
But whatever your views on the electoral merits of a Trump candidacy, it is important to think about the big-picture implications of his approach. It’s not that Trump can’t win Reagan Democrats or can’t coax support from what Sean Trende has labeled the “missing white voters.” It’s that the gains would be marginal compared with the hemorrhaging losses inflicted by his apparent strategy. The ranks of the Reagan Democrats have dwindled as the parties have re-sorted themselves along ideological lines. And data suggest that these missing whites are disproportionately confined to uncontested states.
The $64,000 question for Trump is the same as it is for Cruz or any other Republican: Which Obama states can he flip to reach the magic number? It doesn’t matter if you top Romney’s record share of white voters if it doesn’t occur in the right states. Trump can run up the popular-vote score all he wants riding white-working-class resentment. It won’t help him when he gets buried in swing counties such as Fairfax, Hamilton, Hillsborough, and Arapahoe. Sure, he can target the Rust Belt, but big margins in Western Pennsylvania or the Upper Peninsula won’t matter if he can’t play in Bucks or Oakland Counties. And this doesn’t even contemplate the galvanizing effect Trump would have for turnout on the left, or the intraparty class tensions such an aggressive strategy would inevitably stoke.
There’s no question that both Republicans and Democrats have failed to put forward policies and messages that appeal to the beleaguered working class. But pandering to this group by playing to their grievances and resentments is both cynical and politically myopic. Let’s say for the sake of argument that a Mexico-financed wall and a total (“temporary”) ban on Muslim entry into the United States mollifies the white working class and wins the election. What lessons can you draw? It’s an electoral black swan: Culturally ubiquitous and ideologically heterodox billionaire defeats the most divisive major political figure of the era (or, if you’re optimistic, her socialist challenger) who is offering herself as the third term of a controversial incumbent.But what happens when you run out of Trumps to run? Or, for that matter, what happens when you run out of Hillaries (or Bernies) to run them against? Because, at best, a post-Trump GOP nominee is basically Jeff Sessions in a Make America Great Again hat. Good luck with that against a generic Democrat.
Cruz’s win in Iowa pierced Trump’s aura of inevitability — to the point where some analysts are now dismissing the Trump threat as a thing of the past. And in an ironic turnabout, with the roles reversed in New Hampshire and a predicted Trump victory there, Team Cruz is now openly cheering for the Donald, in a bid to derail Rubio. So cynical calculations are hardly confined to “the establishment.” This is politics, after all. But with a fractured field lowering the threshold for victory and few signs the GOP is coalescing around a single pick, it remains pure folly to prop up, abet, or otherwise enable Trump. No one should assume he’ll be easier to take out further down the line.
— Liam Donovan is a former GOP staffer who works in government relations in Washington, D.C.