On debate day, Republican moderates are beating themselves

"Donald Trump star Hollywood Walk of Fame" by Neelix: I am the originator of this photo. I hold the copyright. I release it to the public domain. - transferred from the English Wikipedia: en:File:Trump.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_star_Hollywood_Walk_of_Fame.JPG#/media/File:Donald_Trump_star_Hollywood_Walk_of_Fame.JPG

Donald Trump star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Photo: Neelix, released to public domain

Here’s a shocking fact. Donald Trump really could emerge as the Republican Party’s flag-bearer in 2016. Or it could be somebody just as far outside the mainstream GOP establishment, a candidate with even less chance than The Donald of actually winning the White House.

If the GOP finds itself led by a reality TV star and former World Wrestling Federation personality, it is almost certain that Democrats will hold the presidency, meaning that Republicans will be sidelined from the Oval Office for the longest stretch since Harry Truman handed over the keys to Dwight Eisenhower.

A generation of American voters will come of age with no experience of a Republican president.

So the stakes for Republicans couldn’t be higher. And here’s the thing. If the conservative fringe does seize the GOP narrative next year, it won’t be the fault of tea partiers or Confederate flag-wavers who think undocumented Mexican workers are rapists, or Libertarians who want a return to the gold standard.

The real fault will lie with Republican moderates and establishment leaders who have allowed themselves to be divided and conquered. Here’s why.

In a divided field, anything can happen

In modern American politics, there are three big factors. The first is ideological. Where do various factions stand on the big issues of the day? And which politicians are able to harness those concerns in a way that will get voters fired up? In theory, you want a presidential candidate who can bring together at least two or three of the different tribes of the Republican base.

The second crucial element is money. Who can raise the kind of money needed to compete nationally, or at least regionally, through an election season that now stretches out over the better part of two years? If you can’t pull in lots of little donations, or gather the support of a few big sugar-daddies, you just can’t play the game.

The final factor – the one often overlooked – is structural. How does the structure of a political contest, its rules and the collective dynamic of the candidates, frame the outcome? This ranges from the weird tilt in the Electoral College to the often byzantine rules adopted by the parties for their primaries.

For the first time in decades, all of these factors are aligning in ways that are deeply perilous to the GOP’s establishment. Because conservatives are so divided ideologically and because there are so many candidates with billionaire backers, we could see a crowded and fiercely polarized contest right up to primary day.

That means a guy like Trump could emerge as victor, even though he wins only one narrow niche of the conservative movement. Remember, in 2016 Trump (or Mike Huckabee or Ben Carson) might only need a modest plurality of the vote to seize the nomination, possibly as low as 25% of the total.

With GOP moderates divided, could they be conquered by a Trump?

How does that differ from 2012, when we also saw a parade of candidates?

The huge distinction making this campaign more perilous for Republican moderates is that in addition to the mob of far-right, ultra-conservative candidates, there is also a strong gaggle of “mainstream” politicians splintering the GOP’s Main Street voting block.

Rather than backing one horse, like Romney (or John McCain in 2008), the establishment is fiercely divided.

So while Trump and Co. slug it out for the populist, say-anything-and-say-it-loud pool, you also have The Big Five — Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mark Kasich, Chris Christie, and Marco Rubio — divvying up the common-sense chamber-of-commerce faction.

Consider this. Three years ago, Mitt Romney won enough votes that he easily beat his next three competitors — Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul — combined. In the final equation, moderates unified and for all the fulminating and blustering of AM talk show hosts, the fringe of the party barely registered.

But in 2016, there is no legitimate establishment candidate who can say, “it’s my turn.” With their wing of the party divided, we could easily see The Donald (or another marginal candidate) edge out serious players like Bush and Walker.

Indeed, that’s happening right now. Trump is hardly wowing conservatives, garnering only about a quarter of the total vote. Meanwhile, Bush, Walker, Rubio, Christie and Kasich are (all together) winning roughly 40% of the vote. But taken separately, they’re struggling to climb into the low double digits.

So that’s the question as we head into fall. It’s not whether Trump or the other reality-show-talk-radio candidates flame out. It’s whether one mainstream candidate can emerge with a narrative strong enough and compelling enough to force the other grown-ups to drop out.

