The GOP Is Still in Denial About Donald Trump — and Ted Cruz, Too

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GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Holds SC Primary Night Party In Spartanburg
Photo: Spencer Platt/2016 Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Trump’s victory in South Carolina, Jeb Bush’s exit, and the results of the Nevada Democratic caucus.

After Donald Trump’s victory in South Carolina, the GOP Establishment is left with what some political reporters have called “an urgent decision: Either destroy Mr. Trump or embrace him.” At this point, which is the bigger challenge?
Far and away the Establishment’s bigger challenge is to destroy Trump. In the aftermath of South Carolina, that seems less likely than ever, and the magical thinking of the stop-Trump forces reeks of desperation.

The conventional wisdom about taking him down can be found, as usual, in the Times Upshot column, which has segued from its early predictions of Trump’s rapid demise to the scenario by which he will be vanquished by Marco Rubio. Under its theory of the case, as outlined after the South Carolina results came in, “it is hard to overstate how important Mr. Bush’s departure is to Mr. Rubio” because Bush’s exit will bring “a flood of endorsements and donations” to Rubio. And better still, Trump will soon lose his advantage of running against a divided Republican field. Really?

If we’ve learned anything from the Trump ascendancy — and to some extent from the Bernie Sanders movement — it’s that in 2016 neither endorsements nor big-donor money mean what they once did. Trump has had neither of these assets, and Bush had both, and we see how that turned out. Jeb’s “shock and awe” political campaign was no more successful at vanquishing his adversaries in a presidential election than his brother’s “shock and awe” bombing campaign succeeded in pacifying Iraq. Why would a new deployment of big-name endorsements and big-ticket donations work better for Rubio than Jeb? Rubio had the most prized endorsement in South Carolina, the one Jeb most wanted, the governor, Nikki Haley, yet neither Haley’s vocal support (nor that of two other popular South Carolina Republicans, Senator Tim Scott and Representative Trey Gowdy) could elevate him above a (barely) second-place showing, 10 percentage points behind the front-runner.  

And while Bush may be gone, Trump is still running against a divided field. Anyone who thinks Ted Cruz is going to get out any time soon is in denial. This is a guy who shut down the government despite the pleading of his own fellow Republicans in the Senate and who indeed basks in the hatred of his peers in the GOP. He has the fattest war chest in the race, and he’s certainly not going to back down now. Kasich also has an incentive to stay in, at least until his home state of Ohio holds its primary on March 15. And Carson — well, he is on record saying this race is just finishing its first inning. Even in the unlikely event any of them were to drop out soon, the assumption that their votes would automatically go to Rubio is, as Trump himself has said, highly dubious. As the South Carolina exit polls showed, Trump had far and away the broadest base of support in the Republican electorate in South Carolina, which as much as any is representative of the national GOP voting pool. It’s entirely possible that he would pick up a decent share of Cruz and Carson voters and even some Bush and Kasich voters if any of them were to depart. The Times is reporting that even some big Bush donors are already flirting with shifting to Trump.

Other theories of how Trump might be vanquished are equally suspect. Much is made of the fact that he has a ceiling in his appeal among Republicans, since he wins or places in primaries with pluralities that are well under 40 percent against that divided field. But the same might have been said of Mitt Romney when he faced a divided field four years ago. In Iowa, Romney got 24.6 percent of the caucus vote; Trump got 24.3 percent. In New Hampshire, Romney slightly outperformed Trump — 39.3 percent versus 35.3 percent — but New Hampshire was a state where Romney had a home. In South Carolina, Trump’s 32.5 percent well exceeded Romney, who received 27.8 percent of the vote and lost to Newt Gingrich.

