With Donald Trump’s victory in the South Carolina primary, many GOP pundits are beating the drums for other candidates to drop out of the race under the theory that a two- or three-person race would be the end of Trump’s presidential campaign. But Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Ben Carson might need more than everyone else’s dropping out in order to beat Trump in the primaries. They’ll have to present their own affirmative visions and, probably, address some of the populist concerns that have elevated Trump.
It doesn’t seem quite clear that winnowing the field will necessarily spell doom for Trump’s insurgent candidacy. If Kasich and Carson dropped out, there’s a good chance that at least a some of their support would go to Trump; Kasich polls well with self-identified “moderates,” a group favorable to Trump, and many of Carson’s supporters back him because, like Trump, he stands outside the standard political system. Some of Rubio’s supporters might back Trump if he dropped out, and, since Cruz has also made much of outsider themes, it is likely that a portion of his supporters could go to Trump if the Texas senator exited the race.
National primary polls are not always the best indicator, but, as the field has been winnowed over the past six months, Trump’s “ceiling” in national polls has gradually ascended. It’s possible he will top out at the mid 30s, but there’s no guarantee of that. He has won two out of the last three primaries, both by commanding margins. So far, Trump’s support has reached throughout many sectors of the Republican coalition. A recent YouGov poll found that Trump would win a three-way race with Cruz and Rubio comfortably. The idea that Trump will collapse on his own has so far proven to be mistaken. Moreover, even if a cascade of party elders does defeat Trump in the primaries (itself a debatable proposition), an establishment bandwagon will not necessarily keep Trump from going third-party and taking a substantial chunk of voters with him.
EDITORIAL: The Fight Goes On
If any non-Trump hopes to become the Republican nominee in 2016, he might very well be disappointed if he thinks all he has to do is be the last non-Trump standing. Primary campaigns usually aren’t won by default; especially if the nominee hopes to win in November, he or she usually has to make a strong, affirmative case on behalf of his or her candidacy.
#share#There are many things that Republican candidates can do to harness the populist energies that have empowered Trump, without compromising core conservative principles. Making specific commitments on immigration (which means going beyond anti-“amnesty” boilerplate and offering detailed proposals) would seem especially important. However, areas such as health care, trade, and economic growth would also be important for this endeavor. Many non-Trumps have the potential to reach out to the disaffected voters who have supported Trump, but they will actually have to make the case.
RELATED: The Myth of Trump’s Inevitability
What might be most important is the offering of specifics. Vague declarations will probably not prove enough to stop Trump’s rise. Many voters have such mistrust of conventional politics that they have shifted to Trump as a radical change agent. In order to counter Trump, his rivals will need to explain concretely how their policies can address economic stagnation and widespread sociopolitical alienation.
#related#Trump made an early and bold play for populist energies, and Cruz — the only candidate to beat Trump in a primary so far — has somewhat followed suit. But a more fully developed effort in that direction could help these candidates displace the Donald. In South Carolina exit polls, Trump scored a huge lead among the third of the electorate that wanted a candidate who brought “needed change.” Trump’s rivals might want to think about how they can make a case that they, too, can bring wanted change.
You don’t defeat a change agent by ignoring his appeal; you face head-on the forces driving that change and try to channel those energies. Time will tell which of Trump’s rivals is most successful in that enterprise.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.