Right now, it’s hard to see that happening. At least three of the Big Five have the money and the backing to last deep into next year, keeping the establishment divided and leaving a big opening for someone on the fringe.

Unless something changes, look for 2016 to be a long, long year for Republicans trying to build a ticket that can win back the White House.

41 Comments on “On debate day, Republican moderates are beating themselves”

Leave a Comment
  1. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    If a Dem wins the next presidential election “A generation of American voters will come of age with no experience of a Republican president.”

    That may be a good thing for the Republicans. Seriously. Not that Republicans will accept it, but the Party needs to change its perception among younger people who are less concerned with the Cold War and Domino Theory and more concerned with the economic divide and the sustainablility of life as we know it on our planet. And for you knee jerkers reading this I repeat, life as we know it…not that I think we are facing the end of the human race but a much more challenging climate to deal with in the future.

    The bad thing about a Republican losing the next Presidential is that huge amounts of extra money will then flow into congressional and even lower elections from the John Birch brothers and their ilk working to divide the electorate so that their fringe candidates might get elected. Just today I see that the Koch brothers are dedicating $40 million to skew Vermont.

    In another 6 or 10 years there is some chance the Supreme Court may revisit Citizens United, or at the very least the Kochs and those like them will have passed from the scene and sanity may return in some small measure

  2. Pete Klein says:

    Don’t be so quick to presume Trump couldn’t beat Clinton.

  3. Brian Mann says:

    As a long-time politics-watcher, there are very few things that I would say as confidently as this: If Trump is the nominee, he will lose by the biggest landslide since Barry Goldwater. There is a huge slice of the Republican electorate that simply won’t vote for Trump. If I’m wrong, I’ll gladly eat crow in November 2016, but I don’t think I’m wrong. Clinton will be tough for any Republican to beat. Trump won’t stand a chance. — Brian Mann

  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I doubt you’ll have to eat crow, but please don’t. Crows are good. I’ll send you some old tofu or something if necessary.

  5. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    Has everyone decided that Clinton is the correct choice? In my opinion, Bernie Sanders would be the better choice. How bad would he shellac Trump, Brian?

  6. George Nagle says:

    Mark Kasich strikes me as the strongest of the candidates, and could very well beat Clinton.

  7. Anita says:

    The Ohio Governor’s name is JOHN Kasich. So much for his chances if even Brian M. can’t get his name right. ;-)

  8. Bellota says:

    So the Republicans are a fractured party and may remain so deep into 2016. So deep that a fringe candidate from the clown car may even gets the nomination. Now explain to me how this is a problem?

  9. Walker says:

    The New York Times has Kasich tied for fifth with Cruz and Huckabee after Bush, Walker, Trump and Rubio.


  10. The Original Larry says:

    Donald Trump is not a serious candidate in any way, shape or form. He’s a self-promoting hustler who craves free publicity and gets it, which is easy when you can say anything you want because it doesn’t matter anyway. In any event, he and other extremist candidates will be weeded out gradually and if they’re not, the Republicans will lose, deservedly so. The Democrats, on the other hand, seem like they’re going to bet it all on Hillary. They may be the more self-destructive of the two parties, given the crowd of skeletons in her closet.

  11. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I don’t know, a lot of people have spent a lot of time and money looking for skeletons in Hillary’s closet and it seems like the most they may have found was an old mouse or two. Either Hillary is the cleanest politician on earth or she’s the most clever and diabolical. Either way, given her resume, she’s a pretty formidable candidate.

  12. The Original Larry says:

    Resume? Whitewater, Vincent Foster, Health Care plan, looting the White House, bogus charitable foundation, failed foreign policy, Benghazi, e mail security, etc. There’s a pattern there, for sure, and it’s not a good one.

  13. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    OL, that is quite a list of talking points. How many of those investigations have shown any level of criminal wrongdoing? What has been the cost to taxpayers of all the investigations?

  14. The Original Larry says:

    Those aren’t talking points, they are actual events that she was at the center of. And although you are correct that no criminal charges have “stuck” yet shouldn’t we all be concerned by the sheer volume and seriousness of those investigations and the questions they have raised? That’s an awful lot of smoke for there not to be a fire somewhere.

  15. Walker says:

    Larry, people spent tens of millions of dollars to manufacture that list, and much of it is bogus. How many of those allegations would you be willing to stake your reputation on as being valid?

