The Other GOP Problem: The Presidential Race

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I looked at the mess the Republican Party has on its hands in Congress. Alas, that is a walk in the park compared to the catastrophe that is the GOP presidential nominating contest so far.

Donald Trump continues to lead all national polls as well as the early polling in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to have, respectively, a nominating caucus and a primary. In recent weeks, his lead has shrunk a bit, but the RealClearPolitics averages of the polls have him ahead of his nearest rival by 6 points nationally, by 5.6 points in Iowa, and by 8.7 points in New Hampshire. The caveat about early polling is always in place, but that caveat also emerged as political wisdom because at this point in the 2012 race, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry had all had their moment at the front of the pack but the moment lasted only a week before they fell off the radar screen. Trump has been at the front of the pack for three months and he has yet to run a campaign advertisement, still less a negative campaign advertisement taking on any of his rivals who get too close.

I am not entirely surprised by Trump’s front runner status. He picked an issue – immigration, actually better to say nativism – that has real juice with the GOP base. Trump also is running as the candidate opposed to political correctness, which is a similarly deep source of angst among the GOP base. This also inoculates him from many of the gaffes that would sink other candidates. He says something that is misogynist or borderline racist and he gets away with it by denouncing political correctness.

Trump is a master at earning free media. Who wouldn’t bump one of the other candidates off a talk show in favor of Trump? Guess which candidate will secure better ratings for your show, Trump or anyone else? Things that usually get traditional candidates into trouble, such as not knowing the answer to a question on foreign policy, make no difference to Trump because he is not running on the strength of his political resume. He is running on the strength of his personality, and in this personality-driven culture, that sells.

The lack of a political resume is helping more than Trump. Second in the national polling average, with 17.2 percent is former neurosurgeon Ben Carson. His calm speaking voice is a nice counter-point to the bombastic Trump, but this is not a fugue. Fugues are beautiful. This anti-politician fever among the GOP primary electorate is the result of years of government bashing which, when combined with the need to actually govern, created the no-win situation for GOP congressional leaders I discussed yesterday.

Carson is also the scariest person to run for president in a long time. It is not just that there are many complicated issues about which he clearly knows next to nothing. It is that there are many complicated issues to which he thinks there are simplistic solutions, rooted in a reactionary understanding of the Christian creed and a blinkered knowledge of U.S. history. He casually states that no Muslim should be elected president, apparently unaware that the Constitution prohibits religious tests for office. He thinks that the people at the Community College should have been armed and charged the gunman. How would that have played out in Sandy Hook? Should the children in that elementary school have been trained to charge a gunman? If Hillary Clinton prays at night, she should pray that events conspire to make Carson the GOP nominee.

Since I last surveyed the GOP field, Carly Fiorina has risen in the polls and now comes in third at 10.4 percent. Her rise has been widely and correctly attributed to her two debate performances, in both of which she performed with cool, concise answers, and one hell of a zinger directed at Trump, the only candidate so far to lay a hand on him. But, Fiorina seems less likely the more you look at her. Her one previous election was a disaster: In 2010, she lost to Sen. Barbara Boxer, who had high unfavorable ratings, by ten points, and 2010 was a year when Democrats couldn’t get elected dog catcher. The real problem is her controversial time as the CEO at Hewlett-Packard. It is never a good sign when your company’s stick shoots up the day you announce your resignation. And, if she was really such a great CEO, how come no one ever offered her a job since? I suspect that Fiorina will fall, not as quickly as she has risen, but quickly enough. She is a target rich environment for negative attack ads.

The three most obvious characteristic of the three front-runners is that none of them have held elected office. That tells you something, a really big something, about the temperature of the GOP base. It is hard to see how Jeb Bush makes this his year in such an environment. But, as the field winnows, and the debates become three or four person events, rather than ten or eleven, his experience will show through in ways that only redound to his credit. There will be time for more in-depth questions, and follow-ups, with a smaller debate field. He is sitting on plenty of campaign cash. And, he has run successful campaigns before. The outstanding problem for Bush is the one thing Trump got right: He is a bit “low-energy” for a GOP electorate that is emotionally charged.

Sen. Marco Rubio has also been rising in the polls, and, like Fiorina, largely on the strength of his debate performances. But, while Bush will benefit from a smaller field, Rubio will not. The guy is all fluff. Great personal story. Good looking. And good soundbites. But, he does not communicate any sense of how the world works, or how values intersect with policy, or why he believes the things that he does. I think he will continue to rise and then plummet at the first gaffe. Gov. John Kasich is playing the role of Jon Huntsman this year, the really decent guy who doesn’t stand a prayer. Sen. Ted Cruz would be the primary beneficiary of a Trump implosion, but we are past the point where we can assume that Trump will implode.

Come next spring, the GOP will have a choice. Either they will select a non-politician and roll the dice, and get clobbered in the general election, or they will decide that Bush is the guy, and he will give whomever the Democrats choose a run for their money. Bush is the only candidate in the GOP who could garner the 40% of the Latino vote without which there is no path to victory for a general election candidate. The crazies on the right might not like him, but they will like him more than they like Hillary or Biden or whomever the Democrats select. At the end of the day, a general election is a binary choice and most voters vote the way they did last time. It will be getting to that binary general election that will be fun to watch.



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