The Holiday Time Accelerator

This Friday morning the slow-motion riot of the Republican Establishment’s panic over the unorthodox development of their party’s 2016 presidential nominating process is popping up here and there with no end to anxiety in sight. WaPo’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa sum up the fears:

The party establishment is paralyzed. Big money is still on the sidelines. No consensus alternative to the outsiders has emerged from the pack of governors and senators running, and there is disagreement about how to prosecute the case against them. Recent focus groups of Trump supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire commissioned by rival campaigns revealed no silver bullet.

In normal times, the way forward would be obvious. The wannabes would launch concerted campaigns, including television attack ads, against the ­front-runners. But even if the other candidates had a sense of what might work this year, it is unclear whether it would ultimately accrue to their benefit. Trump’s counterpunches have been withering, while Carson’s appeal to the base is spiritual, not merely political. If someone was able to do significant damage to them, there’s no telling to whom their supporters would turn, if anyone.

Meanwhile, at FiveThirtyEight, Harry Enten warns that the ultimate Rubio-Cruz contest that many observers discerned after the last debate is not likely, much less certain:

[T]he collective “wisdom” here at FiveThirtyEight agrees: Rubio and Cruz are the first and second most likely candidates to win the nomination. We’re bullish on Rubio. We’re bullish on Cruz.

But just because an outcome is the most likely doesn’t mean that it’s likely. The favorite heading into the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament each year typically has about a 25 percent chance of winning it all. Kentucky, which went undefeated in the regular season last year, entered the tournament with a 41 percent chance. Usually, the odds are that the favorite won’t win. (And Kentucky didn’t.)

At this stage, the Republican race for the presidential nomination remains relatively wide open.

Enten notes that the “endorsement primary” that so many political scientists consider crucial is moving at a glacial pace:

Most Republican governors and members of Congress (80 percent of endorsement points) remain on the sideline. To put that in perspective, Hillary Clinton already has 71 percent of all possible Democratic endorsement points. Moreover, since 1980, only two previous eventual nominees in non-incumbent primaries had fewer endorsement points at this stage than Rubio. None had fewer endorsement points than Cruz. The Republican establishment may be inching toward Rubio, but it’s still a long way from being in either Cruz’s or Rubio’s corner.

The calendar also seems to be moving at a glacial pace. But that’s about to change, as former Romney advisor Eric (Etch-a-Sketch) Fehrnstrom observes in the WaPo piece:

“We’re about to step into the holiday time accelerator,” he said. “You have Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, then Iowa and a week later, New Hampshire, and it’s going to be over in the blink of an eye.”

And it’s true the distractions of the holiday season can frustrate the efforts of any candidate or combination of candidates to change the dynamics of the race. In 2011, per RCP, sixteen polls were taken of the GOP presidential contest between November 15 and the end of the year. Newt Gingrich led all but the last three; in those he was tied with Mitt Romney.

Alert observers will note that Gingrich not only did not win the presidential nomination; he didn’t win a state until his big upset victory over Romney in South Carolina in late January. But the holidays did seem to freeze the contest nationally, though underneath the surface Romney and Santorum were putting together formidable campaigns in Iowa.

The big thing, however, that distinguishes the current cycle from 2012, other than the massive size of the field and the disturbing and persistent strength of two candidates with no prior elected experience, is the January calendar. In 2012 Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida all held their contests before February 1, the date of this year’s starting gun in Iowa. This means a full month of Invisible Primary campaigning after the holidays, and more time for the shake-up GOP party elites are craving. If you had to pick a likely time for some unholy carpet-bombing of Trump and Carson by a cabal of hard-core conservative and Establishment donors, early January makes the most sense.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.