Donald Trump’s unexpected transformation from reality television star to Republican Party presidential nominee has been analyzed endlessly over the past few months. Most of that analysis, mostly appropriately, has focused on the deep structural factors that powered his popularity. But Trump polled well in the GOP field a year ago when almost nobody thought he would win.
The specific tactical modalities that took Trump from "well-known celebrity who polled well among Republicans" to "guy who beat a dozen established politicians and became the nominee" are worth recounting on their own terms. It’s a story of strong, innovative behavior on Trump’s part. But it's also a story of massive blundering on the part of the Republican establishment.
It's a tale in which, somewhat ironically, disciples of free market economics were brought down largely by collective action problems and an inability to coordinate.
Prelude: Mitt Romney and the birth certificate
There are some real consistent throughlines in Trump’s political thought over the years, as Vox learned when we read 12 of Trump’s books.
But there are also massive inconsistencies. The current incarnation of Trump is just about five years old and dates to a string of incidents in 2011 when he raised questions about the authenticity of Barack Obama’s claim to have been born in Hawaii.
If the Republican Party were a healthy political organization, this would have led GOP elected officials to shun Trump, who had no other particular background in conservative politics. Imagine how fast Democrats would have run away from a television star who in 2003 started voicing the opinion that 9/11 was an inside job.
But Republicans did the reverse. Mitt Romney sought and received Donald Trump’s endorsement, staging a joint event with him and inviting him to address the 2012 GOP convention. Despite some later protestations by anti-Trump Republicans that their party had been taken over by an alien invader, the fact is that they invited Trump into their house.
1) Media dominance
The very strong GOP performances in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections meant that Republicans were blessed with a surfeit of basically qualified statewide elected officials to run for president in 2016. Add to that bumper crop an older cohort of governors that included Jeb Bush and Rick Perry, and they had a very strong field indeed. Almost too strong, it turned out, because the vast cast of characters meant it was challenging for any one Republican to get attention and stand out from the crowd.
Trump, by contrast, proved to be extremely talented at standing out from the crowd. A combination of outrageous statements and refreshing accessibility to the press — he was endlessly willing to do unscripted television appearances — let him completely dominate media coverage from day one.
Even as Trump led in the polls throughout the fall of 2015, the dominant view among his opponents was an overwhelming sense of complacency. For starters, despite his lead, Trump’s absolute standing in the polls wasn’t that impressive — he was well below 50 percent.
Rivals campaigns simply assumed, perhaps specifically under the influence of The Party Decides or perhaps simply out of broad analogy to the Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann campaigns in 2012, that Trump’s appeal would naturally fade away. The name of the game, then, wasn’t to beat Trump but simply to pick up the pieces when he collapsed.
Consequently, Ted Cruz spent this period sucking up to Trump in hopes of inheriting his supporters down the road.
Jeb Bush’s Super PAC spent the lion’s share of its massive financial resources slamming all the non-Trump candidates in a desperate effort to turn Bush into the Last Non-Trump Candidate Standing. John Kasich and Chris Christie essentially sat out the active national campaigning and simply squatted in New Hampshire, hoping a strong second place in the Granite State would catapult them into relevance. Marco Rubio’s focus was on wresting the establishment mantle away from Jeb.
3) Fear of Ted Cruz
By January, a clear weak spot had emerged in Trump’s path to victory. He was still well below 50 percent in national polls and was in clear danger of losing Iowa to Ted Cruz. Cruz could beat him in Iowa, emerge as the Trump-stopper candidate, and then consolidate non-Trump voters and win.
None of this stopped Cruz from squeaking out a win in Iowa, but it did stop him from translating that Iowa win into the kind of massive momentum that could have conceivably stopped Trump. There was no flood of endorsements to Cruz, no surge in favorable coverage from unexpected sources, and no strange new respect from the media.
