The lessons of a Trump defeat would resonate for decades
Only one person has set the race for next yearâ€™s GOP nomination alight and that person is Donald Trump. Behind his blaze of controversy, energy, self-publicity and populism lies a field strewn with the bewilderment of his rivals: how has he lasted so long? Why have his gaffes not brought him down? How can he be effectively taken on? As yet, they have no answers.
That was painfully apparent in the professional candidatesâ€™ responses to Trumpâ€™s comments on border controls against muslims. Rather than call it out as contrary to Americaâ€™s best traditions, rather than take apart the impossible practical implementation of such a policy, their responses ranged from Rubioâ€™s faint damnation â€“ â€œnot well thought outâ€ (implying that the only problem is the detail) â€“ to Bushâ€™s simple abuse: â€œTrump is unhingedâ€. Neither is likely to win their own campaign support.
Meanwhile, Trump goes from strength to strength in the polls, twice breaking through the 40% barrier this last week in national GOP nomination polling. The only blip was an Iowa caucus poll that dropped him to second, behind Cruz, which is out of step with the national swing but is worth noting all the same.
In fact, Trump and Cruz ought to be the two front-runners in the betting now just as they are in the polling. Why Rubio cannot be backed longer than 13/8 (Ladbrokes) is something of a mystery and only rationally explained by weight of money. Itâ€™s true that Rubioâ€™s scores have ticked up over the last three months but heâ€™s still more-or-less tied with Cruz and the fading Carson with about one vote in eight, while Trump attracts as much support as those three combined.
I did tip Cruz and Trump at 20/1 and 5/1 respectively back in October and while obviously that value is no longer there, their current best odds of 5/1 and 3/1 are still worth taking. The question to ask there is: is the rest of the field really 5/7, and the only realistic answer is â€˜noâ€™. There might still be over a dozen declared runners but there are only three heavyweight contenders at the moment and the chances of Bush, Christie, Carson or one of the rest breaking through (or back through) seem slim at best. Why would they?
At which point it might be worth asking whether the GOP hierarchy will really be having kittens at the thought of Trump representing them on the biggest stage, to which I think the answer might well also be â€˜noâ€™, though not necessarily for the best of reasons.
Trump is quite likely to win the GOP nomination. Assuming that he comes through the final debate of 2015 in one piece, heâ€™ll go into election year with a commanding lead. Donâ€™t take too seriously the commentators who note that thereâ€™s still 60-65% of poll respondents against Trump; thatâ€™s to be expected in a field so large and while many are consciously anti-Trump, not all are by any means (the correlation of Carsonâ€™s recent decline and Trumpâ€™s further boost being one good demonstration). Besides, if he can take three early wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, while there still is a wide early field, the momentum alone from those victories will have a powerfully reinforcing effect for Super Tuesday.
If he does win the nomination, can he go on to win the White House against Hillary? Almost certainly not. Even leaving aside the possibility of a third-party candidate such as Bloomberg splitting the vote (though meaningful third party candidates are much rarer than talk of them), Trumpâ€™s ratings with too many important demographics are dire. At the moment, thatâ€™s probably a more significant indicator than the head-to-heads, which give Clinton only a narrow lead. Hillary is not popular but her unpopularity wonâ€™t be a blocker (unless something really damaging comes out of the e-mail imbroglio); Trumpâ€™s will.
So why would the GOP big wigs go along with him? Firstly, they may have no choice: if heâ€™s elected then heâ€™s the candidate. Also, if not him then who? Cruz is not really that much more likely to appeal to the centre than Trump, while Rubio has underperformed so far as against expectations which doesnâ€™t auger well for November, though some may well be looking further ahead in his case.
But perhaps the best argument for focussing funding on Congress rather than the White House is that Hillary would be extremely vulnerable in 2020. It is always dangerous to believe that thereâ€™ll be a better election to win down the line but that risk is tempered in the US if thereâ€™s gridlock down Pennsylvania Avenue. In the meantime, Hillary would in all probability be coming to office with relatively low ratings by historic standards, which experience suggests would only get lower as time went on. Precedent also goes against her: not since the 1940s has one party won four presidential races in succession, and not since Jefferson, Madison and Monroe have two or more candidates from the same party each won back-to-back terms (though McKinley and Roosevelt could have, had Roosevelt not prematurely ruled himself out of the 1908 race).
One final, but perhaps compelling reason, for the Republican establishment not to fight the rising Trump tide too hard is that were he to go down to a relatively weak Democrat candidate, it would establish a new Goldwater moment, though without the landslide defeat Goldwater suffered. Republican voters have flirted increasingly with Tea Party tendency candidates in recent races, in the clear face of whatâ€™s electable on a wider scale. Demonstrating to a new generation how counter-productive that indulgence is might well pay dividends for decades to come.