DES MOINES — This year’s presidential campaign has proved to be a bleak season for mainstream conservative candidates, a story of frustration, rejection and disappointment. But will that be the end of the story, or are revival and redemption still possible?
It is possible that rejection of the establishment will be the end of the story. It could happen if Donald Trump rolls through the Iowa caucuses Monday, goes on to win the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary handily and uses those two states as a springboard to a big victory in the Feb. 20 South Carolina primary.
Winning that trifecta would put Trump in a political category all his own, the first Republican other than a sitting president to sweep the first three contests on the calendar. Few candidates go undefeated, but at that point, many strategists think, Trump would be extremely difficult to stop en route to one of the most surprising nomination victories of all time.
There’s another possible scenario that could leave the establishment shut out. That’s one that would start with Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) defeating Trump here on Monday night, using that victory to finish second behind Trump in New Hampshire and subsequently turn South Carolina and later contests in March into a two-person race.
Advisers to four remaining mainstream candidates — former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) — discount either of those outcomes. All see events that would bring one or two of the mainstream conservatives into genuine competition and possible victory. What they need is time, patience and what all successful politicians have: luck.
“I think it’s coming,” said a strategist for one of these candidates, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a strategic assessment. “But it’s not going to materialize until the field significantly winnows down. . . . So until the voters get their say in at least one or two states and start the winnowing process themselves, I think we’re going to be stuck with the bifurcation that we have right now.”
Over the past seven months, the Republican nominating campaign has been mostly about Trump. Or it has been about the rise of the outsiders, candidates in addition to Trump, such as Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, who have never held public office, and Cruz, who long has fought the Washington establishment.
Mainstream candidates have struggled as never before. Because there was no next-in-line candidate, no heir apparent among them, establishment support splintered, pitting the four candidates against one another to squabble among themselves for that portion of the pie. And they have been conventional in an unconventional year.
One strategist described the imbalance in the race to date as “an anti-establishment superhighway and an establishment dirt path.”
What is most striking about the assessments of how establishment candidates can get back into the fight is a consensus that it will not happen quickly, that it will require the capacity to absorb a series of losses before the dynamic shifts.
What could start this process is a surprisingly strong finish by Rubio here Monday. He is hoping for two things that day. First and most important is to finish well ahead of fellow establishment candidates Bush, Kasich and Christie. Next, and what would conceivably shorten the timeline to put Rubio into real contention for the nomination, would be his finishing as close as possible to, or even overtaking, whoever finishes second in Iowa.
At this moment, Rubio is seen as the candidate with the best chance to emerge from the establishment lane, although that comes with significant caveats about whether he lives up to the potential that admirers see in him. What could knock him back would be to fall short of expectations by finishing behind Carson in Iowa.
Starting Tuesday, the competition for second in the Granite State will be incredibly fierce. Kasich’s team thinks he is the establishment candidate with momentum in New Hampshire. Bush’s team thinks his debate performance and polls showing a mash-up for second give him an opportunity that did not seem possible two months ago, but he must avoid a debilitating finish in Iowa. Christie has spent more time in New Hampshire than any of the others but will need an exceptional week of campaigning.
Unless there is a single dominant establishment performance in New Hampshire, strategists think that at least two mainstream candidates will move on to compete in South Carolina, possibly all four. But primary results can be cruel, with the difference between viability in future contests and pressure to get out of the race determined by only a few percentage points, no matter what spin the campaigns put on a fourth-, fifth- or sixth-place finish.
A string of losses is rarely a strategy for winning a nomination, although in 1992, Bill Clinton lost 10 of the first 11 contests before starting a winning streak that salvaged his candidacy. What gives establishment candidates reason for optimism is that the contests between Monday and March 14 will award delegates on a proportional basis. A winning candidate might claim momentum but would not be able to amass a big delegate lead over the next six weeks.
That’s why Rubio’s team thinks the survival strategy eventually can be a winning strategy. Two things will have to happen, however. One is that establishment money will have to coalesce around a single mainstream candidate. So far, that has not happened, and it probably will not until after Super Tuesday on March 1. But some strategists think that whoever ends up as the remaining establishment candidate will receive an unprecedented financial windfall sometime in March.
The second is that significant numbers of Republican voters decide they cannot stomach either Trump or Cruz as the party’s nominee and swing decisively behind the remaining establishment candidate.
Right now, Cruz is the most disliked by the establishment. Although some mainstream Republicans are making themselves more comfortable with the prospect of Trump as the nominee, others are determined to do everything they can to highlight all the ways in which Trump’s positions, current or past, run counter to conservative principles. That, they say, will be easier when he is isolated against a single establishment candidate.
That’s the hope for the beleaguered establishment wing of the Republican Party. Their fear is that by the time their moment arrives, it could be too late.