Running the asylum: can the GOP establishment retake control?

Even Marco Rubio, the grandees' last, best hope, is running out of road.


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For political scientists and electoral strategists, it all seemed to be finally coming into focus. Like some Magic Eye poster from the 90s, if you concentrated and squinted just hard enough at the electoral field, Marco Rubio’s smiling face seemed to look back at you. In a circus of a nominating contest, basic laws of common sense were starting to operate once more. Ben Carson and Donald Trump might make for a refreshing political amuse bouche but the solid fare of establishment favourites was being dished up and the service bell had dinged. Hillary would run on experience and the better yesterday of the 1990s; Rubio would talk about “21st Century Leadership” and talk in Spanish while beaming constantly. The election would be “historic” but the kind of history that felt like every other election cycle. Ohio, Colorado and Florida. Democrats would run up margins with a focus on social issues; Republicans would try to close them by showing a fresh face and a Spanish fluency. Rinse, wash, repeat. Old slippers. Manchester United winning the league. An Old Etonian Prime Minister and a socialist in charge of the Labour Party. A world to be relied upon. Somehow, somewhere, something didn’t go to plan.

It wasn’t Iowa’s fault. We were used to curiosity candidates (remember Herman Cain? No?). Iowa tended to favour the niche candidates who tickled the erogenous zones of the Republican coalition. Rick “sweater vest” Santorum’s and Mick Huckabee’s folksy appeals to evangelicals won Iowa battles but, by doing so, guaranteed that they would lose the nominating war. Iowa’s role was to offer up the sacrificial lamb to distract the working class conservative voters before they fell in line behind the establishment pick. Place in Iowa to show broad acceptability and move on. Iowa’s caucus was closed to Independents, which favoured Trump’s hardline message and Cruz’s organisation on the ground. Only Republican-registered rock-ribbed conservatives, overwhelmingly religious, would be allowed to vote. Cruz’s pastor father and prominent endorsements from Iowa evangelical leaders would allow him to leap over Trump’s polling lead to victory.  Trump’s supporters looked like traditional non-voters, the Donald’s Get Out the Vote operation seemed to be in chaos, and Cruz had invested heavily in getting as many of Iowa’s evangelical voters to election booths as possible. For those who only watched the polling, Cruz’s victory would prove to be a minor surprise.

However, there was a bigger surprise brewing. Cruz and Trump had been all over Iowa but many voters remained undecided. They were unlikely to break to candidates they had seen so much of and still resisted. Rubio’s campaign had saved his money for a last-week advertising blitz. The campaign kept saying that it did not want to peak too early and political scientists had long informed us that TV spots had a half-life of about ten days. There was room for someone to emerge from the pack and grab the headlines and momentum heading to New Hampshire. The avatar of a “new” Republican Party waited in the wings. The post-Romney autopsy lectured the party that it needed to appeal to Hispanics and women. Who better than a photogenic Latino with a good-looking family? A Tea Party-powered upset victory in his Senate primary and one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate helped Rubio tick the box as “the most conservative electable candidate”. A candidate to edge conservatives back towards the country America had become without necessitating any hard re-examination of the failures of the Bush years or of the economic orthodoxy that had suffused the party since Arthur Laffer drew a curve on a napkin for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and supply-side economics was born.

No other candidate outside the top two really had much of a ground game- Cruz operatives sniped that Rubio was running for “Mayor of Ankeny” because of Rubio’s one field office in the small Iowa town. However a flurry of TV advertising and the endorsement of the influential Des Moines Register newspaper assured late-breakers, un-swayed by the Donald or Ted Cruz’s rather oleaginous charms, would stampede towards the handsome freshman Florida Senator. The close three-way finish gave Rubio all the momentum heading to New Hampshire. The Cruz-Trump one-two finish was always going to be a “heads you win, tails I lose” outcome for the Republican establishment. The promise of Rubio was only matched by the threat of the alternatives.

