A Pundit's Lament

Hardly alone among pundits, I assumed there was an insider/establishment track and an outsider/insurgent track in the Republican presidential race, and that whomever prevailed in each would face off against one another to determine the eventual nominee.

However, because Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker seemed uniquely equipped to straddle both wings of the party, the first of many wrong predictions I’ve made regarding the 2016 campaign was that Walker would emerge victorious. Instead, failing to gain nearly enough traction, he dropped out of the running in September. Whoops.

Undeterred, I charged ahead with the two-track theory, assuming the race would boil to down to Donald Trump (insurgent) versus Jeb Bush (establishment), or Marco Rubio (insider) versus Ben Carson (outsider), or insurgent Ted Cruz versus Ohio Governor John Kasich — or some combination thereof.

A month ago, I was predicting, albeit tentatively, that Trump and Rubio would be the final two, and that Rubio would win. Based partly on polling trends, but mostly intuition, I changed my mind two weeks later, concluding instead it would boil down to Cruz and Rubio –– again, with Rubio claiming the crown.  Neither scenario seems remotely likely today.    

Both predictions relied on the faulty premise that Marco Rubio's campaign is bound to take off sooner or later, once his fellow insiders begin dropping out of the race, and the GOP electorate wakes up to the electoral dangers inherent in a Trump or Cruz candidacy.

Nope. Wrong –– and wrong again.

Most of the so-called moderates have stayed in, and of those that have left — former New York Governor George Pataki and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham — neither endorsed Rubio nor had much support to direct his way even if they had. (Graham, who endorsed Jeb Bush, is an influential powerbroker in South Carolina, a key early state, so his influence is greater than his sub-one percent showing in the polls).

Rubio has thus plateaued at or just above ten points, and doesn't appear poised to win or even come close in any of the early contests. Meanwhile, none of the other establishment types have struck upon even a sliver of momentum. Their combined vote is well under half that of Cruz plus Trump. Bluntly, the votes just aren't there for the mainstream wing of the Republican Party this year.

Because I was wrong about the Rubio surge that never came, I made another bad call: that Trump and Cruz would lay off each other in the knowledge that their ultimate foe would be the Florida Senator.  The debate in North Charleston, SC, put paid to that, and was clarifying in more ways than one. Not only did we see the tentative beginnings of what has turned into full-blown hostilities between Trump and Cruz; we witnessed Rubio try changing lanes, forcing himself so far to the right it’s a miracle he didn’t topple off the stage. All three have surmised that the insider/outsider dichotomy doesn’t apply in 2016. The establishment track is a closed indefinitely for unspecified repairs.

Contention centres on Cruz's decision to attack Donald Trump's so-called "New York values", highlighting the property developer's past support for Democrats and tapping into antipathy towards The Big Apple among Republicans who live in what a New Yorker might unkindly call "flyover country". Such voters loathe the city’s rapacious financiers, media elites and liberal politics with equal ferocity.

Many hear anti-Semitic undertones in the phrase “New York values”, a plausible interpretation given Cruz's tendency to single out Jewish Democrats — Senators Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinsten in particular — as political punching bags. For a large swath of the most conservative primary voters, the words "Jewish", "Democrat" and "New York" are prone to appearing the same sentence with troubling frequency –– something that will not be lost on Cruz, a ruthless and precise rhetorical bomb-thrower.

Many of them residents of New York, the so-called ‘mainstream media’ believe Cruz over-stepped, and that Trump's judicious deployment of the 9/11 card in rebuttal means the issues has backfired on the Texas Senator. This, I fear, reflects the degree to which the political media doggedly fails to grasp the mood and mentality of the voters Cruz is talking to. He cares far less about being deemed an uncouth anti-Semite than winning the votes of those who are. Arguably the scuffle also helps Trump, since his proud defence of New York and its inhabitants could dilute media hostility towards him if (let’s face it: when) he becomes the nominee. This is not to say this latest stoush is without losers; you can count among them every other candidate who, yet again, has been shoved from the spotlight while Trump and Cruz trade jabs.

Voting in Iowa is now two weeks away, followed a week later by New Hampshire. It’s game on.  Reports are proliferating that GOP insiders are coming to terms with the increasingly unavoidable reality that the cavalry will be a no-show.  Not for the first time in the history of electoral politics, it has come down to a lesser of two narcissists – the erratic, gaffe-prone, twice-divorced Trump or the indisputably brilliant but deeply divisive Cruz.  Most seem to have settled on Trump as the safer bet–- and who on earth could have predicted that?