Home/Daniel Larison/Why Are Trump and Carson Winning?

Why Are Trump and Carson Winning?

Michael Brendan Dougherty tells Republican elites to wake up and recognize that Trump and Carson really are winning at this point:

If we take polls at all seriously — and in the age of Nate Silver, I think we do — then Rubio and Bush are in a squabble over the Republican copy machine, while Trump is executing a hostile takeover of the corporation. Trump leads Carson in polling averages in Iowa by a hair. He leads by double digits in New Hampshire. This is real.

As I’ve said before, many pundits and party elites keep insisting that someone besides the two leading candidates will end up winning because they can’t fathom that their party would choose either of them. That’s not the Republican Party they recognize, and it’s not one that they want, and so they keep telling themselves that it can’t be true. Once you dismiss the views of half of the primary electorate as irrelevant, it gets much easier to come up with a plausible case for whichever conventional candidate you happen to like.

If Trump and Carson were only leading in polls, but had no other advantages, it would make sense to continue to doubt their chances, but they have other advantages in addition to that. Trump is reportedly building an extensive campaign organization in the early states, and Carson’s fundraising has been much higher than the others. Even if we assume that Carson is just running a campaign for the money-making opportunities it provides, he is pulling in donations by the tens of millions that the other candidates aren’t getting, and he has a devoted following among social conservatives that may still turn out for him in large numbers even though he isn’t taking the campaign all that seriously. The case that Trump will fade away or quit has been based on the assumptions that Trump was always playing a joke on everyone or that he would get bored once he had to work harder to compete. If neither of those is right, what exactly is going to drive his supporters to another candidate at this point? Everything that makes Trump unacceptable to many Republicans–the pomposity, the rhetorical excess, the policy ignorance–is what keeps him afloat with his core supporters.

Populism in the GOP has always been something that canny Republican politicians indulge in rhetorically while having no intention of delivering on any of it. Whenever there was any danger that anything like a real populist might do well, party leaders had been able to nip it in the bud, but that no longer seems to be the case. The last decade and a half have shown a great many Republican voters that their leaders are either useless or actively hostile to their interests, and it appears that at least half of them aren’t content to settle for a conventional candidate with a movement-approved agenda. They put their trust in candidates approved by party leaders for at least the last four elections, and they were rewarded with the disasters of the Bush era and the failed McCain and Romney campaigns. It wouldn’t be entirely shocking if most Republicans chose to back the candidates that the party leaders absolutely don’t want.

It’s possible that a conventional candidate could still win enough support to stop either Trump or Carson, but it seems unlikely that any of them will be able to beat both of them consistently. What should be troubling to the party elites is that their preferred candidates are losing badly right now, and it hasn’t taken that much effort on the part of the leading candidates. One reason for this is that there are simply too many conventional candidates, and too few of them are willing to admit that their campaigns are going nowhere. Walker’s plea to the other candidates to drop out and form a united front against Trump has been completely ignored, because none of them can quite believe that Trump’s support is real and lasting. I admit that it took me a long time to accept this, too, but it’s hard to miss at this point. Bush, Rubio, and Cruz are all operating on the assumption that the real contest is among them, and so each one plans for how he will beat the other two while ignoring the candidates that dominate the race. It’s as if we’re watching a repeat of the squabbling anti-Romney candidates, but with the difference that the candidates that party elites prefer are the ones fighting over a small fraction of the party while the “outsider” candidates steal the show. Like the anti-Romney candidates before them, the politicians this time assume that the nomination will inevitably go to one of them because it has to, but so far the voters aren’t playing along.

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.

leave a comment

Latest Articles