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Hey, Republican establishment: it's time to panic

No. 1 and No. 2 in the polls.
No. 1 and No. 2 in the polls.
Justin Sullivan/Getty

You've probably heard the hoary old tale of the boiling frog. A frog is put into a pot of pleasant warm water, and then the water's temperature is increased. The temperature goes up little by little, and so gradually, that the frog doesn't even notice — until eventually the water boils and it's cooked to death.

The story is a total myth. Frogs don't really act this way. If subjected to this painful treatment, they actually jump out of the water to try to save themselves.

What will the Republican Party do?

The nomination of Donald Trump would likely be an utter disaster for the GOP. The nomination of Ted Cruz would be either only slightly less bad or even worse, depending on whom you ask. And yet, amazingly enough, the slow-motion train wreck that's been playing out over the past five months of the GOP primary process has put these two candidates in first and second place. Additionally, each now leads one of the two earliest states to vote.

It's a debacle for Republicans that would have been unimaginable at the beginning of this year. Yet it's happened so slowly, and so gradually, that the reaction from GOP elites still appears oddly muted. Even as summer stretched into fall, they kept comforting themselves by saying that it's still early — accurately pointing to the fact that early polls have frequently been wrong in the past, and that outsider candidates like Trump have lost in the past.

Yet Tuesday night's debate was the final GOP debate of 2015 and could well be the year's last major campaign event. Before you know it, Christmas will be here, and New Year's will follow soon afterward. And then we're in January, and there's just one month before voting begins in Iowa on February 1. So it's definitely time for the Republican establishment to hit the panic button.

But it's also not clear what, exactly, elites can do at this point. Their traditional tools seem to be ineffective against both Trump and Cruz — and any organized attempt to stop them could just backfire further.

This is pretty close to a worst-case electoral scenario for Republicans

Let's be clear on the political stakes here. It is not impossible that Trump or Cruz could win a general election. But there's ample reason to believe that a Trump or Cruz nomination makes all of the following far more likely:

  • Sweeping electoral defeat for Republicans, for the presidency and in the Senate at least (some Democrats have even suggested to me that the House could be put in play)
  • Either a liberal takeover of the Supreme Court or a missed chance for conservatives to pad their majority (since four of the court's nine justices will be older than 80 when the next president is inaugurated)
  • A tarnishing of the GOP's image among Hispanics that will last a very long time. (This is obviously true for Trump, but Cruz is also far further to the right on immigration than any modern GOP nominee.)

With so many other options available, nominating either Trump or Cruz would be a tremendous risk to take for a party that has any interest in winning.

And yet somehow Trump and Cruz have ended up first and second in the polls, with one of them leading Iowa and the other ahead in New Hampshire.

Yes, the GOP saw several extreme or seemingly unelectable candidates surge to first place during the 2011 nomination contest, but establishment favorite Mitt Romney ended up winning. Yes, past examples like Howard Dean show a poll leader really can collapse very quickly.

Is the establishment really still willing to assume that two poll leaders will just collapse? Two poll leaders who not only have excited voters but who each has access to tens of millions in cash?

Where's that party? And if it shows up, what difference, at this point, would it make?

Alex Wong/Getty Images

"Why won't the party decide to back me?"

For months, the GOP's escape hatch out of this dilemma has seemed obvious — he was named Marco Rubio. Sure, the establishment's $114 million man Jeb Bush had gone down in flames. But Rubio actually seemed like a stronger general election nominee than Bush in many ways — younger, more charismatic, with more potential appeal to Hispanics, and lacking a controversial legacy name. Appropriately, his debate performances got rave reviews from pundits. "Marco Rubio is the nominee in waiting," wrote Slate's William Saletan in November. "Another winning debate performance seals it."

Yet both Republican elites and voters keep stubbornly refusing to rally behind Rubio. He's stagnant in the polls, and faces questions about his seeming lack of interest in the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. And though he's gotten a few new endorsements from GOP politicians (and a couple of billionaires), he hasn't amassed a particularly impressive overall total. Rubio is not out of the picture by any means, but the past month hasn't inspired much confidence that he's well-positioned to wrap the whole thing up.

The lack of a GOP establishment effort to coordinate behind Rubio has been puzzling to many. Indeed, there's been a remarkable and historic paralysis of Republican politicians overall. You can see clear as day in FiveThirtyEight's endorsement charts that at this point in the nomination contest, every eventual GOP winner for decades had more endorsements than any candidate in this year's race so far.

However, it's also not so clear that a more organized elite backing of Rubio would do much to help him. When you get down to it, the "party decides" theory has always, in the end, relied on elites' ability to persuade voters that what they want is best. Yet this year, condemnations from the party establishment have been taken as a badge of honor. Anything that can be spun as a backroom attempt to anoint a favorite would play right into Trump and Cruz's hands. And what would Rubio do with more money — pour it into yet more TV ads, a form of spending that has seemed strikingly ineffective so far?

Ad spending from the operations (campaign, Super PAC, outside nonprofits) of GOP candidates as of early December.
Javier Zarracina / Vox

But the fact that elites aren't yet even trying very hard to block a likely disastrous Trump or Cruz nomination is still pretty weird, and there seem to be two main reasons for it. First, there's a sense of complacency, bred by the long-held certainty that Trump's long-held lead will vanish, that has lasted far too long by now. Second, elites just really don't know what to do — if money and endorsements won't work, they may be genuinely unsure what does.

The Washington Post's Matea Gold and Robert Costa shed some light on this in a report last month, writing that GOP financiers are reluctant to do much against Trump for these two reasons. Some "remain confident that the race will eventually pivot away from him," and others just aren't sure what they can do to stop him. As a result, the establishment seems to feel powerless — held hostage to the whims of its voters, even in the face of imminent catastrophe.

Not everybody is failing to coordinate, though. As National Review's Tim Alberta reported, a group of top social conservative leaders met this week to discuss uniting around one candidate.

Their choice? Ted Cruz.