When exactly should political analysts take candidates seriously as legitimate contenders for the nomination? That question more or less answers itself when it comes to contenders such as Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and others who have never had as much as a polling burst, let alone a sustained amount of time with demonstrated significant support. It seems strange to argue against legitimacy for two candidates who have controlled about 50% of all polling respondents for months at a time, but National Journal’s well-respected analyst Charlie Cook does exactly that. He promises to eat crow if either Donald Trump or Ben Carson wins the GOP nomination:
Eight years ago, I declared that I would win the Tour de France before Rudy Giuliani won the Republican presidential nomination, even though he was sitting atop the polls. With Donald Trump and Ben Carson in mind, I am thinking such a proclamation might soon be in order again.
Thinking about the 2016 Republican presidential nomination has generally boiled down to two competing views. The first is that Trump and/or Carson, the consummate political outsiders, will remain at the top of the GOP field, with one or the other ending up as the nominee; the prospect makes some Republicans ecstatic and drives others into a near-clinical depression. The second view: While we certainly don’t know who the GOP nominee will be, we can feel reasonably assured that it won’t be one of those two. Adherents of this view see today’s Republican Party as behaving crazily but not actually insane. Things aren’t ever quite this simple, but in my view, this dichotomy is close enough.
Longtime readers of this column can guess I’m of the latter view, that conservatives’ serial infatuations four years ago with then-Rep. Michele Bachmann and pizza magnate Herman Cain, among others, foreshadowed this year’s unorthodox behavior. In 2012, in the end, Republicans behaved normally and nominated a highly conventional Mitt Romney. Yes, Trump has remained at the top of the polls for nearly six months, far longer than I and others have continuously predicted since before the Fourth of July.
All due respect to a man who’s done a tremendous amount of in-depth work over a very long period of time, but I think we’re looking at an apples-oranges comparison. Let’s take a look at the 90-day RCP averages during 2011 at this point to test Cook’s point:
In the 90-or-so-day period on 12/2/2011, there were four different candidates with sustained and significant support. Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich all had polling leads, and Mitt Romney was in second place to every one of them, with support ranging from 15-25%. Cook’s right that the 2011 cycle was marked by short-lived infatuations for people who were seen as the potential alternative to Romney. He barely shows up in this graph, but Rick Santorum got a similar burst right before Iowa, only to see that fade as well.
Is that analogous to this cycle? Here’s the RCP chart I posted earlier today, covering roughly the same period of time in 2015:
This looks very different from 2011. In that cycle, Mitt Romney was the Inevitable Next In Line candidate against which the other candidates were measured and eventually found wanting. This time, though, the actual next-in-line candidate (Santorum) doesn’t even register, and the Inevitable candidate (Jeb Bush) has long since disappeared into the single-digit soup. Support for Trump and Carson do not appear to be momentary infatuations at all. While Carson has tailed off a bit recently, the two leaders put together still control almost half of all polling respondents nationally. The next two candidates — Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — barely account for a quarter of polling respondents. And this is nine weeks out from Iowa and New Hampshire.
Why, then, should we assume as Cook does that there’s no chance that these months-long attachments won’t last another three months? I don’t mean to pick on Charlie, because he’s not the only one making those assumptions. So are the other Republicans in the race, none of whom are strategizing to defeat Trump or Carson. Cruz and Rubio are aiming at each other in the assumption that they will be atop the leaderboard when voters get serious, and Jeb Bush is aiming at Rubio to position himself for what his team assumes will be the inevitable fade of these candidates. Everyone else is taking aim at Hillary Clinton and hoping to get noticed.
It’s time to take this possibility seriously, both for analysts and for the GOP field. Otherwise, Charlie’s going to have to hold a banquet of crow for a lot of people whose assumptions are thus far failing miserably to reality.