With the presidential primary contests of both the parties entering the home stretch, many pundits are of the view that the Republican contest shall finally boil down to an epic face off between Marco Rubio, the only viable establishment favourite at this stage and Ted Cruz, the standard bearer of the hard right. It sounds very exciting on paper – two Cuban American fresh men senators, both very young at 44 years of age, extremely conservative, suave and brilliant orators, fighting to get the votes of the mostly, white, old Republican electorate. No wonder then that the media has been lapping it up.
While it is a plausible outcome, it is definitely not an inevitable one and may not even be the most likely one. The reality may turn out to be quite different.
This theory is mostly based on historical precedents. Since Barry Goldwater’s victory in 1964, the Republican presidential contests have generally been between a relatively moderate and a staunchly conservative candidate. Consider the Goldwater v/s Rockefeller contest in 1964, the fight between Ford and Reagan in 1976, Reagan fighting it out with George HW Bush in 1980, George HW Bush facing a scare from Pat Robertson in 1988, Bob Dole at the receiving end of a challenge from Pat Buchanan in 1996, George W Bush vs John McCain in 2000 and John McCain having to fight off Mike Huckabee in 2008. The GOP, in all these years, though have remained mainly divided between the moderates and conservatives and as a compromise between the factions, the primary voters have tried to optimize between conservatism and electability. This is why electable conservative candidates like Reagan and George W Bush have been nominated while more fringe elements like Robertson and Buchanan have been less successful.
This worked out fine as long as the GOP was divided between two factions – moderates and conservatives. However, the Republican Party of today is fractured along multiple lines – social conservatives, Tea Party, establishment, moderates, libertarians, etc. Although there is also a considerable overlap among these segments, there are also stark differences on various issues. As a result, it is very difficult for a single candidate to represent multiple segments. This is perhaps one of the reasons why there are so many candidates in the field and almost all (bar Donald Trump) are finding it difficult to break through the clutter.
It is also notable that the three candidates that have dropped out so far have (Rick Perry, Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal) all tried at the same time to appeal to both the social conservative factions of the party as well as portray themselves as job creating, deficit cutting, fiscal hawks with strong electability in the general elections. We know how these efforts turned out. Marco Rubio, for all the talk of being the only candidate whose appeal cuts across the party factions, is yet to emerge as a leader in polls among any of these factions. Finding a common candidate representing these disparate groups may thus be easier said than done.
The emergence of super PAC has also made it easier for candidates to keep fighting on and not drop out. The Republican field still has fourteen candidates, a record of sort. Many of these candidates have amassed good amount of money in their super PACs. Even if not, they only require the blessings of a handful of super rich mega donors to keep themselves afloat. It appears unlikely at this stage that a candidate like Jeb Bush or Ben Carson would drop out before using a significant amount of the huge war chest at their disposal. Take the case of Newt Gingrich in 2012; he only required the support of Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas billionaire to keep fighting his campaign, even when the rest of the Republican establishment had turned against him.
The 2012 election was the first one which was fought after the concept of super PAC came into being. And it amply demonstrated why even long shot candidates are now unlikely to easily drop out. Even in the later stages of the campaign, when it became pretty much apparent that the only way to beat Mitt Romney would be to pull the votes of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, both of them refused to drop out. Part of the reason was probably personal egos. But another part of the reason was that both had the money to keep alive their campaigns, thanks to some generous billionaires. Also, the fiscally more profligate Santorum represented the social conservative wing of the party whereas the thrice married Newt Gingrich was more a nominee of the Tea Party wing. It is very much possible they would not have been palatable to factions outside their own. And do not forget Ron Paul, the libertarian candidate, who drew strong support from a significant section of the party and kept fighting till the nomination.
This is just to show how difficult it has become for the different wings of the Republican Party to fall behind the same candidate. There is one exception though, this year, and it is none other than Donald Trump. He is the only candidate who is drawing significant support from across the different sections of the party, although he does enjoy more support from certain groups (like moderates and independents) compared to others (like evangelicals and Tea Party). His presence though, with an ideology that is difficult to fit into any set of pre-defined groups, further complicates the path for Rubio and Cruz to emerge as the last two men standing.
The idiosyncrasies of this year’s contest is also brought into light by the fact that the Republican party representatives have yet to start falling behind any particular candidate. Jeb Bush is still leading the endorsement count as per the Fivethirtyeight endorsement tracker, even though his numbers and prospects are fading elsewhere. And it is not just that the establishment support is split, it is also that a giant majority of the establishment is yet to even decide. If the party insiders are loathe declaring their support to any candidate, even this late into the campaign, how can even know for sure that certain candidates shall be stronger than others.
This is, however, not to deny the fact that Rubio and Cruz are among the two strongest contenders in the field. In the current horserace though, Cruz appears to be much better placed than Rubio. Recent polls suggest he has overtaken Carson among social conservatives and is also leading among Tea Party supporters. He has also overtaken both Carson and Trump (as per recent polls) in Iowa. He has an impressive fund raising machine and the primary map looks favourable to him, with the Southern states (where he is expected to do well) voting together early in the calendar. Rubio, on the other hand, is struggling in all the early voting states. He has less than impressive fund raising record till date. He is yet to break through among any particular Republican voting group and even the establishment is yet to start falling behind him. The establishment lane of the race, in other words, is still open and if either of Bush, Christie or Kasich post a victory in New Hampshire, it will become difficult for Rubio to make a comeback.
Further, the current Republican field with 14 candidates resembles in size the crowded Democratic fields of the seventies and eighties. Most of these Democratic primary contests had no clear frontrunner, but a number of viable candidates representing different sections of the party. The party itself was divided among north-eastern liberals, anti-war protesters, union leaders, more traditional New Deal Democrats, moderates, Southern Conservatives, African Americans and so on. As a result, primary contests typically dragged on for months and the eventual nominee had to surmount a number of challengers and win a number of crucial states before he could proclaim victory, often just before the convention.
Take for instance the Democratic Primary of 1972. In the first primary to be held under the modern system, George McGovern, the anti-war candidate from the liberal fringe, won after outlasting strong bids from Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey, both candidates of the establishment and George Wallace, the conservative candidate from the South. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, a conservative Governor of Georgia, virtually unknown to the Democratic establishment, gradually won state after state in the primaries and knocked off one after another rival in crucial states (including George Wallace, Mo Udall, Henry Jackson, Jerry Brown and Frank Church) to win the nomination. 1988 and 1992 were similarly multi-cornered contests. In the former, Michael Dukakis had to see of challenges from Jesse Jackson, Al Gore and Dick Gephardt whereas in the latter, Bill Clinton had a three cornered fight with Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas. None of these contests turned out to be a straight one on one fight between two strong candidates, representing two ideologically opposite spectrums of the party.
Thus, given the crowded nature of the field, no clear frontrunner, presence of multiple candidates with huge funds at their disposal, the super PACs, the fragmented nature of the party itself and the establishment failing to fall in line behind one single candidate, it is likely that the Republican presidential contest of this year may also turn out to be a messy, protracted battle with a state wise fight for delegates.