The GOP nomination contest is starting to settle in to a four-man contest, each of the four having a legitimate argument to being the most-plausible nominee. The four candidates being:
- Donald Trump. He’s the leader in most polls nationally and in most early states, and has been for an extended period of time. He’s seen by most Republicans as the toughest candidate with the strongest leadership qualities. He’s not a factional candidate, drawing support from across the ideological spectrum within the GOP. And he’s fully capable both of self-financing a primary campaign and of raising a respectable amount of money if needed both from small donors and from his business associates. On the other hand, he’s a political neophyte who appears to know and care next to nothing about policy. He delights in offending people. He’s loathed by essentially the entire professional leadership of the GOP, and has high negatives generally with Republicans for someone in such a strong polling position.
- Ben Carson. He’s either first or second in nearly all recent polls both nationally and in every early primary or caucus, and his poll position has been rising. He’s raised an impressive amount of money – more than any other candidate has raised in direct campaign funds (he has essentially no support from super-PACs). He’s got the highest favorable ratings of any candidate in the race, and the more Republicans hear about him the more they seem to like him. On the other hand, not only is he a political neophyte who appears to know and care next to nothing about policy, he often sounds like a true crank – or worse. He’s also got essentially no elite support from either party professionals or major donors, and he’s something of a factional candidate, drawing his strongest support from very conservative and evangelical voters. And while he’s rising rapidly in the polls, his supporters are relatively weakly attached, compared to some other candidates’ voters, particularly Trump and Cruz.
- Marco Rubio. He’s polling third in recent national polls and in most early states. He’s raised a very respectable amount of money both directly for his campaign and from super-PACs (placing fourth in the former and third in the latter). He is acceptably orthodox and can readily win the approval of both professional Republican elites and major donors. He has clearly won the media primary – his coverage is vastly more flattering than the other “normal” Republican candidates like Christie or Kasich, to say nothing of the hapless Jeb Bush. He’s the only establishment-friendly candidate with any kind of positive momentum. And he hasn’t yet made any serious mistakes. On the other hand, he has not had any notable successes, either as a legislator (he has basically no record of accomplishment) or as a campaigner (he’s a Republican Obama who has never given a notable speech or taken a notable stand). The argument for a Rubio candidacy is basically that he’ll be the last acceptable man standing.
- Ted Cruz. He’s polling fourth or fifth nationally, third or fourth in Iowa, and fourth on average in South Carolina. He’s been an exceptionally impressive fundraiser, placing second in both the direct money race and the super-PAC race. He has run an exceptionally disciplined campaign and has, like Rubio, made no notable mistakes. And he is the best-positioned candidate to win the support of either Trump or Carson supporters should either of those candidates lose momentum, both because of his strong evangelical support and his strong opposition to the GOP establishment. On the other hand, he is positively loathed by that establishment. More important, while he’s not really a factional candidate, he’s more than just an outsider running against Washington – his entire brand is that he is an extremist. And he’s an extremist neophyte with no record of accomplishment.
I no longer consider Jeb Bush as one of the top-tier candidates. His direct fundraising for his campaign has been dismal. He’s been dropping in the polls for months, to the point where he’s now basically fighting with Carly Fiorina for fifth place. He’s got no message. He’s a terrible campaigner. The media mocks him. Conservatives don’t trust him. Nobody is excited about him – not even him. And his last name is Bush. I’m clearly surprised that it’s come to this, since I thought he really had the pole position right from the start. He came into this campaign in a stronger position than John McCain did in 2008 or John Kerry did in 2004, and has performed vastly worse. It’s getting harder and harder to see how he recovers to win this thing.
I also don’t think Carly Fiorina is a serious contender. She failed to capitalize in any important way on the rave reviews she earned for her two debate performances. She’s another orthodox Republican, but without the resources of any of the top four contenders, and she’s an outsider without the distinctive appeal of Trump or Carson, and without a record of achievement outside of politics that she can actually run on. As for the remaining contenders, none of them have anything going for them at this point – not popular support, not elite support, not money. The only ones with somewhat distinctive message and positioning are Rand Paul and John Kasich, and their distinctive positions – relative dovishness for Paul and relatively moderate views on budgetary and economic questions for Kasich – are precisely what make them least-attractive to both elites and the grassroots this season.
We’ll see whether tonight’s debate shifts the ground at all. I don’t expect it to. I think Daniel Larison is probably right that the most-likely points of conflict are going to be attacks on Rubio for not lowering the top tax rate enough, attacks on Trump for not supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and attacks on Congress for agreeing to raise the debt ceiling. The first might hurt Rubio, but to whose benefit? It’s unlikely to be Bush’s. Possibly Fiorina’s. The second will likely only help Trump. And the last is pitched right over the plate for Ted Cruz. Kasich will probably make a hail-Mary appeal for economic moderation, and Paul may possibly make a similar appeal for libertarian ideological consistency, but I wouldn’t expect either strategy to move the needle materially for either candidate. Bush might attack Rubio for his inexperience, and tout his own record as governor, in an effort to wound the candidate most-likely to inherit his support if he continues to fall. But that will likely either backfire and help Rubio or will hurt both of them.
So if the ground shifts, I’d expect it to shift modestly in Cruz’s direction if anywhere. He won’t attack Trump on trade, and he’s in the best position to benefit from attacks on Congress for raising the debt ceiling, or from any other events that wound either Trump or Carson. So the top four will still be those above, with the rest of the field running out of time to change the game.