Who Will Pick Up the Pieces?

Nate Silver gives Donald Trump a 20% chance of winning the Republican nomination and tells the rest of us to stop freaking out. And, as usual, Silver brings some data to the table to support his assessment. Here’s something he doesn’t spend enough time considering.

George H.W. Bush was the sitting vice-president when he won the nomination in 1988, and he had also come in second place in the 1980 contest.

Bob Dole had served ran for vice-president during the Ford administration and had come in second place eight years earlier when he won the nomination in 1996.

George W. Bush was the son of the most recent Republican president and also the governor of the biggest red state in the country.

John McCain had come in second place eight years earlier when he won the nomination in 2008.

Mitt Romney had come in second place four years earlier when he won the nomination in 2012.

All of these candidates were predicted to win, and all of them had the support of the Republican Establishment.

We haven’t had a situation since President Ford where the Republican nominee had never run for the office before. Even Ronald Reagan warmed up for his 1980 victory by coming in a strong second place in 1976.

It’s fine to point out that Rudy Giuliani and Rick Perry were once polling favorites, but the situation we have here is quite a bit different. For starters, it’s the Democrats who behave like this. They briefly fell in love with the idea of Teddy Kennedy in 1975, Jesse Jackson in 1987, and Mario Cuomo in 1991, and no one can forget the Howard Dean boomlet in 2003. Setting Cuomo aside, these may not have been the most electable candidates at the time, and eventually the head replaced the heart for Democratic voters. Until the last couple of elections cycles, Republicans tended to acquiesce to the Establishment choice without too much fuss (Patrick Buchanan notwithstanding).

Poppy, Dole, and Dubya shrugged off the few setbacks they encountered, and even McCain soldiered through once he reset his campaign, despite being deeply unpopular with much of the Republican base. It wasn’t until Romney came along that the Republicans developed an allergy to their anointed nominee and flirted with literally every other option on the menu.

This time looks similar, but also different. It looks similar because the GOP base definitely is turning its nose up at Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie. Scott Walker is already gone. The Establishment choices are being rejected en masse. What’s different is that there isn’t a Mitt Romney left standing to pick up the pieces when the voters really start to get engaged in the process. What’s also different is that Trump’s lead has been persistent. It’s not like when the voters went for Perry and then to Bachmann and then to Cain and then to Gingrich and then to Santorum.

Put it this way. It’s one thing for Silver to point out that no one is paying attention and that most people make up their minds much closer to the actual caucuses and primaries, but it’s another to say that will Trump will inevitably fade in much the same way that prior frontrunners have faded. Who is the candidate that will step in to sop up the mess when Trump implodes?

Ben Carson is as implausible as Trump, and Ted Cruz is, if anything, more unpopular with the Establishment than Trump.

Marco Rubio might seem like a plausible answer, but he’s the poster boy for amnesty and that’s the issue that has animated the base more than any other so far in this campaign.

If you want to still predict that Jeb or Christie or Kasich will rise from the ashes to save this thing for the GOP Establishment, that’s fine. But one reason that Trump looks like more than a flash in the pan is that his opponents are nearly as flawed as he is.

To suggest that Trump will inevitably falter when people start paying attention, you have to have a theory of the case. When Giuliani faded, McCain was there to pick up the pieces. When the seven dwarfs of 2012 flamed out, Romney was left standing.

So, another way of putting this is that even if Silver is right and Trump only has a 20% chance of winning the nomination, what are the chances that either he, Carson or Cruz will win? And, given the likely answer to that question, why should we all stop freaking out?

I think the situation absolutely warrants a good long panic attack.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.