  16. The Original Larry says:

    Walker, nobody manufactured anything and none of it is bogus, not at all. It all happened, that’s a matter of fact. Now, whether or not any of those scandals were criminal, or even important, is open to debate. My point is do we need a President who is so often touched by scandal and involved in questionable dealing? It’s gone far beyond “politics” or coincidence.

  17. Walker says:

    The accuracy of the many Vince Foster suicide conspiracy theories is something you’re ready to stake your reputation on? Just to pick one…

  18. The Original Larry says:

    It’s not my reputation that’s important; I’m not running for President. Why are so many questions asked about Hillary’s involvement in so many shady situations? Doesn’t do her reputation any good.

  19. hermit thrush says:

    “Donald Trump is not a serious candidate in any way, shape or form” and then right into vince foster. the problem isn’t that trump isn’t a serious candidate, it’s the entire gop.

  20. Walker says:

    “Why are so many questions asked about Hillary’s involvement in so many shady situations?”

    You’re kidding, right? Republicans would hound any leading Democrat to death over an alleged J-walking violation. Did we really need to know about Bill and Monica?

  21. The Original Larry says:

    I would be happy if we knew about Benghazi and why the Secretary of State made her own rules about e mail security.

  22. Walker says:

    There have already been seven investigations, 13 hearings, 50 briefings, 25,000 pages of documents have been released and millions of dollars spent on investigations into Benghazi. The House Intelligence Committee, led by Republicans, has concluded that no one was deliberately misled, no military assets were withheld and no stand-down order was given. So now I guess we have to start over on the emails so that the witch-hunt never ends…

  23. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    On the email thing, Al Gore didn’t even invent the internet until sometime in the late 20th century. We’re still figuring it all out. Not all the rules are written yet.

  24. Walker says:

    From the NYTimes article you linked to:

    There is another factor that some former colleagues say puts Mrs. Clinton’s decision in a more reasonable light: the archaic, dysfunctional computer systems at the State Department. Only a tiny fraction of emails sent on the State.gov system in recent years have been permanently archived. And former State Department employees describe the unclassified email system in 2009 as frustratingly inadequate.

    Using State Department email outside the building involved “incredibly unreliable software,” said one former senior official. “If you had to write a priority message that was more than a paragraph long, it could leave you streaming sweat and screaming at the screen. And that’s when people would turn to their private accounts out of desperation.”

    Another official described landing in foreign capitals late at night and having to go to the American Embassy and wake people up simply to check his unclassified email. He called the situation “ludicrous,” though he said the system slowly improved, especially as more people got government BlackBerry devices.

  25. The Original Larry says:

    I know that most liberals who support Hillary like to point out that none of the many charges against her have so far resulted in criminal charges or a determination of official misconduct and that’s true. My point, for those of you who pretend you don’t get it, is that it may be more damaging for the Democrats to hand their nomination to a candidate with so many questions about her conduct than it is for the Republicans to have a wide open field that includes a few obvious nut jobs. All the questions about Hillary’s conduct will be asked during the Presidential election campaign while the Republicans, if they do things correctly, will present a candidate who has had the opportunity to answer all questions during the primary campaign.

  26. The Original Larry says:

    I know that most liberals who support Hillary like to point out that none of the many charges against her have so far resulted in criminal charges or a determination of official misconduct and that’s true. My point, for those of you who pretend you don’t get it, is that it may be more damaging for the Democrats to hand their nomination to a candidate with so many questions about her conduct than it is for the Republicans to have a wide open field that includes a few obvious nut jobs. All the questions about Hillary’s conduct will be asked during the Presidential election campaign while the Republicans, if they do things correctly, will present a candidate who has had the opportunity to answer all questions during the primary campaign.

  27. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Two points, OL.
    First, liberals don’t really support Hillary. Hillary is a centrist or even a center-right politician. Many liberals are extremely disheartened by Hillarys ties to business interests tied to centrist Republican thought. I think what most liberals deplore is the rabid anger at Hillary from the Right. It seems beyond simple desire to investigate potential wrongdoing and more like misogyny.
    Second, the venom focussed at Hillary may make a small portion of the electorate happy but it may end up making Hillary more sympathetic to the rest of the electorate. Look at Trump and Megan Kelley, I never gave much thought to her one way or the other (except I liked that she is from the Albany area…almost local girl makes good) but after Trump’s vicious attack I find her more appealing.

