Well, one of the large challenges of teaching introductory American government is explaining how the process used by our two parties to choose their presidential nominees works. Harder still is explaining why it exists.
One time-tested concept is “winnowing.” The sequential arrangement of the primaries and caucuses over a few months leads an often large field of candidates to gradually but inexorably be reduced to two and then one. So the party convention has been reduced to ratifying the outcome of “the process.”
This process is readily criticized as both fundamentally undemocratic and lacking in deliberation, as well as for making the campaign well too long and hard for both the candidates and the country. It’s also very resistant to any reform that would really make much difference.
Winnowing, of course, now begins well before even a single vote is cast. Ask the twice-winnowed Rick Perry. And the second time around poor Rick was actually prepared! There’s also the curious case of Scott Walker, who went from favorite to fizzled out on the evidence of polls alone.
On the Republican side, it appears to many that the initial huge and diverse array of candidates has already been winnowed down to four: Carson, Trump, Rubio, and Cruz. It’s not perfectly clear what happened to Fiorina, but it did — or at least probably did. Bush, I agree with Henry Olsen, is clueless about what the times demand of successful Republicans, and that’s why he’ll be officially announcing he’s been winnowed some day very soon.
The experts add that we’re really down to Rubio and Cruz. That’s because Carson and Trump — the front runners by far right now in the polls — are fundamentally implausible as nominees, and so their demise will inevitably follow the intense scrutiny and merciless attacks to come. It’s easy to agree that Ben and Donald are completely unprepared to be president.
So Rubio, in the view of some (such as Ross Douthat), is the real front runner despite not showing that well in the polls, lackluster fundraising, and poor campaign organization. The bottom line: Those in the know know that he is the strongest candidate the party has, and he’s just conservative enough to be acceptable to both the establishment and the various anti-establishment factions.
In the view of others, Cruz’s likely success can be measured in both his impressive fundraising and his astute strategizing. He’s put himself in the position to inherit the Evangelicals who now love Carson, and the blue-collar patriots now in Trump’s corner. His situation is a bit dicey, of course, insofar as he has to wait patiently for the collapse of Carson and Trump; he can’t afford to alienate his potential supporters by criticizing their favorites now. But the anti-establishment vote is eventually his. Cruz, one-on-one with Rubio, will come off as both smarter and more authentically principled. The reasonable objection that Cruz is too strident to win in November might well not move those who actually vote in Republican primaries.
I have no idea how the showdown between Rubio and Cruz will go — or even at what point in the process it will commence.
It also might not happen. It’s certainly turning out to be harder to derail Trump’s and especially Carson’s support than the experience of recent campaigns would suggest. The polls show that Carson is really well liked, and the focus people call him a “wise gentleman.” I would guess that doesn’t mean he’s perceived to be a philosopher-king. It must mean something like he has his priorities straight. He, to begin with, knows a way of life better than ruling. I will say more about what the party can and should learn from Carson’s success soon.
In any case, what voters like about Carson isn’t undermined by shaky debate performances and various strange, extreme, and just ignorant pronouncements on the issues. If Carson can stay the course long enough to win the Iowa caucus (which he might), then Cruz might experience pretty much the opposite of momentum and get winnowed before he can get going. And if Rubio doesn’t show well in either Iowa or New Hampshire (which might well still be a great state for Trump), then . . . Certainly what some like about Trump isn’t undermined by one conservative public intellectual after another outing him for not being conservative, and his lazy campaigning is getting a little tighter (and he is pretty well organized in key states).
Don’t worry. I still don’t think there’s a chance in heck Trump or Carson will actually get the nomination. But give me good odds, and I’d bet someone other than Rubio or Cruz.