Friday, March 04, 2016

Debate Recap: How's "Never Trump" Supposed to Work?

The Republican presidential debate held last night in Detroit will be remembered most for the moment that the front-runner for the presidential nomination of a major American political party made reference to....well, you already know if you're reading this. But it also revealed the difficulties that the anti-Trump faction of the Republican Party face in preventing Trump's nomination, even as Trump himself was knocked around by a sustained blast of attacks from fellow candidates and Fox News moderators alike.

Now that the field has narrowed to four remaining contenders, each candidate receives enough debate time to establish his distinct political persona. Trump, of course, is already well-defined and sui generis. Marco Rubio is the candidate of the Republican Party regulars—ideological conservatives who are also mindful of team spirit and electability. Ted Cruz is the leader of the conservative purists who are frustrated with the institutional leadership of the Republican Party, especially in Congress, for failing to engineer a conservative policy revolution during the Obama presidency. John Kasich is the chief spokesman for can't-we-all-get-along Republicans who are tired of conflict and intra-party attacks.

Each of the remaining three non-Trump candidates personifies a different case against Trump, ably expressed in their rhetoric last night. According to Rubio, Trump's main flaw is that he's a charlatan who lacks moral character and exhibits serious flaws that will make him a weak general-election candidate. According to Cruz, Trump is primarily unacceptable on ideological grounds—he's a phony conservative who once supported Democrats and can't be trusted to respect right-wing principles. For Kasich, Trump's main deficiency is his slashing style and tone, though Kasich hewed to a "nice guy" strategy by contrasting himself with the front-runner implicitly rather than attacking him openly.

Republican Party voters are thus being presented with a diverse set of grounds for expressing opposition to Trump. In theory, this fits well with a stop-Trump effort within the GOP that has moved from anointing a single non-Trump alternative to simply trying to block his first-ballot nomination at the Republican convention. Perhaps, the thinking goes, three different flavors of anti-Trumpism are better than one at keeping him from winning the delegates he needs for a majority.

But the debate also illustrated the limitations of this strategy. It's difficult to rally Republican voters, activists, and donors around three different candidates at once. No single anti-Trump can dominate the debate or the ensuing media coverage as long as the attention focuses mainly on Trump and is otherwise divided three ways. While most of the delegates will be chosen by the middle of March, the nomination process itself stretches on for three more months; is it really plausible that more than one non-Trump candidate can survive in the race until June?

The more likely eventuality is that the field will narrow further after March 15, when both Rubio and Kasich are in danger of losing their home states. The anti-Trump sentiment in the party will become more concentrated, perhaps with Ted Cruz as its only remaining vessel in the primaries, but the delegate arithmetic will become even more daunting. Unless there is an earthquake-level change in the race, it seems clear that this election is headed straight in the direction of Trump Tower.