The entire establishment Right and much of the press are singularly obsessed with one question: how do we stop Donald Trump? The GOP is engaged in a “desperate mission” to stop him; Nate Cohn of the New York Times is speculating on how Rubio might be able to win the nomination without winning any Super Tuesday states; GOP strategist Stuart Stevens is offering messaging advice on how Republican candidates can still beat Trump; conservative media figures from RedState to National Review are still frantically trying to advance Marco Rubio’s cause.
But the reality is that barring some unforeseen collapse, Donald Trump has already locked up the GOP nomination. He is a national frontrunner who has come off three consecutive victories. There is no state polled outside of Texas in which Trump does not currently lead–and there he trails local favorite Ted Cruz, who is otherwise flagging behind Marco Rubio, the establishment lane candidate who trails Trump even in his own home state of Florida. The longer the primary season wears on, the more voters’ minds become made up and the loyalty to their preferred candidates hardens.
Some Republicans are hoping that as the field winnows to one or two candidates, Trump’s ceiling will be overcome by the number of Republicans voting against him. But there is no reason to believe that a two-person race will save the GOP from Trump. The evidence suggests that Trump, Carson and Cruz are trading essentially the same pool of voters–the so-called anti-establishment lane. Kasich and Rubio are vying for the same pool of establishment voters. But the key is that in most states, the anti-establishment lane is winning 55-60% of the vote. The only plausible pathway to an establishment victory would involve Kasich dropping out and ceding the field to Rubio even as Carson and Cruz stay in and chip away at Trump’s anti-establishment vote, allowing Rubio to slip in by the back door in a brokered convention. That scenario seems like a distant long shot, especially as an increasing number of politicians like Chris Christie see the handwriting on the wall and begin endorsing Trump.
Some Republican donors have seen the truth of the situation and are already looking into the possibility of an independent run for President–though no credible conservative candidate is yet forthcoming. Some are resigned. Some are in denial. But Trump has almost certainly already locked up the nomination.
That in turn explains some of Trump’s supposedly confusing and heretical behavior for a Republican candidate in recent speeches and debates. Trump has attacked George Bush over 9/11 and Iraq. He has attacked corporate cronyism and medical insurance companies. He has derided the inability of the government to negotiate on Medicare prices. He has spoken kind words about Bernie Sanders and his populist appeal. He has defended Planned Parenthood and his support for universal healthcare.
That’s because Donald Trump is a much smarter politician than almost anyone gives him credit for. Aware that he mostly has the Republican primary sewn up regardless of what he says or does, Trump is already pivoting to center. He is establishing his dual-purpose populist bona fides for the general election as a Jacksonian Democrat–fiercely racist and anti-immigrant, brash and outspoken, autocratic and authoritarian, anti-interventionist, anti-establishment and anti-corruption.
Trump’s pitch is simple: “I can’t be bought, and I’ll put real Americans first.” That includes xenophobic opposition to immigrants and various “others” in society that tickles the fancy of conservative voters, but it also includes anti-offshoring, anti-outsourcing and anti-corporate collusion platforms that will appeal broadly to many Democrats and independents as well.
Democrats, for their part, seem likely to nominate in the general election a candidate who is a quintessential neoliberal establishment figure and long-time supporter of free trade and high finance, and who will make a perfect foil and punching bag for Trump’s populist arguments. Rather than counter and anticipate Trump’s unique appeal, Democrats seem likely instead to believe that exposing Trump’s sleazy past will be enough to turn serious-minded independent voters away from him, and that Trump’s xenophobia will be enough to generate record turnout among the growing number of Hispanic and other minority voters.
Perhaps that’s a good bet. But everyone who has wagered against Trump has had egg on their face so far, even as Bernie Sanders’ parallel populist appeal has also dramatically outperformed expectations (though it will likely fall short.)
Trump may not win the general election. But he will be the Republican nominee, and he’ll be a much tougher general election candidate than most are currently acknowledging.