April 20, 2016
This is not a fair fight. In one corner, you have the chair of the Republican National Committee. In the other, Donald Trump, almost definitely the least popular major party front runner in American history.
Priebus is always measured, on message, reasonably calm and fairly composed. He’s Wisconsin nice. The leadership of the party elected him to a full 4-year term in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 presidential defeat (he’d taken over for Michael Steele in 2011.)
He had three tasks. Help take back the Senate in 2014. Help win the presidency back in 2016. Position the party to compete demographically going forward. Political parties exist to win elections. Sometimes they have a definite ideological focus. More often, especially in the United States, they’re a coalition of different viewpoints.
A year ago, Priebus had plenty of reason for optimism. The GOP controlled both Houses. The 2016 presidential field was shaping up as the deepest in decades. If Jeb Bush proved unpalatable, others like Scott Walker and Marco Rubio were waiting in the wings.
A modern party chair doesn’t have the power of a big city political boss from a century ago. Though Debbie Wassserman Schultz of the DNC is an exception, they often aren’t current office holders. Most have won an election or three in the past and do regularly have something of a national profile.
Priebus has never won an election or held office. He lost a Wisconsin State Senate race back in 2004. He was a successful attorney and was active in the state party from early in his career. He’s still relatively young, at 44 part of the same political generation as Walker, Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Paul Ryan.
All in all, a totally logical choice as party chair. He wasn’t someone focused on electing himself later. Both Ryan and Walker were already more established Wisconsin Republicans. They didn’t need to worry about him leveraging his post and putting himself ahead of the GOP’s success.
He wasn’t washed up, using this as a way to recover from electoral disappointment or hitting the career wall. Priebus had a hand in Walker winning the governorship in 2010. Wisconsin has elected many Republican governors. Tommy Thompson won 4 consecutive terms in the 1980s and 90s.
Thompson (who endorsed Kasich this year) was a moderate. Walker is a conservative. He survived a 2012 recall to win re-election in 2014 and boost himself into the front ranks of the presidential field. Less than 12 months ago he led national polls. Yeah, it’s unimaginable to me too.
If Priebus’ Wisconsin GOP could get Walker elected in a blueish-purplish state, his approach was ideal for the national party. While the RNC’s 2012 post-mortem emphasized reaching out to Latinos and other non-white voters, the Wisconsin results indicated the party also had a shot at reaching 270 through the still more white than not Midwest.
He and one of the more professional RNC back office groups in decades were ready to work with any of the presumed front runners to make a strong push for the White House while working to retain the Senate in a year where several GOP incumbents were defending blue state seats won in the 2010 midterm.
Among the Romney campaign’s failures was the total crash of their Election Day get out the vote software. The final margin was enough that solid GOTV probably wouldn’t have saved him, but it was an embarrassing flop and may have cost the GOP a few down ballot races.
Priebus and friends have invested heavily in upgrading technology. The RNC firmly believed they would have an advantage in data and on the ground in November 2016 for the first time since the 2004 contest. By any reasonable standard, the first few years of his tenure was a solid success.
If he has a weakness, it’s as a communicator. Priebus isn’t awful. He avoids gaffes pretty well. He just sounds like a party functionary. So does his lieutenant Sean Spicer. Both sort of resemble a caricature of suburban Chamber of Commerce or Country Club Republican types.
A party chair is rarely the face or voice of the party, even when their side is out of the presidency. They don’t have anywhere near the influence they might have in the old days, and even then rarely were a match for state and local bosses. Usually the RNC or DNC chief is a bit of a compromise choice.
Given all these factors, it’s no surprise Priebus was unable to do much to halt the rise of Trump last fall. The RNC wasn’t supposed to take sides and the impression they were would only serve to inflame The Donald’s followers. When we heard from him it was to justify/explain the rules, set with the respective networks, governing who was on the main debate stage and who was a warm-up act.
It’s not like he had a bunch of precedent to fall back on. It’s not like any RNC chief in recent memory has found themselves out front, or even pushing from the shadows in an open contest like this. When a chair is backed by an incumbent president, they help him or his VP get nominated/re-nominated.
If he had done much, it’s likely one or several of the non-Trump candidates would have objected to Priebus putting his fingers on the scale. Any real influence he has is subject to the consent of other insiders and various candidates. The type of strong presence many hoped would take the wheel isn’t suited to hold a job like this in 2016.