Cruz’s personality was so radioactive that the better one seemed to know the Texas Senator, the more likely one was to actively regret it. His general election strategy relied on a hypothesis that previous GOP nominees had not been sufficiently conservative to attract evangelicals in great enough numbers to defeat the Democratic candidate. Most academics considered Cruz’s theory fanciful at best. With a Trump nomination would the Republican establishment even want to win? Trump was advocating populist economics, campaign finance reform, and had previously run for President on a sweeping tax rise on assets. The establishment would have lost the politics and the donor class the economics of the conservative coalition. They would prefer Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump.

Supply-side taxation with the carrot of turning back the tide on gay marriage and abortion had long served elite interests. 8 years of President Obama, Black Lives Matter, gay marriage and flatlining wages had activated outward spasms of the uglier side of conservatism. Material conditions for the white working class and the threat to their economic, cultural and social standing made Donald Trump appear like a fever dream. If Trump didn’t exist, they would have invented something like him. Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, George Wallace had all assembled a coalition of in-group bias and populist economics. A kind of politics of the pitchfork. The political theorist Cory Robin had defined conservatism as the maintenance of traditional hierarchy. The psychologist John Jost had shown the striking overlap between ideological conservatism and “social dominance orientation”. And Johnathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory had long shown the striking appeal of “purity”- gays, Mexicans, women’s bodily functions and socialists (God forbid female, gay, undocumented Latinas…) all posed a threat to the purity of an imagined America that had never really existed but in the conservative imagination. The promise of a better yesterday- of dominance, greatness, glory restored- resonated. Every man a little Napoleon but with a baseball cap begging God to Make America Great Again.

The non-Trump vote was fractured into a multitude of pieces. A hard-charging finish and Rubio could finish second, putting an end to the optimistic challenge of Governor John Kasich and put a pillow over the head of Jeb Bush with his multimillion-dollar warchest. The candidate of the future would hold aloft one of the two heads of the Bush-Clinton hydra of the politics of the past. What he could do in the primary, he would do to Clinton in the general election.

The result? Fifth place with ten percent of the vote. Trump and Bernie scoring expected victories. The spectre of a socialist and a fascist stalks the boardrooms of corporate America still. What happened? Many will blame the Rubiobot 2000 who repeated the same line in the GOP debate over and over again amid much glee from the commentariat. However, the truth is probably more prosaic than that. The political scientists Donald Green and Alan Gerber have shown in experiment after experiment that in-person contact is the best way to persuade voters and turn them out to vote. Direct mail, TV advertising, yard signs all matter, but not nearly to the same extent as in-person contact. With Governor Kasich and Governor Bush well funded and having months to concentrate on their ground games, Rubio never established the same network to reach voters and get them to the polling station. In an open primary, independents were courted by Kasich’s savvy campaign manager, John Weaver, in their droves. The man who helmed John McCain’s comeback in the “Live Free or Die” state in 2008 knew his way around this particular block. Rubio had a chance to build an organisation and clear the establishment lane to take on Cruz and Trump, who would be battling over many of the same voters. Instead, Kasich will eye Nevada and Bush will stand and fight in South Carolina. Neither has a realistic shot at winning the nomination, but they can hand the race to Trump or allow Cruz to try and scramble together enough votes to come up the middle.

So what now for Rubio and the GOP’s establishment class? He needs to finish what he should have ended in New Hampshire. As the first two states move into the rear view mirror, contests start coming quicker and in greater numbers. The building of a volunteer base and careful GOTV efforts become more like repairing an airplane while it is flying. Operations tend to be inherited from politicians from those states rather than built from scratch. Demographics, message and machinery will start towing the candidates along in their wake. Donald Trump’s message resonates strongly with roughly a third of the Republican electorate. He is no one’s second choice and some of his voters show up in the polls but not in the polling booth. How many ways can the other candidates divide up the rest of the pie? Rubio has two of the most sought-after endorsements in South Carolina in Benghazi committee chairman Trey Gowdy and freshman Senator Tim Scott. Governor Nikki Haley has flirted with an endorsement without showing her hand. His campaign team are veterans of South Carolina’s political dark arts. Rubio needs to beat Jeb Bush by such a margin that the establishment stops writing cheques to Bush’s SuperPac and put all of their chips on Marco. Nevada’s Hispanic community and pro-choice Hispanic Governor Sandoval might well lean towards a Rubio candidacy but Nevada will demand a ground game that will show the big donors that Gov Kasich needs to put party first and think of a Vice-Presidential slot as a possible reward.

