A standard critique of many losing generals throughout history is that they were inordinately focused on winning the last war. Devising their strategy and the tactics to refight battles in the past, they ignored changes and new developments that fundamentally changed the terrain.
The Republican party is caught in this trap, facing a chaotic fight for the party’s nomination that is largely the result of its own missteps.
Setting aside the Trump phenomenon, which is admittedly almost impossible, the unmistakable trend in current polling for the nomination is that the closer a candidate is perceived to be to the national party leadership, the less support they have from Republican voters.
The top two candidates in the RealClearPolitics average of polls are Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, released Thursday, the two candidates command 40 percent of support out of a crowded field of 17 candidates. Their support is strong even across the entire ideological spectrum of the Republican party. Carson, for example, does as well among “very conservative” Republicans as he does among “liberal” Republicans.
The Republicans in D.C. are still consumed with concerns about “tea party” Republicans, but the base electorate has already moved on. Every wing of the Republican party is looking outside of Washington for leadership.
The genuine “outsiders” in the race; Trump, Carson, Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz, together earn 47 percent support in the RCP average of polls. In the most recent individual poll, these four earn 52 percent support.
Jeb Bush, who is the consummate establishment candidate, is stuck around 7 percent in national polls. Marco Rubio, a Bush-like candidate with more rhetorical skills, is also mired around 7 percent. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has until very recently downplayed his potential outside status, has fallen from an early perch near the top of the GOP field to the back of the pack.
National Republicans underestimate how furious the base of the party is with its leadership in Washington. The extent to which outsiders are dominating the national polls is the clearest proxy of this. Here’s an even more basic one; candidates who attack frontrunner Donald Trump fall in the polls, while those that attack “Washington” rise in the polls.
National Republicans are adept at explaining ad naseum the legislative or procedural hurdles to reversing Obama’s agenda. What angers voters, though, is their lack of urgency in challenging Obama. Voters, rightly, feel that Obama is trying to fundamentally change the nation and take this threat far more seriously than Republicans in Washington.
It is nothing short of political malpractice that Republicans put more effort into giving Obama expanded authority to negotiate a secret trade deal than dismantling any part of this legislative agenda. It was, even, the first substantive thing a Republican-controlled Congress did.
Last week, South Dakota Sen. John Thune used the Republican’s allotted time to respond to Obama’s weekly radio address by touting Congress’ “accomplishments” since the GOP took control.
Is it any wonder that Republican voters are in a foul mood?
There is simply no way Trump dominates the GOP field without first having Republicans like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell setting national strategy for the party. The Trump phenomenon currently upending the nomination fight is their creation.
Republicans, though, seemed poised to make the situation far worse. The national party is still haunted by the 1992 election, when a sitting Republican President broke a campaign promise, ignored conservatives and invited a third-party challenge. The result of the Republican missteps then was Ross Perot and a Clinton victory.
Rather than try to keep conservatives in the party, the RNC seems driven to try to legally prevent a third party challenge. At the first Presidential debate, Fox News, no doubt in consultation with the RNC, began the event by asking candidates if they would promise not to launch an independent run for the White House.
State Republican parties in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina have announced plans to include a “loyalty oath” as a condition to qualify for the primary ballot. A candidate would have to legally swear not to run a third-party campaign for the White House, in order to be on the Republican ballot.
There is nothing nefarious or illegal in the question or the oaths. A political party is a private entity and can obviously set rules about candidates who want to compete for its nomination. That said, these aren’t actions that arise from a strong party. It isn’t good politics to enter a campaign assuming that you will likely alienate a large chunk of your party’s supporters.
In effect, the party is signaling to a not small part of their voters that it expects it will anger them but want them to promise, first, not to leave it if they do.
The Republican party is also obsessed with what it perceives as the negative fallout of a long campaign for the nomination. The RNC has publicly said that it wants to limit the number of debates and rejuggle the primary calendar so the party can decide on a nominee earlier. The party has even moved up the date of its convention, believing, again weirdly, that a primary debate will keep it from focusing on the Democrat in the Fall.
That worry might have had some resonance two decades ago, but betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of modern politics. Neither McCain nor Romney blew competitive elections because they didn’t have a few more weeks to run their campaigns.
The result of this RNC obsession will likely blow up soon after Labor Day. CNN will broadcast the next Republican debate in mid-September. Like Fox, CNN will limit the participants to the “top 10” GOP candidates, based on polling data. The line-up for the debate is likely to be little changed from the debate broadcast on Fox in early August. This is because CNN has set rules for the debate essentially ensuring that the candidates who polled best in the earliest days of the campaign are invited.
In other words, a debate of candidates in mid-September will be determined, in part, by how candidates were doing in the polls in July. When pressed on these silly rules, the RNC reverted to legalese that the rules for the debate had been published months ago. Fortunately for the RNC, no one noticed how ridiculous the rules were then.
Unfortunately for the RNC, though, the rules obviously make no sense. Even the least informed voters will be able to see that the rule was designed to help candidates who would had the highest name ID in the earliest days of the campaign. The rule was intended to make it harder for an outsider candidate to break into the debate.
These pushes to shorten the nomination contest and limit outsiders participation in the process will likely make the RNC’s ultimate fear, a third party challenge, more of a reality. “Loyalty oaths” are all fine and legal, but they sound better suited to other countries.
The fight for the Republican nomination is likely to get even more chaotic. But, that’s what happens when a party decides to alienate its voters and commit suicide.