Donald Trump's most recent policy pronouncement — the banning of US immigrants based on religion — appears to have pushed the Republican Party from partial to full panic mode. Trump's candidacy does not seem to be flaming out as expected. With less than two months until voting and delegate selections begin, what is the party supposed to do?
Now, to be clear, this isn't a new problem for either party. There have occasionally been candidates with some hold on public opinion and access to money who have nonetheless been unacceptable to party insiders, and those people have gone on to lose the primaries and caucuses. The 2012 cycle was full of such people. But Trump is different, and the lack of party support simply hasn't hurt him (and may even be helping him).
But party support, or lack thereof, is only part of the way undesirable candidate are usually sent packing. The key thing party insiders typically do to maintain control over the party's nomination is to form a united front behind a broadly acceptable candidate. It wasn't enough in 2012 for party elites to say, "We don't like Newt Gingrich." They had to say, "We like Mitt Romney." This is all part of what's broadly known as the invisible primary, an informal process to winnow the field of candidates long before the formal elections start taking place.
Thus far, however, party elites have been unable to coordinate on a candidate. Endorsements have been slowly trickling in and are largely divided among several candidates. An unfortunate consequence of having so many high-quality candidates in the field is that it's harder for everyone to agree on a favorite. Marco Rubio looks to have many of the characteristics of a strong nominee, but he's young, and some insiders are still clearly uncomfortable with him. Jeb Bush has performed badly in campaign events, but he's still a Bush, and the party does well when it nominates people with that surname. Ted Cruz has a lot of enemies within the party, but he's also clearly bright and potentially hawkish enough to appeal to the increasingly strident base.
Trump, meanwhile, has likely demonstrated by now that he would be unacceptable as the party's nominee. Even if he somehow won a majority of delegates, his nomination could split the party. It's notable that despite being the polling frontrunner for nearly half a year, no governors or members of Congress have endorsed him.
The party's inability to coordinate on an alternative to Trump is the reason this race remains so bizarre and volatile. There's certainly still time to coordinate, but not much. The party seems to have abandoned the idea that it can form a united front prior to the primaries and caucuses, and will instead use those primaries and caucuses to find a champion.
This isn't without precedent. Indeed, we've seen some hints in recent cycles of parties using the early primaries and caucuses to get some evidence about candidate strengths. Democratic elites were divided going into the early contests in 2008, with many wanting to endorse Barack Obama but unsure how he'd do among white rural voters. His victory in the Iowa caucuses gave them the confidence to jump off the fence and back him. That party was pretty sure in 2004 that it didn't want Howard Dean as its nominee, but elites waited until after a few contests to settle on John Kerry.
It looks like Republican elites will be relying on primaries and caucuses to do much of the winnowing for them. This relies on two key, but pretty reasonable, assumptions:
- Many candidates will drop out shortly before or after Iowa and New Hampshire.
- Those candidates' supporters will bleed to candidates other than Trump.
Judging from recent history, it seems likely that a number of candidates still in the race will drop out in mid- to late January, as it becomes clear that they have little chance of placing well in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Mike Huckabee has done well in Iowa in the past, so he may stay in to see how that contest goes, but he'll probably drop out shortly thereafter. Chris Christie may stay in to see if his Union Leader endorsement translates into real support in the New Hampshire primary, but he'll likely be gone soon after that.
So let's imagine a scenario in which the field has been winnowed just prior to Iowa to Trump, Cruz, Bush, and Rubio. Donald Trump could walk into the Iowa caucuses with roughly 30 percent support, but that's likely a pretty hard ceiling. It's possible that the remaining 70 percent is split among Bush, Cruz, and Rubio. Trump could be the plurality winner, and win the plurality of delegates, but he'd still be pretty far from the nomination.
Let's say one of the other three candidates (Cruz?) drops out, and Trump goes into New Hampshire again with 30 percent support. But this time, either Bush or Rubio could get more than that. That contest has proportional delegate allocation, so Trump still gets some delegates but is deprived of the victory he expected.
The next contest after that is South Carolina. Perhaps by that point either Bush or Rubio has dropped out, with his supporters all going to the other candidate and Trump getting basically none of them. Then that primary ends up with Trump hitting his ceiling of 30 percent, winning zero delegates in the winner-take-all contest. The rest of the contests could unfold similarly. Trump, winning few contests and almost no delegates, soon drops out.
This is, in some ways, the least painful outcome for the Republicans. It allows them to end Trump's potentially dangerous campaign using existing rules and structures and settle on a conventional nominee who is broadly acceptable to the party. And it's also looking like one of the few paths left for the party to avoid a disastrous outcome.