The book most often cited by my fellow political scientists when issuing strictures to the rent-a-quotes talking up the “game changing” nature of whatever happened that day is “The Party Decides”, a fascinating look at previous nominating contests and the factors that helped decide them. The authors make the claim that the candidate who wins the “invisible primary” of party poohbahs and business bigwigs tends to win out in the end. And the logic makes good sense: endorsements are both cause and effect of a candidate’s strength. Everyone wants to back a winner and curry favor with the next President, and those lists of emails and volunteers sure do help “get out the vote” when election day finally arrives. For those struggling to decide between candidates, a high-profile endorsement may well help tip the balance. And raising money is both a statement of viability and intent, and also serves the more practical necessity of helping to blanket states in ads, build up local state infrastructures, and pay staffers.

But the obvious rejoinder to this “insiders win” narrative is “what if this time is different?” Does the 1976 tilt between President Ford and Ronald Reagan shed much light on whether a self-funding Trump can surf by on high name I.D. and a knack for living out Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about”? Does a world where Citizens United has seen the strengthening of the hand of a few conservative oligarchs reinforce the insider narrative? Or is it counterbalanced by the power of grassroots funding through the internet? Does “the party decide”? Or, to name check another classic political science tome, does ”the message matter”?

The answer clearly is that a dual-analysis, which looks at the medium-term politics as well as long-term indicators of strength, gives us greater clarity in determining who is likely to survive the demolition derby and face off against the Democratic nominee in November 2016.

Bush sprinted out to an early lead in establishment endorsements and built up a formidable war chest for his SuperPac, but Rubio has now edged ahead of Bush’s endorsement list and Bush spent money like Imelda Marcos in Hew Hampshire to secure his fourth place finish. But if Congressmen, donors and prominent opinion-leaders cohere behind Rubio with their money, their endorsements and their email lists, Rubio will have an advantage in every subsequent state that will be hard for Cruz and Trump to overturn with only the megaphone of free media and sporadic activists. If elected officials across America run to Rubio to maintain their influence, their jobs, and seek political favour, Team Rubio would inherit a Get Out the Vote operation that Cruz and Trump lack with clear aim at a winning coalition of Republican voters more numerous than those within reach of Cruz and Trump. If Trump has a hard support for about a third of the Republican primary electorate across most states, Rubio needs only edge out Ted Cruz for the remaining two-thirds of the voter universe. This might be harder as the race cascades through the so-called ”SEC primaries” (named after the college athletic conference featuring schools in the Deep South) as Cruz’s appeal to evangelical Christians finds his message falling on fertile soil. However, as the race swings through Rubio’s home state of Florida and on towards the Mid-west and more moderate states, voters’ concerns are more likely to center on electoral viability than Cruz’s brand of fire and brimstone. With each state boasting its own rules in assigning delegates to candidates, any race in which Rubio prevails will last until at least May and possibly onto a brokered convention. Party rules, political chicanery and relationships will become the currency of power.

With Bush and Kasich out of the race, the establishment can still beat back the revolutionary forces that still threaten to overwhelm them. The only problem? Trump might still get enough delegates to give a speech in primetime at the GOP convention. Trump is not just their primary concern, he is a worry in the general. Heavy wears the crown.


Simon Radford is a Provost’s Fellow at the University of Southern California and a political consultant. He has worked on campaigns in the U.K. and U.S. and has commented on U.S. elections for GQ, the Sunday Times and other publications.