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Republicans 2016: Where the Race Stands Now

By: Larry J. Sabato, Director, University of Virginia’s Center for Politics,  Kyle Kondik & Geoffrey Skelley
Reposted with permission from Sabato’s Crystal Ball

Listen to Larry Sabato’s October 31, 2015 More Than the Score lecture here.


The third Republican presidential debate, held in Colorado on Wednesday night, was an odd, disjointed affair. The moderators arguably engaged in too much confrontation with the candidates and had a hard time divvying up the speaking time. With 10 candidates on the stage, the problems of the first two debates — too many candidates, too little time — became more apparent than ever.

Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas probably had the best nights, in part because they mixed it up with the moderators and used the debate to make larger points about what they see as an anti-Republican mainstream press. That’s always a popular attack with a Republican audience.

On the other end of the spectrum, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had — to be brutally honest — another dreadful night. Stunningly, Bush spoke the least of all the candidates, and he largely squandered the small allocation of time he was given. His attempt to pick a fight with Rubio over the latter’s missing votes in the Senate was a misfire. BushWorld is panicking, and we cannot imagine Bush calmed any nerves on this night.

We think Rubio is rising and Bush is falling. More on that below.

But first, we need to remember that, at the moment, the two polling leaders remain outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson, neither of whom in our minds did much to help or harm themselves in the debate. But when you are frontrunners, that is good enough.

By the way, it is easy to lump Carson and Trump together, but in reality they are almost opposites.

The Yin and Yang Outsiders

In times of turmoil, presidential politics has sometimes drawn unusual, non-traditional figures to occupy center stage during part or all of a campaign. Among the many qualifying candidates are Wendell Willkie, George Wallace, Jimmy Carter, and Ross Perot.

However, what is happening within the Republican Party now has no modern parallel. Two unconventional outsiders, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, are thoroughly dominating the early months of the pre-nomination season. Together and separately, they have won the admiration of more than half of the GOP base by bottling the lightning of angry, antiestablishment forces that reject anyone who has served in public office — even politicians with just a few years of experience.

The explanations for this vary but some factors are obvious. Republicans are furious that their congressional leaders have not been able to stop President Obama from achieving many of his policy goals. Specific domestic issues such as illegal immigration, free trade, Obamacare, the growing national debt, and Common Core — among many others — have riled a frustrated base. The American population and culture are also changing rapidly in ways they fear or at least do not support, and many apocalyptically speak of the country being on the verge of “no return.”

Thus, it almost appears that millions of the GOP faithful have given up on politics as they have known it, or rather politicians as they have known them. Much of the base, unwilling to meekly acquiesce in the establishment’s desires (as they usually have done in a once-hierarchical party), wants something completely different in 2016.

At least for now, the disaffected have seized on Trump and Carson, though their backers are as contrasting as the two contenders. As National Journal’s Ron Brownstein has argued, Trump’s supporters are concentrated among the GOP voters without a college education. Blue-collar Republicans like his blunt, brassy style, his colorful language and his sweeping, simplistic promises that our problems can be solved by a decisive leader, namely him.

Over the past few decades, the GOP has grown in strength in many white, working-class areas, like big swathes of Appalachia. These voters are culturally conservative, but they are hardly a natural fit with the GOP’s Wall Street wing. Trump, despite being a New York City business titan, has nonetheless crafted a message that has helped him become their champion, as Sahil Kapur of Bloomberg recently noted: crackdowns on illegal immigration, limiting legal immigration, protecting Social Security, rejecting free trade, and decrying big money’s influence in politics. According to a Boston Globe analysis, Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level, the lowest of any of the candidates of either party. He has a message built for the masses that is designed to be understood by the masses. That might sound like a back-handed compliment, but it’s intended by us as a real one — clarity in political speech is an attribute ignored by too many.

