The Crackup of the Republican Establishment

Donald Trump is leading because opposition to him within the Republican Party is so splintered. And win or lose, it will be up to Jeb Bush to unify the party against him.

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush smile at each other during the CNN Republican presidential debate on Sept. 16 in Simi Valley, California.
Mark J. Terrill/AP
Oct. 19, 2015, 8 p.m.

In as­sess­ing the wide-open, volat­ile Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial field, the most im­port­ant ques­tion isn’t wheth­er Don­ald Trump’s sup­port col­lapses be­fore the Iowa caucuses. It’s wheth­er the GOP es­tab­lish­ment con­sol­id­ates be­hind one elect­able can­did­ate after the New Hamp­shire primar­y. And if Jeb Bush can’t turn around his sag­ging poll num­bers be­fore then, the an­swer to that con­sequen­tial ques­tion will be largely un­der his con­trol.

On the trail and in polls, Bush hasn’t looked at all like the front-run­ner many ex­pec­ted last Decem­ber when he an­nounced that he would ex­plore run­ning for pres­id­ent. And the void left by Bush’s let­down has splintered prag­mat­ic Re­pub­lic­an primary voters in many dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tions. The Pew Re­search Cen­ter found that col­lege-edu­cated Re­pub­lic­an voters—the demo­graph­ic group least sup­port­ive of Trump—haven’t co­alesced be­hind any­one.

Ben Car­son, sur­pris­ingly, wins much of their sup­port, as do Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida and Carly Fior­ina. Bush him­self polls only at 5 per­cent among his erstwhile sup­posed base, but his cam­paign has the fin­an­cial re­sources to air more ads and or­gan­ize in more states. Mean­while, the end­less Don­ald Trump me­dia cov­er­age has also de­prived prom­ising al­tern­at­ive can­did­ates from get­ting much pub­lic at­ten­tion.

The lack of any true front-run­ner has wide­spread con­sequences. It mag­ni­fies the one-quarter of the vote Don­ald Trump con­sist­ently gets in polls, even though that’s close to his ceil­ing of sup­port with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party. That, in turn, keeps Trump’s ef­fect­ive hype ma­chine alive. The splintered field keeps many big donors on the sidelines, wait­ing to make a safer in­vest­ment with their valu­able cash. And it com­plic­ates cam­paigns’ strategies, in­centiv­iz­ing the more elect­able ones to at­tack each oth­er in­stead of the front-run­ners in the polls, as cam­paigns tra­di­tion­ally do.

Make no mis­take: The GOP elect­or­ate’s dis­dain for polit­ic­al in­siders is real, and it is fuel­ing the de­mand for Trump, Car­son, and, to a less­er ex­tent, Fior­ina and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. But it’s fool­ish to add up their vote share and as­sume that a ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­an voters are locked in­to vot­ing for a non­politi­cian. The real story is a lot more com­plic­ated than that.

Car­son is polling strongly among the same demo­graph­ic groups that once seemed like nat­ur­al sup­port­ers of Bush, par­tic­u­larly wo­men and af­flu­ent Re­pub­lic­ans. To as­sume that Car­son’s back­ers would be nat­ur­al Trump voters is highly mis­lead­ing. Many of his sup­port­ers could eas­ily switch to more es­tab­lish­ment-ori­ented cam­paigns. At sev­er­al ral­lies for Ohio Gov. John Kasich in New Hamp­shire that I reported on in September, nu­mer­ous self-de­scribed mod­er­ate voters said that Car­son was one of their top choices.

Fior­ina, who also gets lumped in­to the “out­sider” brack­et, is as es­tab­lish­ment as it gets. She was a For­tune 50 CEO for one of the coun­try’s largest Sil­ic­on Val­ley com­pan­ies, ran for the Sen­ate in Cali­for­nia as a cent­rist against two more-con­ser­vat­ive primary chal­lengers, and ad­vised John Mc­Cain on his 2008 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Her pro­file is about as ideo­lo­gic­ally dis­tinct as pos­sible from Trump, which her sparring with him demon­strates.

