WASHINGTON – Regarding the Republican primaries, much can and will change in the next few week, after at least some voters will have had a chance to cast their ballots. Still, we know that Donald Trump is way ahead, mostly because he was famous before entering politics, and because a plurality of Republicans really like his confrontational, blunt language.
Image above all
But, is there more about Trump that makes him so compelling? No. That’s about it. Trump came into the race with the huge plus of national name recognition, thanks to a long-running, popular TV show he hosted. This proved to be a huge asset.
Add to this significant advantage Trump’s uncanny talent for taking outrageous positions on controversial issues, (foreign trade, immigration, Muslims in America, terrorism), and we have the whole package: the no-nonsense, anti-establishment, self-made man (being a billionaire does not hurt) who is going to change the course and the destiny of America.
Never mind that there is almost no substance behind all this. Never mind that Trump’s policy positions are a mix of populism, bravado, and hot air. In this climate, vagueness and superficiality are no hindrances. They simply do not matter.
How Trump looks on TV, combined with his wealthy businessman credentials and his outrageous language, seems to be a good enough qualification to be the next President of the United States.
So, what we have now, at least for a robust plurality of potential Republican voters, (30% or more), is a deep fascination with the new and different, (and Trump is both), in an otherwise unexciting environment dominated by shopworn professional politicians.
“I am ahead, therefore I am the best”
The perverse thing in all this is that being popular is now a considered a solid argument for attracting more followers. Indeed, in his public appearances, Trump talks mostly about his standing in the polls. “I am ahead. And this is irrefutable evidence that I am the best candidate. So, don’t be stupid. Be smart and jump on board”.
So, here is the thing. Trump, with the significant support of various conservative media outlets has created this new truth. “Being popular equals being right”. “If a candidate is ahead in the polls, in fact outdistancing all the others, this means he must be the best choice”. “He is a winner, the others are losers”. “The people say so. And the people by definition are right”.
Majorities can be wrong
The argument is of course deeply flawed. Large majorities can be and have been very wrong. And Trump, at least for now, is far from having large national majorities behind him. He is significantly ahead in a contest that involves a relatively small, (even though decisive when it comes to picking a GOP nominee), number of Republican voters.
Rally around one candidate
That said, the only way to change this dynamic is to produce a more plausible but equally interesting alternative to Trump. For the moment this has not happened.
The now despised “Republican Establishment” has a few possible candidates. But because there are many, (Christie, Kasich, Bush and Rubio), they fragment the favors of moderate Republicans. Besides, by wasting energy fighting one another, none of them projects the aura of inevitability that Trump so skillfully managed to create around himself. With Trump at 30% or more, there is nothing hot about Rubio who is at 11%.
Sure, it can argued that if all the fragmented support going a bit to Chris Christie, some to Marco Rubio, another bit to John Kasich, and a few drops to Jeb Bush would coalesce behind just one of them, while all the others would exit the race promising to support whoever is chosen as the strongest candidate, much would change.
Yes, there could be a new momentum and new excitement behind Marco Rubio, (for instance), if he became “the” standard-bearer of the new and improved, yet still reliable, traditional Republicans.
At some point this will happen. At some point the number of candidates will have to shrink. But the longer they all stay in the race, bickering with one another, this way fragmenting the votes of moderate supporters, the more difficult it will be later on for whoever survives to rally the troops. By that time, Trump may have become truly inevitable, on account of previous victories in the early primaries, and the momentum that comes with them.
Look, predicting outcomes in this strange environment is extremely difficult. However, it would be both smart and patriotic for the moderate Republicans to decide, now rather than a month from now, who among them has the best chance to win the nomination.
Change the dynamics of the race, now
Having decided that, all the others would exit the race throwing their sincere and enthusiastic support behind the one remaining. This could generate new interest and momentum.
Whereas, to the extent that Christie, Kasich, Rubio and Bush still insist in fighting one another, while fighting against Trump at the same time, the chances of any of them prevailing are very slim.