4) Rubio’s bad debate
Around the new year, Marco Rubio’s campaign became to articulate the 3-2-1 strategy for victory: Score a third-place win in Iowa behind Cruz and Trump, finish second behind Trump in New Hampshire, and then consolidate all non-Trump, non-Cruz voters behind him to win South Carolina. That, Rubio thought, would then set him up for a winning nationwide campaign.
Rubio got his third-place Iowa finish, breaking out from the pack and establishing considerable momentum in his direction in terms of endorsements and media coverage.
Then came a disastrous pre–New Hampshire debate where, in response to a tough attack by Chris Christie, he totally melted down in a rare gaffe that actually mattered, by significantly undermining faith in his readiness for the big time.
This pushed Rubio way down into fifth place in New Hampshire and elevated Kasich into second, with New Hampshire primary voters either not knowing or not caring that Kasich had no campaign operation outside of New Hampshire and no way to leverage a strong showing there into a South Carolina win.
5) Chaos in South Carolina
Rubio’s extraordinarily poor showing in New Hampshire meant that Bush stayed in the race to commit a last stand in South Carolina. Kasich had a little momentum. Cruz was strong throughout the South. And at this point, the establishment was overcommitted to Rubio and had to back him.
The result was that Trump won all 50 delegates in South Carolina with less than a third of the vote. The establishment-friendly triad of Rubio, Bush, and Kasich combined to outpoll Trump substantially, but with the vote split three ways Trump ended up 10 points ahead of Rubio and won all the delegates.
The Palmetto State earned a reputation over the previous few cycles as party leaders’ go-to insurgent-stopper state. And it’s easy to imagine an alternate reality in which Rubio didn’t mess up at the debate, did better in New Hampshire, earned the endorsements of Bush and/or Kasich before South Carolina, and started beating Trump head to head.
There’s another reality in which the state’s political establishment lined up behind Cruz as the strongest non-Trump horse in the race and started his path toward consolidating the party. Instead, the GOP got a mess.
6) Super Tuesday
The first really large set of states to vote came on March 1, by which time Bush had gotten out of the race and Cruz had clearly emerged as the strongest alternate to Trump, thanks to his lead in Texas and his pockets of strength throughout the South.
But both Rubio and Kasich wanted to hold on and run through Super Tuesday, because both were still counting on victories in their respective home states of Florida and Ohio on March 15.
The result was largely a sweep for Trump against a divided field. He won Tennessee with 40 percent of the vote. He won Virginia with 35 percent. He got 39 percent in Georgia. He carried Vermont with 33 percent.
The states that voted on Super Tuesday were largely in Trump’s strongest regions, and while many rank-and-file Republican voters wanted Trump to be their party’s nominee, the majority didn’t vote for him. Nonetheless, he carried the vast majority of states and another huge haul of delegates.
7) Mopping up
The primary still had two months to go, but the Super Tuesday results paired with Rubio’s dismal poll numbers in Florida meant it was essentially over. The two candidates who remained in the field — Cruz and Kasich — were both deeply divisive forces inside the Republican Party rather than the kind of people who could build a broad anti-Trump coalition.
What’s more, it rapidly became clear that while strong campaigns by Cruz and Kasich could keep Trump from winning the 50 percent of delegates he would need to lock the nomination, there was no way either Cruz or Kasich would get more than 50 percent.
That complicated the message for both contenders — were they really running, or were they simply stalking horses for Romney or Paul Ryan or some other establishment figure on the sidelines?
But more importantly, it raised the specter of a messy contested convention, a floor fight, and possible chaos. Americans are habituated to elections in which a plurality is good enough to win, and to many, the idea of denying Trump the majority felt like a proposed theft.
Rather than consolidating to make a last stand against him, elements of the party started shifting in Trump’s favor. The governors of Florida and Maine endorsed him — along with former rival New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — and Trump started drifting upward in national polls.
There were a handful of stumbling points and false dawns of opposition along the way, but in retrospect everything from mid-March forward was a mop-up operation. All along, Trump’s level of support had been low enough to make him beatable in theory, but nobody had actually come along to beat him and neither Cruz nor Kasich was in a position to do the job.