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The Woes of the GOP “Establishment”

The time for consolidating the "establishment" vote was weeks or months ago, not weeks or months from now.
john kasich

Matt Purple looks ahead to the rest of the February contests and concludes that Trump is still the favorite to win:

Trump leads in New Hampshire, the moderate state. He leads in South Carolina, the establishment state. He leads in Nevada, the libertarian state. His margins in those places are not narrow.

If someone told you that the national front-runner lost narrowly in Iowa, but had commanding leads in almost every state that votes over the next six weeks, you would assume that this was the candidate in the strongest position to win the nomination. That remains true this year, and the fact that the candidate is Trump doesn’t change that. As Sam Stein pointed out in his analysis of last night’s results, the “establishment” suffered a resounding repudiation:

Collectively, [Carson’s], Cruz’s and Trump’s totals suggest that a huge swath of Republican primary voters are committed to supporting either a Washington outsider or the most hated man who currently works there.

If you add in Paul’s 4.5%, over 65% of voters last night chose an “outsider” candidate or one that party leaders cannot stand. Rubio’s 23% was higher than expected, but as a measure of support for a candidate favored by party leaders it is the weakest showing for the top “establishment” candidate in Iowa in decades. In New Hampshire, support for the “outsiders” and insurgents still accounts for half of the electorate. In South Carolina, that figure shoots back up to 66%. These are not electorates that are going to be satisfied with what the “establishment” candidates have to offer. Even if Trump loses some ground in the coming weeks, “establishment” candidates aren’t likely to be the ones that benefit. Since a large part of Trump’s support comes from moderate Republicans, it probably doesn’t hurt him that much that he didn’t prevail in a heavily evangelical caucus state.

The “establishment” vote seems likely to remain divided for a while because Kasich and Bush are very likely hanging on until they get to the Ohio and Florida primaries in mid-March. Assuming that they will be pressured or will feel obligated to step aside credits party leaders with cunning and coordination that they have completely failed to show for the last year. It will be even harder to persuade Kasich to drop out if he finishes ahead of Rubio in New Hampshire, and that is likely still what happens next week. Even if that vote doesn’t remain divided, there isn’t enough of it across most of the South to make much of a difference. As Diehl pointed out in the article I referred to yesterday, the total “establishment” vote in the “SEC primary” states is swamped by support for the insurgent and “outsider” candidates. Here he uses Georgia as an example:

Georgia, a winners-take-most state with a 20 percent threshold, illustrates the formidable obstacles the establishment candidates face. A CBS News/YouGov poll conducted in mid-January shows the outsiders taking 76 percent of the vote while the four insiders combined take just 19 percent. Rubio leads the insiders with 13 percent, trailing Trump by 26 points. Only Trump, with 39 percent, and Cruz, with 29 percent, would qualify for delegates, splitting the state’s 76 delegates between them. So far, none of the establishment candidates are close to meeting Georgia’s 20 percent threshold.

Supposing that the “establishment” vote finally does unite behind a candidate by mid-March, Diehl points out that it will probably be too late:

On March 15, the primary schedule shifts to more moderate states that are friendlier to the insiders. But by then, almost half of the national convention delegates, and more than 90 percent of the delegates required to nominate, will have already been chosen.

The time for consolidating the “establishment” vote was weeks or months ago, not weeks or months from now. If it happens, it probably won’t stop Trump and Cruz from dominating Super Tuesday, and by then the “establishment” will have run out of time.