The metaphor most often used about Donald Trump’s candidacy these days is that he’s “defying gravity,” which implies that while a real candidate can rise and then stay high all the way to the nomination, a candidate like Trump is supposed to bounce up and then fall back down to earth. But even as Trump is no longer enjoying the blanket coverage that he did a month or two ago, he’s still leading the Republican field.
Meanwhile, the candidate in second place, Ben Carson, is every bit Trump’s equal when it comes to policy ignorance, appalling statements, and the potential for a disastrous general election. The establishment’s early choice, Jeb Bush, has cratered, while its second choice, Marco Rubio, is creeping up slowly, but so far seems to be generating much more interest from funders and strategists than from actual voters.
So as Byron York reports today, the GOP establishment is beginning to panic, about Trump in particular:
This weekend was an inflection point in the Republican presidential race — a moment in which some significant part of the GOP establishment came out of denial and realized Donald Trump might well become their party’s nominee.“The Republican establishment, for the first time, is saying, off the record, this guy can win,” noted Joe Scarborough on MSNBC Monday morning. “I’ve heard that from everybody. I don’t hear anybody saying he can’t win the nomination anymore.”That doesn’t mean Republicans have made their peace with a Trump victory. On the contrary — some are preparing to do whatever it takes to bring him down. Which could lead to an extraordinary scenario in which GOP stalwarts go to war to destroy their own party’s likely nominee.
The trouble is that they don’t have much of a war plan, partly because “the establishment” is far less organized and unified than you might think, and partly because there are only so many tools at their disposal. There’s talk of a large TV ad campaign against Trump, built on “the political insiders’ unshakable faith that negative ads work.” You can also see that faith in this interview with longtime GOP strategist Mike Murphy, who’s running Jeb Bush’s “Right to Rise” Super PAC. Murphy’s argument for why Jeb is still the candidate to beat, despite the fact that his support has fallen to single digits and he’s now in fourth or fifth place in most polls, is essentially that Jeb will win because unlike the other candidates, he has a lot of money to run ads.
Ads can work, in the right context (though they have a short half-life; their effect tends to fade quickly). But they’re not a guarantee of anything, particularly when you have a candidate who has performed as poorly as Jeb, whose latest genius campaign maneuver is getting into an argument with Trump about whether his brother was actually president when the September 11 attacks happened. And the truth is that while Jeb may have raised the most money, some other candidates aren’t doing too badly either, particularly Carson and Ted Cruz.
In any case, the theory underlying not just Jeb’s candidacy but also Rubio’s is that eventually, the voters will come around to someone reasonable. They may need to be pushed in the right direction, but they can’t stick with the likes of Trump and Carson forever. The lower-tier candidates will drop out, the voters will coalesce around a smaller number of alternatives, and the choice will become clear, at which point one of the sane candidates will win.
Which could well happen. But by now, we should be wary of assuming anything about this race. How many people expected Trump to do as well as he has for as long as he has? The establishment and his opponents have tried a series of arguments against Trump, none of which have worked. He’s not a real conservative. He’s erratic. He’s ignorant. He’s killing us with Hispanics. If he was the nominee, we’d lose in a landslide.
All of which is true, but so far it hasn’t mattered. Trump is still leading, as he has from almost the moment he got into the race. As NBC News said this morning, “Donald Trump and Ben Carson are only getting STRONGER as we head into next week’s third GOP debate.” Nobody supporting Trump is unfamiliar with him; it’s getting less and less likely that an opponent will be able to say, “Did you know this about Trump?” and watch his support ebb away. They know who and what he is, and that’s why they’re behind him.
Trump is now putting together an actual campaign organization, with things like ballot-access specialists and ground operatives, which he didn’t have before. As Ron Brownstein points out, “Trump is cementing a strong blue-collar base, while the white-collar voters relatively more resistant to him have yet to unify around any single alternative.” The longer that unification takes, the better position Trump will be in; it isn’t hard to imagine him winning one early state after another and building up an unstoppable momentum.
Those who have been observing politics for a long time — whether you’re talking about journalists or the insiders now trying to figure out how to stop Trump — still have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea that he could really win. They now acknowledge that it’s possible, but it still seems crazy. Which it certainly is. But it’s looking like the establishment is going to have to do more than wait for primary voters to come to their senses if they want to stop him.