Most political activity is winding down for the holiday season, but there’s no such leisure time available for the Republican field in the US presidential contest. The first event of the nominating season – the Iowa caucuses – is just seven weeks away.
No-one can remember a year when there were so many serious or semi-serious candidates still in the running at this time. But the contest is simpler than it looks – simpler in some ways than it was four years ago.
The field for the 2012 nomination divided neatly into mainstream candidates and crazies. Mitt Romney had long been the undisputed front-runner among the former group, so the race basically consisted of the crazies fighting against him but also against one another.
If extremist support had solidified early enough behind a single candidate, it’s quite likely that candidate could have beaten Romney, for whom Republican voters never felt much affection. But it didn’t: instead a range of anti-Romneys rose to prominence in turn and then faded, leaving the ineffectual Rick Santorum and the discredited Newt Gingrich as the last survivors.
This time around, the candidates divide into three groups. The division between mainstream and crazies is still there (although each seems to have shifted to the right since 2012), but in addition the party has thrown up an ultra-crazy or neo-fascist candidate in the shape of Donald Trump, who since the middle of the year has been the clear leader in the polls.
The mainstream group has no-one with the sort of clear lead that Romney had, but current front-runner Marco Rubio looks as if he will be difficult to overtake. Among the crazies the position is less clear, but first place, having for some time been held by fundamentalist neurosurgeon Ben Carson, has now fallen to Texas “tea party” senator Ted Cruz. The latest RealClear Politics average has him at 15.6%, compared to Rubio on 13.6% and Trump on 30.4%.
But although the precise identity of the anti-Trump standard-bearers is uncertain, the balance of support between the three groups is quite consistent, and has been for some months. Trump and the aggregate of the mainstream candidates each score in the high 20s, with the rest going to the crazies, totalling somewhere in the mid-40s.
The recent drop in Carson’s support matches the rise in Cruz’s numbers, just as the earlier waning of Jeb Bush was paralleled by the rise of Rubio.
Hence the significance of the surge for Cruz, who now leads in the most recent Iowa polls. If the extremists can sort themselves out behind a single candidate – and Cruz seems as good as any – that candidate will be very hard to beat. If Trump falters, his supporters will prefer Cruz to Rubio or any of the other mainstream candidates, while if Rubio looks unable to beat Trump, mainstream voters, however reluctantly, will mostly back Cruz rather than leave their party in the hands of a big-haired neo-fascist.
But here the GOP enters uncharted waters. No party has ever nominated a candidate whose views are as far out of the mainstream as Cruz’s are. Only when matched against Trump could he seem like a moderate choice; by any other standard he is an A-grade extremist. Few will miss the irony, but it’s nonetheless accurate for Trump to describe him as “a little bit of a maniac.”
Yet it’s a mark of what the Republican Party has become that its establishment seems quite capable of rallying behind Cruz. And Jon Chait for one suggests that the differences between Cruz and the likes of Rubio are largely cosmetic:
Cruz’s irritating demagoguery has given him a reputation as a right-wing flamethrower somewhat out of proportion to his actual policy stances, which differ from those of other Republicans primarily on the margins. … Washington Republicans despise Cruz, but they could learn to live with him, and it’s entirely possible that they will need to do just that.