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2016 and the “Deep” Republican Bench

Michael Brendan Dougherty outlines the GOP’s “nightmare scenario” in which Trump and Carson remain the dominant candidates. He starts off by saying this:

We were told for years that in the 2016 presidential election, the Republican Party would boast its deepest bench in generations. A strong and growing core of accomplished governors and free-thinking Republican senators was going to revive the party for a post-Obama America. The GOP would rise again.

So much for all that.

One thing that the “deep bench” of candidates didn’t anticipate was that the Republican primary electorate wasn’t going to be satisfied with the usual “three-legged stool” conventional pieties that most Republican politicians have learned to recite. The 2016 race should have been an embarrassment of riches for conservative voters if they still believed that the GOP and movement conservatism were going to deliver anything for them, but many of them understandably became disillusioned after being led on for so many years without tangible results. Add to this the uncanny ability of movement conservative pundits to tout candidates that most Republican voters aren’t interested in, and you have a recipe for a very unpredictable primary season.

The idea that the GOP had a very deep bench for its 2016 nominating contest wasn’t completely wrong. By most conventional measures, it seemed that the very large Republican field would include many candidates that the primary voters could support. Even so, partisans overlooked the fact that every field of candidates appears much weaker in reality than it does when it is considered in the abstract. Even the “deepest bench” in decades is not as impressive as most people imagine, and so it was with this one. The GOP had lots of candidates that seemed to look good “on paper,” but when they were subjected to closer scrutiny they were usually much more underwhelming.

Most observers failed to anticipate just how averse so many voters would be to supporting conventional candidates, but by now it’s clear that most Republican voters prefer candidates that their party leaders can’t stand. The most recent national poll shows that support for Trump, Carson, and Cruz accounts for 64% of the Republican electorate. The remaining third of the party is divvied up at least six ways, and the “strongest” candidate of the bunch registers just 9% support. The candidates that movement conservative pundits think should win are almost certainly incapable of winning, and the candidates that most party elites desperately want to win seem to have no chance. It’s not just that they have backed the wrong candidates. By embracing their preferred candidates, they have made them much less appealing.

Some of this is certainly an overdue and necessary correction to (at least) the last fifteen years in Republican politics. The GOP has nominated three men since 2000, and conservatives had good reason to doubt all of them. One of them was a catastrophic failure, two of them were deeply distrusted even when they won the nomination, and those two lost the general election. Given all that, it makes sense that most Republicans would be inclined to favor candidates that displeased party leaders. Some of what we’re seeing now is also an increasing hostility to Washington and to Republican leadership during the Obama years. Republican voters were foolishly promised a win in 2012 that wasn’t likely to happen, and they were promised that victories in 2010 and 2014 would lead to significant changes that party leaders had to know weren’t forthcoming. Following all of this, Republican voters have remarkably little trust in their leaders, and so whichever candidates the leaders prefer are the ones that most voters will shun. Having been told that McCain and Romney should be chosen because of their “electability,” and having been told that Romney was sure to win, Republican voters are reasonably more skeptical when party leaders start lecturing them on which candidates can and can’t win a general election. The rest seems to be part of a secular trend in many Western countries that rejects what established political leadership wants. The failed and discredited leaders of the GOP are being judged, and Trump and Carson are their punishment. It is a judgment that has been a long time coming, and it is well-deserved, but it will also probably mean near-certain Republican defeat a year from now.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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