The conviction in some quarters that Rubio can somehow overcome all this and save the GOP from Trump remains a mystery to me. On paper, it’s easy to see why Rubio is the only contender with a real shot at beating Trump: The numbers show that he draws his support from a wider swath of the party than Cruz and the other non-Trumps do. But that’s only on paper. As Trump might say, winning requires actual winning. Rubio has yet to win a primary (though he may hold the record for making victory speeches after primary defeats). He has yet to dominate a debate (except by melting down in one). He has yet to reveal any substance beyond glib sound bites and empty boasts of foreign-policy experience. If he can be bullied into incoherence by Chris Christie, why should anyone expect him to be more successful in facing down the full artillery fire of Trump? It’s telling that when Rubio arrived at the site of the next Republican contest, Nevada, Sunday night, he didn’t “mention or refer to front-runner Donald Trump even once” in a 34-minute stump speech, according to the political reporter of The Wall Street Journal, Reid J. Epstein. One can already imagine the excruciating debate moments when Trump repeatedly hits Rubio on his propensity for sweating, much as he clobbered Bush on his “low energy.”

It’s hard to imagine how Rubio can turn this around in a timely fashion. He’s almost certain to lose to Trump in Nevada on Tuesday, despite the fact that Rubio lived there as a child. And, according to David Lightman of McClatchy, Rubio is ahead in the polls in only one of the 11 Super Tuesday states voting on March 1. The clock is ticking fast. By the end of March 15, when Rubio’s home state of Florida votes, about 60 percent of the GOP delegates will have been awarded. Florida is also a Trump home state, one might add, and that could be Rubio’s Waterloo.

Obviously more than a few Republican hands have their own doubts about Rubio’s supposed path to victory, which is why Rudy Giuliani, Bob Dole, and the like have been toying with embracing Trump. The latest example of such a surrender is the longtime Bush family hand Nicolle Wallace. On MSNBC Saturday night, she called Trump “political chemo” for her party because “he is the only cure for the cancer” of the “Washington Establishment.” If Wallace, once George W. Bush’s White House communications director, is sidling up to Trump now that Jeb is gone, and incongruously trash-talking the very Washington Establishment of which she’s an archetypal example, it’s safe to assume that others in her camp are getting ready to jump on the Trump bandwagon as well, however opportunistically or cynically.

Jeb Bush’s campaign was predicated on a grave misreading by the Republican Establishment of what party voters would want. Hardly had Bush left the race before reports began to circulate of a Mitt Romney endorsement for Rubio. Would the endorsement of an Establishment figure like Romney bring Rubio any voters who aren’t already in his camp?
The answer is no, but I’d argue further that a Romney endorsement, should it happen, is a negative for Rubio. Republican primary voters look at Mitt and they see a squishy moderate who is everything they despise about Jeb (we can retire the exclamation point now) — and more: a Wall Street plutocrat who lost what the party’s base saw as an easy race against President Obama. Both Cruz and Trump will chomp at the bit to use a Romney endorsement to throw Rubio on the defensive at the next debate. And how long will it take for Trump to put up a commercial showing the Romneys kissing his ring in Vegas when Mitt came calling for his endorsement in 2012? Trump would have as much fun with this as he did with the Clintons’ command appearance at his last wedding.

Some observers are attributing Bernie Sanders’s loss in Nevada to his inability to tailor his message for the first caucus state with a strong minority population and a mix of urban and rural areas. Will we see him begin to alter his approach and try to expand his support?
In the final countdown to the Nevada vote, Sanders was already trying to expand his support — both by highlighting his own history with the civil-rights movement and addressing specific issues of high priority to African-Americans and Hispanics in the Democratic base. Without significant breakthroughs in those constituencies, who account for ever-larger swaths of the electorate in the primary states to come, there’s no way he can derail Hillary Clinton. Sanders’s Nevada loss — though not by anything like the landslide amount that Clinton forces once predicted — raises the question of whether his broadened focus might be too little, too late.

Clinton supporters are right to believe that their candidate remains the overwhelming favorite to win her party’s nomination, her New Hampshire setback notwithstanding. Her Nevada victory stanched the bleeding. But what should alarm Democrats is that the turnout at the Nevada caucuses dropped roughly a third from 2008. Democratic turnout could drop further if the devoted cadres who feel the Bern end up curbing their enthusiasm for a Hillary ticket in November. Though Hillary Clinton is in every way a superior candidate to Jeb Bush, she shares with him an inability to articulate a central message that will make her campaign a clarion call to the future rather than a nostalgia tour of her party’s past. 

GOP Is in Denial About Trump — and Cruz, Too