The Fractured Republican Primary
By Nayyer Ali MD
While Hilary Clinton looks like she will easily win the Democratic nomination for President, the Republican field is a crowded and messy freak show. There were originally 17 candidates running and only two, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Governor Rick Perry of Texas, have dropped out. Most of the rest continue a forlorn and hopeless quest for the White House, with only five actually having a path to the nomination.
For observers of this congested race, it would be wise to ignore all but the top five candidates. These are Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. So why these five, and what are their chances?
The very conservative Republicans who make up the base voters that will cast ballots in primary elections are fed up and angry with a Republican establishment they feel has done nothing to stop the evil President Obama from imposing his leftist agenda on America. This very angry base is looking seriously at the two most verbally extreme candidates in the race, who also happen to have zero political experience, Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Trump jumped to the front of this race with harsh anti-Mexican rhetoric and he has emphasized immigration and trade battles with China and Japan as his key issues. Ben Carson has gradually built a following among Republicans, but his main calling card is his religiosity. He has the backing of the evangelical voters, which may be enough to help him win the Iowa caucus in about 90 days. Trump has slipped behind Carson in Iowa, but at this point remains the front runner in the crucial New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.
The Republican establishment all but assumed Jeb Bush would easily win the nomination less than a year ago. But Bush has stumbled badly in the actual campaign. He is not a gifted speaker, and he has had no answer to the constant taunting coming from Trump. Trump has been tying Jeb to his brother George, and forcing Jeb to defend the Iraq War and the fact that George W. Bush did not stop the 9/11 attacks and did not get Osama bin Laden. Bush quickly raised 100 million dollars for his Super PAC, but despite all this money, he has been nowhere in the polls, sitting at around 6-9%. Bush family supporters are letting it be known they are nervous about Jeb, and may withdraw their support if he does not turn things around soon. He needs to have much better debate performances and make the case why the country should trust another Bush to run it. So far he has been failing, but time has not run out. If Republican voters tire of the Trump and Carson show, they may eventually end up back with Jeb.
Ted Cruz is a first term Senator from Texas who has not a single accomplishment to his credit. He is a firebrand conservative who has pushed for government shutdowns as a way to force Obama to do Republican bidding, a strategy that has failed up to now. Cruz would normally get the support of the angry Republican voters, but his poll results remain around 5-7% because most of those voters are with Trump and Carson. Cruz’s strategy is to hang in there till voters finally realize they cannot seriously support those two men, and those angry voters will them turn to the closest candidate to their views still standing, which will be Cruz. This strategy remains plausible, but would require Trump and Carson to self-destruct. If Cruz were to actually aggressively attack those two, he might damage them, but his supporters will likely end up elsewhere, and not with Cruz.
Marco Rubio is a freshman Senator from Florida. He is already bored with the Senate and has missed most of the votes in that chamber as he spends his time running for President. Rubio on paper looks like a strong contender for the Republicans. He is young, has Cuban parents, speaks fluent Spanish, has a polished manner and avoids the bombast and anger of Cruz or Trump. But Rubio in reality is an empty suit. There is not much there when it comes to policy. He does not differ in any way from George W. Bush, he even advocates massive tax cuts for the wealthy that will drive up deficits just years after the Republicans claimed that Obama’s high deficits were destroying America. His understanding of foreign affairs is very superficial. His terrible voting record as a Senator would make an easy attack for a Democratic opponent. He comes across as someone who has been interested in being President from day one, but has little interest in doing the job that is his at the moment.
Having said all that, who will the Republicans nominate? I think of the 15 still running, the winner will ultimately be one of these five above. Between Carson and Trump, the edge goes to Trump. He has the cash if he chooses to use it, and while Carson has an edge with the religious voters in Iowa, that does not give him enough support to beat Trump in the critical primaries of New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The big question is whether Republican voters are serious about Trump or not. Because of the very large number of candidates, if Trump can get 25% of the vote, he wins the state. If all the non-Trump vote was concentrated in the hands of a single candidate, Trump would be in a hopeless position. But because there are so many candidates, 25% is enough to get a win.
If the Republicans do tire of Trump, then the struggle will likely shift to Bush and Rubio, who occupy the same space ideologically. In that contest, I believe Bush’s financial resources will prevail, but Rubio will be a better candidate against Hilary. Finally, if Trump and Carson fizzle, there will be Cruz, hoping to catch their voters as they scatter, and bringing them into his camp.
The race remains complex and messy. But I think we can see the broad outlines of where things are going. In the next three weeks, as two more debates occur, the picture may get clearer.