photo by Gage Skidmore
Like a lot of business-oriented Republicans, I never thought Donald Trump had much of a chance of winning the party’s nomination.
Even before he launched his campaign with a ridiculous monologue branding illegal Mexican migrants as “rapists,” his Obama-birther background, his checkered financial history and his persona as a showman (a goofy one, at least in my eyes) seemed to assure him a role as this year’s comic relief in a largely dour field.
Sure, he had his fame and his fans, which assured him a pretty fast start for a political novice. The Trumpeters put a floor under his poll numbers, but the same things that attracted his core supporters were going to turn off everyone else. Trump could lead with 20 percent of the Republican vote in a field of 17 candidates, but once the field narrowed to two or three, the same 20 percent – or even 30 or 35 percent – would make him a guaranteed loser.
Or so I thought. And I was not alone.
But since those first Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, only three candidates in both parties have consistently outperformed expectations. Bernie Sanders, who fights on against Hillary Clinton, is one. But his only chance of being the Democratic nominee is if something dramatic and awful, like a health crisis or an indictment, happens to Clinton before their party’s convention. Neither is likely, and the first, at least, is something I would never wish on Clinton or anyone else.
The second overachiever is Ted Cruz. He started deep in the party’s social conservative base, a niche that has led nowhere for past candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, both of whom were also in this year’s early field. Cruz also had to compete in that space with mild-mannered, soon-to-be-parodied Dr. Ben Carson. The Texan had his small set of fans, but a large part of the party establishment loathed him (as they still do). Yet he has run a smart, data-driven, generally well-targeted campaign. Along with John Kasich – whose chance of actually getting nominated disappeared long ago – Cruz remains in the field, while everyone else but Trump is gone.
And then there is Trump, the biggest surprise of all. As the field narrowed, his ceiling crept higher. Still, lots of people – including Cruz and Kasich – felt Trump would lose in a head-to-head fight with one “real” Republican. He was still getting fewer than half the GOP primary votes. That, however, was before New York.
Trump blew through the ceiling in New York two weeks ago, in a primary that was not open to non-Republicans. So much for the theory that his success depended on unaffiliated, typically disinterested voters, or on white working-class Democrats crossing party lines.
And then he did it again this week – five times, in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Rhode Island has an odd system in which unaffiliated voters, but not registered Democrats, were free to vote for Trump; the others were limited to registered Republicans. It did not make a difference. And Trump not only won, but vastly outperformed the pre-primary polls in Pennsylvania, whose western neighbor, Ohio, is Kasich’s home state and the only one he has carried all year.
Cruz and Kasich came out last Sunday with a much-ballyhooed statement saying they would collaborate to stop Trump. Kasich would stop campaigning in Indiana to give Cruz a better shot against Trump in that state’s primary next week. Cruz would back off from campaigning in New Mexico and in Oregon, where early primary voting is already underway, to give Kasich better odds in those states. A big Trump win in Indiana will pretty much turn out the lights in both of his rivals’ campaigns.
Whether or not this alliance could make much of a difference is open to debate. But the prospects do not look great when, less than a week into their agreement, it has already shown signs of internal strain. Meanwhile, in a bid to boost his chances, Cruz has taken the unusual step of announcing a running mate, tapping Carly Fiorina for the position yesterday.
Policies, principles and personality all are important in political campaigns. A lot of Republicans, myself included, may believe Trump falls short of the goal for a prospective president in all three areas. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the most important factor in an election is votes. In that area, Trump has thus far been exactly what he claimed to be: a winner.
Trump broke through the ceiling that I once was certain would hold him down. The next few months will show us how high he might rise. Given how much most Republicans loathe Clinton, and considering Trump’s track record in persuading a larger share of the party’s voters to back him, it may be higher than today’s polls would lead us to believe. Underestimating Trump has thus far been a strategy for losers.