It is entirely reasonable to question how much of Trump’s support is soft, although it’s worth noting that a recent CBS News/New York Times poll — one of the only recent ones to show Carson leading nationally — actually showed 55% of Trump’s supporters said they were not considering another candidate (80% of Carson’s support, by comparison, was squishy). The very presence of Trump could gin up voters who otherwise couldn’t be bothered to vote. After all, this election season has seen three presidential debates set viewership records. Trump and his “celebritizing” of politics makes for good television anyway. It may make for good turnout as well. The GOP ran strongly in low-turnout midterms in 2010 and 2014. Perhaps the establishment should hope for a small electorate again in this primary season, lest they be overrun by Trumpets next year. It’s a small-scale example, but the greatest triumph for outsider Republicans in 2014 was Dave Brat’s primary victory against Eric Cantor. Turnout was not low — it was high, at least compared to previous congressional primaries in that district.

In manner and approach, Carson is Trump’s polar opposite. He is soft-spoken, usually unflappable, and reassuring; he dislikes personal attacks and only rarely engages in them. Trump’s voters tend to be less religious than Carson’s. The latter draws intense commitment among conservative evangelical Christians, who comprise a solid majority of Iowa caucus participants (recent Iowa polls have shown Carson taking the lead from Trump). Trump is concerned about Carson or he would not have recently attacked the surgeon’s Seventh-Day Adventist ties or his “low energy level” — supposedly lower even than Trump’s favorite target, Jeb Bush.

Trump and Carson have night-and-day personalities, which prompts us to call them Yin and Yang Outsiders, but they are two fitted pieces of the extraordinary phenomenon we are all witnessing — the outright rejection of the established order by rank-and-file Republicans.

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Whether either can obtain the GOP presidential nomination is still very questionable in our book. If somehow Trump or Carson does, the near-unanimous opinion of high-ranking Republican (and Democratic) officeholders and party leaders we have consulted is that he would lose the general election decisively.

What every Republican not in the outsiders’ tent is waiting for is some kind of consolidation in the ranks of the more mainstream candidates. In other words, some contenders in this large field who haven’t caught on must drop out. Scott Walker and Rick Perry are gone, but the rest seem reluctant to do so before the early states vote. Perhaps they are remembering how former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped out too soon in 2011 or how Rick Santorum was widely written off last cycle, yet ended up winning Iowa and 10 other states. Then there was John McCain in 2007, abandoned for dead only to grab the nomination the following year.

The Most Plausible, Semi-Traditional Nominees

But if we’re putting Trump and Carson at the top of our list while also expressing a hefty degree of skepticism that either will be the nominee, who, then, is the likeliest selection?

For a long time, we’ve listed Jeb Bush at the top of the list as a very marginal frontrunner. No longer.

Bush is the foundering ship in a fast-developing and unexpected storm, and it’s unclear whether or not his campaign can bail water sufficiently and make a serious course correction to put Bush on a path toward the Republican nomination.

The Bush clan and supporters recently gathered to lick their wounds and recalibrate. The confab came on the heels of the news that the former Florida governor’s campaign is cutting spending and shifting staff. It will lower payroll costs by 40% and reassign a significant portion of its campaign team from its headquarters in Miami to the early states. Bush’s unspectacular third quarter in fundraising has surely made it harder for the campaign to carry on with a large operation. Moreover, it seems that the campaign may now be playing less of a long game, instead increasing its focus on doing well somewhere in the key early caucus and primary contests to demonstrate that it can really contend.

Bush’s Right to Rise Super PAC was supposed to be an enormous boon to his campaign, but its inability to impact the race has to be worrisome. While it still has an enormous war chest — $98.2 million on hand on June 30 — Right to Rise has been spending since mid-September to boost Bush, with little effect if the polls are any indication. In that time, the Super PAC has doled out about $2 million per week on TV ads in three early states, yet Bush’s numbers have not improved in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina. Right to Rise may also start moving staff to these states to make up for the cuts to Bush’s campaign staff. However, a Super PAC can only go so far in helping on the organizational side, in part because of legal limitations on coordination between a campaign and associated Super PAC(s). Additionally, candidates can buy TV time for much cheaper than outside groups including Super PACs, meaning that candidate committees can get a lot more bang for their buck. However, even if the Super PAC can’t boost Jeb’s numbers, they can drop the hammer on opponents and drive them down when the campaign really gets going. It’s still a valuable weapon.