There’s a bet­ter way to di­vide the GOP can­did­ates in­to two groups: Don­ald Trump and every­one else. Trump’s sup­port is pre­dom­in­antly from voters who aren’t Republican rank-and-file voters. His sup­port­ers have an ideo­lo­gic­ally dis­tinct pro­file, ac­cord­ing to Pew’s ana­lys­is: more mod­er­ate, more sec­u­lar, more blue-col­lar. They’re also less re­li­able caucus and primary voters. These voters are not new to the Re­pub­lic­an Party. They used to be called Re­agan Demo­crats; they voted for Pat Buchanan in the 1992 and 1996 Re­pub­lic­an primar­ies, and they com­prised much of Mitt Rom­ney’s op­pos­i­tion in the 2012 nom­in­a­tion battle. They’re grow­ing as a share of the GOP elect­or­ate: Bob Dole and George W. Bush won about 60 percent of the overall GOP primary vote; Rom­ney only won 52 per­cent in 2012.

There’s good reas­on why Trump has run on a non­tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an plat­form, one that’s skep­tic­al of mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion, hos­tile to il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion, and op­posed to free trade deals. Last week, he even attacked former President George W. Bush for not an­ti­cip­at­ing the 9/11 at­tacks. Trump has been ad­voc­at­ing hik­ing taxes on wealthy corporations and in­di­vidu­als. His past sup­port of abor­tion rights, and admission that he hasn’t sought for­give­ness from God, don’t endear him to evangelicals. But these po­s­i­tions match the ideo­lo­gic­al pro­file of his sup­port­ers. Trump is no dummy; he’s run­ning a cam­paign geared to­wards voters that many Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates, with their em­phases on tax cuts, free trade, and im­mig­ra­tion re­form, have per­en­ni­ally ig­nored.

But there’s a lim­it to how suc­cess­ful such a pop­u­list cam­paign can be. Trump is still ca­ter­ing to a minor­ity of the GOP elect­or­ate. His main path to suc­cess is a win by de­fault if the rest of the Re­pub­lic­an field con­tin­ues to be so splintered. This is the re­verse of what usu­ally hap­pens in a Re­pub­lic­an primary, when the party es­tab­lish­ment ral­lies be­hind a well-fin­anced front-run­ner and the con­ser­vat­ive grass­roots splinter be­hind dif­fer­ent long-shot can­did­a­cies.

That’s why the res­ult of the 2016 Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion is in Jeb Bush’s hands, wheth­er he suc­ceeds or fails. If Bush be­latedly surges, he’d be well-po­si­tioned to dis­patch his es­tab­lish­ment rivals to win the nom­in­a­tion. But if he struggles, his de­cision-mak­ing pro­cess would also be con­sequen­tial to who be­comes the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee.

Bush is as es­tab­lish­ment as Re­pub­lic­ans come, and he cares deeply about the fu­ture of his party. But what hap­pens if he dis­ap­points in New Hamp­shire and Iowa, and is left with lim­ited polit­ic­al op­tions but plenty of leftover cam­paign cash? Does he drop out of the race and try to unite the frac­tured es­tab­lish­ment be­hind the strongest al­tern­at­ive? Or does he fight on, know­ing that his or­gan­iz­a­tion still trumps all the re­main­ing can­did­ates? 

The same would be true for any of the oth­er es­tab­lish­ment al­tern­at­ives if they were to lose to Bush—Ru­bio, Kasich, New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie—but em­bar­rass­ing early set­backs would likely leave all of them without the re­sources to con­tin­ue cam­paign­ing.

A strug­gling Bush would still have the lux­ury of fight­ing on, but he would risk hand­ing the nom­in­a­tion to Trump.

With Ru­bio emer­ging as the lead­ing al­tern­at­ive to Bush—and run­ning ahead of his ment­or in many polls—such a de­cision would be all the more wrench­ing. Why not wait un­til the March 15 Flor­ida primary to spark a win­ner-take-all show­down between the two home-state rivals? But if Trump starts win­ning early-state primar­ies and caucuses, time will not be Bush’s friend. Trump, iron­ic­ally, could be­come the biggest be­ne­fi­ciary of a go-for-broke Bush cam­paign.

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