Off to the Races

Trump, Cruz, and a Cage Fight

Who will emerge as the GOP moderate?

Ted Cruz, right, speaks as Donald Trump looks on during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Dec. 15 in Las Vegas.
AP Photo/John Locher
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Jan. 4, 2016, 8 p.m.

The preseason phase of the presidential campaign is now officially over, so what can we expect—that is, if anything can really be expected this year? Certainly few, if anyone, anticipated the rise Donald Trump and Ben Carson. The sustainability of the former caught the political pros off guard; the collapse of the latter was less of a surprise. Bernie Sanders has obviously done better than his Senate colleagues expected, not to mention the Democratic establishment and Hillary Clinton. But what next?

On the Democratic side, Clinton may well hear Sanders’s footsteps for a while longer. It’s not hard to understand how a heavily ideological candidate can do well in Iowa or, for that matter, other caucus states. In fact, that’s the norm. Neither is it a shock that a liberal Democratic senator from Vermont might be doing well elsewhere in New England, including New Hampshire. But it is very hard to see how Sanders can prevail. There simply aren’t enough delegates picked in caucus and/or New England states to sustain Sanders. His support is too narrow and too white to do well outside of those two sets of states.

As my Cook Political Report colleague David Wasserman has calculated, in the nearly impossible event that Sanders won 100 percent of the Iowa and other caucus state delegates as well as 100 percent of the delegates from New England, that would get him 36 percent of the delegates needed to win the nomination. The only real nomination challenge that Clinton might face would be if the Justice Department moves forward on her email controversy, which is highly unlikely. Even then, Democrats would just reach for the red box on the wall that says, “In case of fire, break glass,” and pull out Joe Biden’s phone number.

One way of looking at the GOP nomination fight is to think of three lanes or brackets: a populist lane—obviously dominated by Trump—a conservative lane, and a conventional/moderate lane (the libertarian lane that Rand Paul was banking on failed to emerge). The populist lane is all Trump. Voters following The Donald tend to be less rigidly conservative, more secular than religious, and most, though certainly not all, have less than a college degree. The anger and strongly antiestablishment mood is dominant in the populist and conservative lanes, while not that significant in the more conventional/moderate lane.

The Feb. 1 Iowa caucus is likely to bring an end to the conservative-lane contest. Ted Cruz is gaining momentum and seems to have the best organization, which is paramount in trying to get voters out and stick around for two hours on a very cold Monday night. It is hard to see how the two previous Iowa caucus winners, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, can stay in the race after getting shut out in the Hawkeye State.

The conventional/moderate lane is considerably more complicated. This faction of the GOP, like the populist side, is fairly secular, but is considerably more upscale in terms of social, economic, and educational yardsticks, and has been deeply splintered, as my National Journal colleague Ronald Brownstein has written so persuasively. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio are all competing in this lane. It is highly unlikely that any of them can win in religious and movement-conservative Iowa. Indeed, it is unlikely that any of them can even come in second, so each would probably settle for a modest boost by finishing third behind Cruz and Trump.

The New Hampshire primary, where there are considerably more moderate Republicans and where independents can choose between casting Democratic or Republican ballots, is awfully important for this lane. If any of them could manage to come in first in New Hampshire, that candidate would be hard to stop for the nomination. Trump has been running first; Rubio, Cruz, and Christie are neck-and-neck for second place; Kasich is not far behind in fifth place; and Bush is a bit further behind in sixth. It’s not just a matter of which conventional/moderate Republican comes in second but also how far back the others finish. The longer this (alphabetically listed) Bush-Christie-Kasich-Rubio splintering of the largely college-educated and not-so-conservative-or-populist bloc of votes goes, the harder it will be for any of them to prevail for the nomination. One needs to dominate and the others need to go away, but it is not sure at all whether this will happen—nor is it sure that either the South Carolina primary or Nevada caucus will clarify the situation.

I remain convinced that between now and the March 1 Super Tuesday/SEC primaries, and particularly the March 15 set of primaries and some contests after, those angry and profoundly antiestablishment voters will have finished venting their spleens. They will have sent their angry messages to the political establishment and will turn to the serious business of selecting a president, taking into account such things as temperament and judgment, marking the beginning of the end of their affair with Trump. They will coalesce behind a more plausible vehicle for their anger and antiestablishment views. That candidate is likely to be Cruz.

Could we see a contested Republican convention in Cleveland? Absolutely. Even assuming that Trump’s support dissipates a good bit, it’s still likely that he will arrive at the convention with a considerable number of delegates. Cruz will likely have consolidated the conservative faction, and someone will emerge as the standard bearer of the conventional/moderate wing—Rubio, Bush, Christie, or Kasich. The contours of a fragmented contest will take shape in the next two months.

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