On the campaign trail, Bush has continued to be less than impressive, awkwardly saying that the woman playing the lead in a new TV show, Supergirl, “looked pretty hot.” He has also started to show outward signs of his mounting frustration with the campaign’s struggles. Unwisely, Bush told an audience last weekend that, “I got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around and be miserable, listening to people demonize me and feeling compelled to demonize them.” It almost seemed as if Bush was whining about the rough-and-tumble nature of politics, as if being a legacy candidate should entitle him to rise above it all.

Amazingly, a Bush is running for the Republican presidential nomination and can’t even crack 10% in most polls. How does he improve that number significantly when Republicans are so familiar with him (and the mixed Bush family legacy) already?

The challenge is to answer this question: If both Carson and Trump are unlikely nominees and Bush is fading as opposed to growing, who is the real favorite in the GOP race? The answer is that, right now, is there isn’t one, but at the moment the person who seems to have the best positioning is Marco Rubio. He is broadly liked by the GOP, he can be an inspiring speaker and an effective debater, and he’s sufficiently conservative on most issues while still able to attract establishment support.

But his list of challenges is long.

Rubio’s rivals have been hammering him for missing votes in the Senate. While his percentage of missed votes this year is lower than that of Barack Obama while he was running for president in 2007, the attack is widespread, suggesting Rubio’s GOP rivals sense vulnerability. Rubio dislikes being in the Senate, and has not done much to hide that fact. His youth and relative lack of experience, combined with Senate absenteeism, could be used against him to make a broader attack that he’s just not ready for primetime (Bush’s advisers are calling Rubio a “GOP Obama”). To Rubio’s credit, he was more than prepared for the attack at the debate. Still, an Indiana voter at a University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Center for Public Policy focus group summed up a Rubio vulnerability: “[Rubio is] Robin…I think he’s still a superhero, he’s still the good guy, but I don’t know. I see him more as vice president.”

Rubio’s fundraising has also not been all that impressive, and while his favorability in polls is strong, he’s not really breaking through anywhere, though perhaps that’s not that big of an issue given how volatile primary polls can be. Still, other small signs are worrying. For example, Rubio doesn’t even have office space in South Carolina yet. Is he really building the organization required to win? Another Boston Globe analysis, this time of early state campaign infrastructure spending, showed Rubio (and Bush) lagging Trump, Carson, or others in all four early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada).

Some of Rubio’s comments will also prove troublesome eventually, such as the one on abortion. During the first debate, he said he didn’t believe in any exceptions in opposing abortion, including rape and incest. We suspect Rubio would flip-flop on this if he won the nomination, but the video lives on: A Democratic Super PAC highlighted Rubio’s abortion position in a recent ad to highlight “extreme” GOP positions, lumping Rubio and Bush in with Trump, Carson, and former failed Senate candidates like Todd Akin (MO) and Sharron Angle (NV).

In other words, we can see some trepidation among GOP insiders about unifying behind Rubio, but unless Bush dramatically improves his performance or some other acceptable mainstream candidate (such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich) breaks out of the pack, they might not have a choice. The competition between Bush and Rubio may get really nasty, which became evident on Wednesday night: Both probably realize that their best chance of winning the nomination is knocking out the other.

So while we’re putting Rubio atop our list of most plausible, semi-traditional nominees (Table 1), he isn’t yet much of a favorite. Joining him in this category are Bush, Ted Cruz, Kasich, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. We’re grouping Fiorina in this category now, as opposed to linking her with Trump and Carson, because she’s ultimately more an establishment-style candidate than an outsider. True, she has never held office like Trump and Carson, and she faded after the last debate, but perhaps her performance on Wednesday will help her recover some of that lost support. She had some decent moments but was not an obvious star like in the last two, and she needs to figure out a way to generate interest in her campaign unrelated to the debates.

For the others, we have a new category: The Daydream Believers, a fitting description of the occupants of our third tier. The Monkees’ song includes a lament that might hit a little close to home for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a one-time favorite of the party establishment: “You once thought of me / As a white knight on a steed.”