February 15, 2016
Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are fighting. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are fighting. Donald Trump and Marco Rubio are not.
Donald Trump and Jeb Bush are fighting. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are fighting. Donald Trump and Marco Rubio are not.
Sure, Rubio is occasionally critical of Trump, but isn’t running any ads against him and the two had zero conflict on stage Saturday. The Donald almost never mentions him. What’s up?
For months, the punditry has organized the race into an insurgent outsider group and an establishment-certified group. Trump, Cruz and Carson were on Team Outsider. Marco and the Governors were competing for insider and donor approval.
There’s some truth to this construction. But it’s only one of many ways to look at the field. Trump is most certainly running as an outsider, but he’s not a consistent conservative, at least as understood in the post-Reagan era.
Ted Cruz is spending a lot of debate time, interview time and ad money making sure everyone knows Trump used to support partial-birth abortion. He reminds voters Trump donated to every Democratic bogeyman of the past couple generations. The Donald loves him some eminent domain.
That’s all well and good, but it’s now pretty safe to assume the majority of Trump voters don’t care. After New Hampshire (and even Iowa to some extent), we know there is such a thing as a Trump voter, not just a Trump poll supporter.
They are spread fairly evenly between moderates, mainstream conservatives and very conservatives. The ratio changes from state to state, but he’s well represented in each. If Trump doesn’t fit a traditional description of very conservative, why does he have the support?
Some very conservatives are more interested in ideological purity. They want someone who agrees with them on most issues. These voters are Cruz people. Others are the proverbial mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. They prefer Trump, seeing him as more effective.
If Trump can completely dominate the insurgent side, he knows he’s got a good chance of winning the nomination. Perhaps more importantly, it sets him up for the general election. Winning the first round and losing to Hillary or Bernie isn’t an acceptable outcome to him.
Attacking W on 9/11 and lying about WMDs is very risky in a GOP primary. I thought he potentially opened the door to making South Carolina uncomfortably close. However, if he can win the Palmetto State after doing this, he looks untouchable. Not that he’s guaranteed to win, but that nothing can stick to him.
Taking this approach makes Trump more suitable to Democrats and Independents who are furious with how the past 15 years have gone and are not overly conservative. Nobody is under the illusion Donald Trump is a Republican. He’s Donald Trump.
The plurality of New Hampshire voters who turned out for him last week are well aware. If you like Trump, you don’t care. Hillary has moved very far to the left in trying to combat Bernie. The Donald would own the center against either.
That’s where he wants to hang out if he can just get rid of Ted. Rubio has shown little primary strength with crossover Democrats and Independents. He tends to do better with solid Republicans. Comprehensive immigration aside, Marco has a solid conservative record.
Rubio figures he’d do ok against Trump because it’s a Republican primary and he’s both more conservative and more Republican than Trump. The Donald is confident he can make Rubio look like an unready child who has no experience running anything of consequence.
For now, both are served by making sure Cruz doesn’t win South Carolina and doesn’t go into March 1 with momentum. From what I can tell, both are doing well with this strategy. Cruz is only able to deal with so much in a single interview.
He does a great rant on Trump’s liberalism, but doesn’t usually have time to attack Rubio at the same time. If he has to explain himself on immigration to contrast himself with Marco, it takes away from other things he could talk about.
While Trump moves completely away from the institution of the Republican Party, Rubio is defining himself as a full-spectrum conservative. He’s hitting his talking points with vigor and covering more angles than Cruz.
In the time Ted spends going over the post-apocalyptic future a 5-4 liberal court majority would usher in, Rubio covers conservative points from foreign policy to the economy to abortion.
Cruz risks falling through the cracks. Less powerful than insurgent Trump, less of a well-packaged, electable, conservative than Rubio. South Carolina is very representative of the national GOP. Marco is shooting for the bulls-eye, and is able to without worrying about Trump.
Then there’s Jeb. I’m not sure it’s in Trump’s interests to have him out of the race, but he can’t resist using him as a piñata for now. Plus, Jeb’s increasing success in facing up to him in debates will keep Trump from backing off.
Being against Jeb and the Bush family is a great way for Trump to prove his outsider bona fides. For all the warmth South Carolinians supposedly feel towards the family, it hasn’t translated into poll support for Jeb. His favorability ratings are weak too, it’s not just a thing where they love him but vote for someone else.
Rubio has no desire to keep Jeb around to constantly talk about his lack of experience and readiness. Also many insiders and donors are still shaky on Rubio, particularly after Chris Christie exposed him in the debate. Until Bush is completely gone, they’re holding back.
John Kasich is lurking in the weeds. Jeb attacks him, as he needs to, in an attempt to show the other governor isn’t conservative enough for serious consideration. The others are holding off for now.
Rubio would prefer a contest with Kasich. He needs to win Florida (or at least make it close), and Jeb actually does better in polls at home whenever voters think he has any chance. Kasich is not running as a conservative.
A three-way race with Trump and Kasich leaves Rubio as the clear consistent conservative in the race. At this point, nobody should assume they’ll beat Trump, and Kasich could split votes with Marco in some important states, but again, something to worry about later.
Cruz isn’t going to drop out after South Carolina, even if he finishes a disappointing third. Bush might not abandon ship even if he finishes fifth and should. But Trump and Rubio are doing their level best to gang up on both, clearing them away or immobilizing them ASAP.
As we saw with Trump/Cruz, the Trump/Rubio fight is coming. Not yet. They have others to dispense with first.