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GOP Voters Deliberately Set The Party On Fire

Graphic by Tim Markatos

Daniel Larison has a bunch of explanations for Michael Brendan Dougherty as to how the GOP primaries wrecked so many promising political careers.

  • “Republican pundits and activists keep lowering the standards for acceptable presidential candidates, and . . . the same people consistently exaggerate and oversell the abilities and qualifications of the party’s latest group of new political leaders.”
  • “[W]e shouldn’t forget the candidates’ own significant weaknesses when accounting for their failure . . . Did Jindal do so poorly because the field was too large or because he had presided over a fiscal disaster in his home state? Rubio wasn’t ready to be president, and it showed during a campaign he should never have run.”
  • “Another factor that often gets overlooked in all this is the influence of the conservative media in creating an imaginary political landscape in which Obama is perceived as a deeply unpopular failure.”

The problem with these explanations for why so many candidates failed is that they don’t account for why the three candidates who remain are still in the race. Trump and Cruz, after all, are significantly less qualified and have significantly poorer abilities by most traditional metrics than the vast majority of the candidates they defeated, and are also the most over-the-top in their opposition to everything President Obama has done. Dougherty complains that for candidates like Huntsman and Perry “[o]ne branding problem or a bad debate becomes unfixable.” But Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have vastly worse branding problems. And let’s not even talk about the debates.

Instead, let’s talk about John Kasich. He’s a (relatively) moderate, non-insane candidate. He’s got perfectly respectable traditional qualifications for high office. And he hasn’t won much of anything, nor does he have much of a prospect of winning. Why is he still around, while Scott Walker and Rick Perry, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, all had to quit?

The main thing that distinguishes Kasich from all the people who have been driven from the field is that his candidacy has almost no support from the institutional Republican party, and never had it.

That’s it.

In 2012, the institutional Republican Party united behind Mitt Romney really early, and still struggled to push him over the finish line against largely ridiculous opposition. In 2016, the institutional Republican Party failed to unite behind anyone – and basically everyone to whom the party showed the slightest sign of favor went up in flames. The two remaining viable candidates are the two individuals who ran explicitly against the institutional party, and the also-ran candidate is someone the institutional party would find acceptable, but for one reason or another either ignored or treated as a joke.

The GOP’s problem is not fundamentally that too many more-or-less qualified candidates wanted to be President. That was not a problem for the Democrats in 1988 or 1992, after all. It’s that most of them thought the way to become President was to run for the Republican nomination. They didn’t understand that to have a chance with the Republican electorate, they first had to create their own, independent brand, and then run against the Republican Party.

Michael Brendan Dougherty suggests an “instant runoff” system as a solution to the GOP’s problems. But such a system, implemented in Iowa, would have left the top 3 finishers as Trump, Cruz and Rubio – exactly the three who actually finished on top there. Implemented in New Hampshire, it would have padded Trump’s plurality (I expect at least some Carson and Christie voters would have chosen Trump second). Beyond that, who knows? Would Fiorina voters in New Hampshire have picked Bush second? Or Rubio? Or Cruz? Does it matter? She dropped out anyway.

Since last September, well before voting began, a majority of GOP voters preferred the most-unacceptable candidates: Trump, Cruz and Carson. Since the voting began, that trio has earned a majority of the votes in essentially every contest. Not a plurality – a majority. No change in the voting system can make that majority preference go away.

As for simply banning unacceptable candidates from running – how exactly would that work?

When Reihan Salam suggested something similar back in September of last year, I said:

The evidence of the last few cycles is that the GOP’s voters deeply distrust the leadership. The evidence of the response of many insiders to this most recent cycle is that the distrust is mutual. If you want to solve that problem, you probably shouldn’t start by institutionalizing it.

Still true.

[UPDATE: I may have gotten a bit jumbled in my own head as to which arguments were Larison’s and which were Dougherty’s. Larison argues that the conservative echo chamber hatred of Obama may be responsible for Trump and Cruz’s success, for example, as well as for the overpopulation of the primary. My apologies for getting that mixed up.]

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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