I mostly agree with Ross Douthat’s column on the limits of Trump’s support, but I would make two suggestions:
First, I am not sure that Trump’s support is as solid as Douthat seems to believe. Trump’s draws from the angry across the Republican coalition’s ideological spectrum (and he does especially well among those without college degrees), but that means Trump has many supporters who strongly identify as conservative.
These voters listen to talk radio and think of themselves as “real conservatives” in opposition to the RINOs like Bush, Kasich, Rubio (I guess), whoever. They are backing Trump because he is the sharpest poke in the eye to their enemies, but Cruz is a better policy fit, has most of the same enemies , and Cruz is pretty combative too.
If Cruz wins Iowa, I think that you could see many of these voters peel off from Trump and join Cruz. That won’t be enough to sink Trump (who has plenty of self-described moderate supporters who are a bad fit for Cruz.) Cruz ’s ceiling might be higher than what you might think from reading the polls.
Second, I not sure that we should follow Douthat in using New Hampshire as “a plausible template” for Michigan, Florida, New York and other blue states. Maybe they will vote the same way as New Hampshire, but my sense is that New Hampshire will have a higher proportion of upper-middle-class moderates that favor expanded immigration and cutting entitlements, while those other states will have a larger proportion of working-class moderates that are hostile to both increased immigration and benefit cuts.
In the last cycle, Santorum finished nowhere in New Hampshire, but he did much better in Ohio and Michigan. According to the polls, the establishment candidates (Bush, Kasich, Christie, Rubio) get over 40 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, but less than one-third of the vote in national polls. The establishment’s wait-until-the-blue-states strategy does not seem to be accounting for the possibility of lots of angry, alienated, working-class voters showing up in those states.
On the other hand, who are they going to vote for? I’m not sure how well Trump’s numbers hold up if he loses Iowa, South Carolina, and most of the SEC states. I don’t know how these moderate (but populist-moderate) working-class voters end up supporting Cruz while Cruz himself supports a 16% VAT.
I just don’t see how Cruz sells that VAT to those voters – or to general election swing voters. It doesn’t mean it is impossible (Cruz is smart guy), but I just don’t see any strategy that works.