The Republican Party started this year’s primary cycle with one of the largest field of aspiring candidates in the modern primary system; the field at its peak had 17 reasonably well known aspirants. And it was as wide as it was deep; the field had four sitting senators, one former senator, four sitting governors, five former governors, the first woman CEO of a fortune 500 company and even a world famous neurosurgeon. It is difficult to remember the last time primary voters had such a wide array of plausible and qualified candidates to choose from. Instead, one day before the New Hampshire primary, majority of the primary voters are still backing Donald Trump.
Yes, Donald Trump, the sixty nine year old man with weird hair and weirder facial expressions, who sprouts garbled nonsense every time he opens his mouth and openly talks about dating his own child, is leading the field. If you are Rence Preibus, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, you should be a seriously worried man by now.
If Trump wins the New Hampshire Primary, as he is expected to do in a few hours’ time, he will get a huge shot in the arm. The media which is already obsessed with Trump will take the Trump mania to a whole new level. All the glowing articles on Trump which were written by journalists before the Iowa caucus and then quietly tucked away in a corner as Trump unexpectedly lost the caucus will finally see the light of the day, with a few changes here and there.
Trump is already leading the field in South Carolina, the next state in the Republican Primary schedule. He also has strong lead in a number of north-eastern and southern states which are scheduled to vote in early March. North-east and South, with its high percentage of less educated white voters, are among the regions most sympathetic to a Trump candidacy. If he manages to do well in these states, the prospect of a Trump nomination would become more and more probable.
Even if Trump falters along the way, the main benefactor of this could be Ted Cruz, the first time senator from Texas who has been doing very well among the very conservative voters and evangelicals. The solid red south is also a natural fit for a candidate like Cruz. However, Cruz’s candidacy would be even less preferable to the Republican Party elders who detest his conservative orthodoxy and his slimy, self-serving manners.
In fact, this is far from what the Party apparatus had in mind when it had designed the primary calendar of 2016. Looking at Mitt Romney stumbling through the primary election of 2012 and getting savaged by the attack ads of super PACs supporting Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, the RNC had decided to limit the number of debates and condense the primary process in order to avoid a months’ long slog. However, this condensed process may now ensure that a candidate, who catches fire early on, someone like Trump or Cruz, could carry the momentum all the way to the convention.
An establishment candidate still has a lot of built-in advantages in the Republican primary. The states voting early in the calendar i.e. till 15th March, 2016, predominantly deep red states, can only allot their delegates on a proportionate basis i.e. the actual delegate returns of winning these states are not very high. On the other hand, the states scheduled to vote later may allot their delegates on a winner take all basis. These include delegate-rich purple states like Florida and Ohio which should be more hospitable for a centre-right candidate. Further, the allocation of delegation among states is also in such a way that the average Republican voter in a blue state has more say in the election of a delegate than his or her counterpart in a red state. As a result, an establishment candidate who can just hang in there in the first one and a half month of the primary calendar, may see his fortune pick up gradually as the process wears on.
The problem with the Republican establishment though is that it does not still have a credible candidate to fall behind. Or rather, the Party is spoilt with too many choices, all good ones but with some fault or the other, and the Party cannot decide which one to support.
Currently, the establishment has four plausible choices – Senator Marco Rubio, former Governor Jeb Bush, Governor John Kasich and Governor Chris Christie. Of these, Senator Rubio has for a long time looked the strongest on paper. He is a young, charismatic first time senator, a Cuban American with an inspiring life story, hailing from the large swing state of Florida and acceptable to most factions of the Republican Party. However, for a long time, the establishment was unwilling to fall behind him. Although the reasons behind the same are not clear, one of the reasons might have been that Rubio was way too conservative for the moderates in his party. He is a hawk on foreign policy affairs, supports banning abortion even in case of rape and incest and used to be against any kind of immigration reform before coming to the Senate (he has since changed his position twice on that issue). Another reason might have been that Rubio actually has not done much to endear himself to the establishment. He was a Tea Party candidate in the Florida Senate election of 2010, humbling Charlie Christ, the establishment backed candidate first in the primary and then in the general election. And once in Senate, he has not even completed one full term before declaring his candidacy for the presidency, not showing any deference to Jeb Bush who was his mentor in Florida. This is in sharp contrast to the Republican establishment backed candidates of the past, candidates like Mitt Romney, John McCain, the George Bushes, Bob Dole or Ronald Reagan. Almost all of them slogged for years as senators or governors and established their credentials in past primaries (except in case of George W Bush who had the benefit of wide name recognition and a weak field) before the establishment support was bestowed upon them.
In spite of these drawbacks, the Republican establishment was showing signs of grudgingly falling behind Rubio after he finished a strong third in Iowa. He received a wave of good media and a series of endorsements, mainly from his Senate colleagues and appeared to solidify his status as the establishment frontrunner in the race.
All that came collapsing down on Saturday when Rubio gave a terrible debate performance in the ABC News sponsored Republican debate, at a crucial time just before the Primary. At the same time, Christie, Kasich and Bush gave strong performances, enough to keep the media, donors and voters interested in them.
Now I am very sceptical if the debate performance by Rubio will really have a significant impact on the New Hampshire primary. However, he is currently second in a crowded field and is being trailed by a very narrow margin by John Kasich, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush. If Rubio falls behind any of these candidates, he would have lost the expectations game and his momentum would stall. The second leg of his much talked about ‘3-2-1’ strategy (finishing third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire and first in South Carolina) would be broken.
In case this happens, where would it leave the establishment? They would again be staring a divided field of acceptable candidates with no credible frontrunner. All the three remaining candidates are good, but are mightily flawed as well. Jeb Bush has been an uninspiring campaigner and is seen as too moderate on immigration and common core. Chris Christie has a lot of baggage including his past liberal positions on various issues, his poor governance record in New Jersey and the Bridge Gate scandal that happened under his watch. John Kasich is actually a conservative governor of a crucial swing state with years of experience, but he has positioned himself as a moderate in this race and would be unpalatable to the conservative base. Besides, both Christie and Kasich have hardly any organization or money to sustain a campaign beyond the New Hampshire Primary.
If these candidates perform reasonably well in New Hampshire and refuse to bow out, they would continue to eat away crucial establishment endorsements, money and votes. Meanwhile, in an attempt to be the last standing establishment candidate, all four will continue to spend huge amount of money in going after one another instead of spending money on attacking Cruz or Trump, in a bizarre, surreal race to the bottom.
All of these may be leading the Republican establishment to ponder about what might have been had the field been narrower. The four candidates together command support of around 45% of the New Hampshire Republican voters, far ahead of Trump at 31% according to RealClearPolitics as on today. A win by one of the establishment candidates here would have knocked the stuffing out of Trump and reduced the field to a one on one contest with Cruz, the more conservative candidate, a contest the establishment candidate would have been favoured to win, following the well worn path beaten down by Jon McCain and Mitt Romney. What the Party instead is looking at is a muddled race with no clear frontrunners or an acceptable outcome in sight.