  28. Brian Mann says:

    Hi folks –

    Good conversation. Here are my thoughts about Clinton. i think there are reservations about her among Democrats, particularly among more liberal Democrats.

    That said, I think part of the concern here for rank-and-file Democratic voters is that the “questions” raised by Republicans have often been so baldly political and have often been more or less frankly non-factual.

    The fact is, Benghazi has been investigated, repeatedly, by Republican-led committees. And yet the probes and investigations and conspiracy theories and allegations continue.

    Which leads me to my point: One of the concerns we have with an AM-talk-radio-driven conservative movement is that it’s very difficult for that movement to levy accusations that are taken seriously.

    Once you’ve gone down the path of birth certificates and describing America’s Democratic commander in chief as the largest sponsor of terrorism in the world, and accused him of leading Jews to the oven, it’s hard to take any of the GOP’s concerns about another Democrat seriously.

    It also doesn’t help when serious news organizations like the New York Times get their coverage of Clinton and her “where there’s smoke maybe there’s fire” scandals so wrong.

    So I think many Democrats are doing what most of us would do with any serious, mainstream, top-tier politician: waiting for some substance. If someone demonstrates, outside the world of the conservative echo-chamber and Fox News, that Clinton did something gravely wrong, voters will digest that.

    In the meantime, the polls suggest that the old political game of “a lot of us are asking a lot of nervous questions, so she must be dirty in some vaguely undefined way” isn’t working. Clinton’s rating #s among Democrats are holding up firmly and during a primary election, that’s what matters.

    –Brian, NCPR

  29. The Original Larry says:

    Dead bodies, security breaches and financial chicanery are not “baldly political”, they are actualities Hillary Clinton has been involved in and about which she has had to answer hard questions relating to her involvement. That the questions have to be asked is in itself reason enough to disqualify her. On the other hand, maybe her critics are just mysoginistic losers who spend too much time reading the New York Times.

  30. The Original Larry says:

    Where is spell check when you need it?

  31. Walker says:

    Larry, Republicans have been dredging up and baldly making up stuff about almost every Democratic Presidential nominee since George McGovern in 1972.

  32. There is so much stuff on Hillary, it’s hard to believe that it’s ALL made up. Especially since a good chunk of it was years before she was a candidate for anything.

    I think OL is right in that nominating her might be more self-destructive than the GOP nominating Trump. Trump will get crushed and it might cause a much needed reform of the GOP. Hillary has a good chance of winning and that will entrench the corporate takeover of her party even further.

    Kasich strikes me as the most reasonable of the Republicans. I think that would likely rule him out as a serious contender.

  33. I think many Democrats share the concerns raised by Larry and that is one reason why Bernie Sanders is gaining so much traction (plus Dems haven’t had a progressive nominee in 40+ years so it’s kind of a novelty).

  34. Walker says:

    Brian, I’m sure I’m not alone in having concerns about Hillary, but they’re not about Benghazi or her email. It’s about Wall Street.

  35. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Honestly. I can’t keep up with all the stuff on Hillary. I stopped paying attention after she killed Vince Foster.

  36. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I’ve always wondered why Republicans were so focused on Vince Foster. What is he to them? But it turns out Vince Foster is Ronald Reagan’s love child. It’s true, you couldn’t just make stuff like that up, could you?

  37. scratchy says:

    Hillary violated White House policy by using a private e-mail server. She deleted thousands of e-mails from her account. It’s clear she was trying to avoid FOIA. Now there is a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

    The Clinton Foundation illegally accepted a $500,000 donation from the Algerian government while Hillary was SOS and the Algerian government was lobbying the State Department. The Foundation tax returns included errors that were corrected after Hillary’s announcement. The dramas and scandals never end with the Clintons. We deserve much better.

    Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has consistently acted with the utmost integrity and has never been accused of wrongdoing. He is a strong advocate of the poor and middle class. Could the choice be any more clear?

  38. The Original Larry says:

    Like I said, too many questions.

  39. The Original Larry says:

    “Larry, I’m glad you support Bernie Sanders. I do too.”

    Everybody’s a comedian.

Leave a Reply