This already put him in a difficult position once Trump began proving he wasn’t a fluke. If someone other than Ted Cruz became the most likely alternative, perhaps the influencers that be would have urged Priebus to overtly attempt to halt The Donald.
But the two leading candidates are running against the establishment. For most of the past year, 60 to 75% of poll and primary support has gone to insurgent/outsider candidates. No two people have the same definition of the establishment, but RNC chair fits on all lists.
In this environment, a Priebus-like figure is ill suited to carry the torch in the media or anywhere voters are listening/watching/reading. Yet there he was this past Sunday, showing up on several of the morning shows to make the case for requiring the nominee to win a full 1237 delegates to get the nod.
Trump has called him and the party out, saying the RNC is trying to steal the nomination from him. He’s threatening to replace Priebus if he wins the nomination. It’s great strategy for The Donald. Only the most virulent #NeverTrump voters are going to take the party establishment’s side.
Priebus is forced to explain that a plurality isn’t the same as a majority. That Trump’s earned delegate percentage exceeds his popular vote share. That delegates pick nominees, not voters. That the rules were published months ago and are the same for each candidate.
All of that is very, very true. It’s also legalistic sounding. It doesn’t square with the experience of most voters who can’t remember a time where the candidate who won the most states and the most votes didn’t also get the nomination. Even in 1976, when Ronald Reagan pushed Gerald Ford to the convention, Ford won more votes, states, and delegates from those who voted directly. Reagan’s advantage was in the format Cruz is excelling in right now.
Trump gets to say the candidate with the most popular votes should win. He gets to say the candidate with the most delegates going into the convention should win, especially when it’s a big margin. He gets to say they blocked regular Coloradans from voting. He gets to say he won primaries fair and square in places like Louisiana and Georgia only to have Cruz steal delegate support.
Absent an effective informational campaign, undecided voters are going to have an easier time accepting Trump’s argument than the RNC’s. They can say you should have a majority in order to win. Bill Clinton easily won the White House in 1992 and 1996 without breaking 50% either time.
Presidents get elected without a majority. Richard Nixon won that way in 1968. George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000. None of those were nomination contests, but voters are used to somebody needing something less than 50%. The Bush result was controversial. The plurality-winning presidents didn’t have the same legitimacy problems.
Right now about 60-65% of GOP voters tell pollsters they think the candidate with the most delegates after June 7 should win the nomination. If someone like Marco Rubio were leading, and Trump was trying to catch up, I’ll guarantee you some of the remaining 35-40% would agree.
It’s a hard sell. In a country where most people aren’t active in a political party, Priebus has to make the case that the party, not the people, picks the nominee. He needs to do this without having great communication skills in front of the general public. He’s trying to do this without openly going to war with Trump and proving The Donald’s point that the establishment is out to get him.
The arc of history isn’t always kind. After being exactly the right chairman for five years, Priebus is exactly the wrong one now. If Trump gets nominated, he’s out. Either immediately or when his term is up in early 2017. He gets blamed for Trump taking over the party and winning, or Trump taking over the party and losing.
If Cruz wins a contentious battle before losing in the fall, again, Priebus looks bad. Worse so if the Senate falls with him, a very likely outcome if Trump voters stay home and Cruz can’t win over moderates. If Kasich or some white knight somehow win the nomination but the party splits, perhaps with a Trump third party run, again, nightmare.
The only thing that can save his legacy is winning the White House and retaining the Senate with a non-Trump candidate. As such, it’s time for him to get to work. Again, he’s not the right person at the right time. As Michael Corleone explained to Tom Hagen, he’s not a wartime consigliere.
While #NeverTrump and the Cruz and Kasich campaigns are busy trying to keep Trump below 1237 delegates, ideally close to 1100, so he really needs to stretch for a first ballot win, it’s time for the RNC to put together a crash campaign on justifying their process.
If the past 12 months has taught us anything, it’s that the public has no appetite for signing off on something just because it’s what the politicians normally do. If Hillary Clinton, widely admired by almost all Democrats as recently as a year ago, and still popular with many, is forced to justify her existence to voters on a daily basis, the RNC needs to do the same for their convention procedures.
Sending Priebus to get chewed up by Jake Tapper, Chuck Todd and other media figures on specific rules, when what committee will vote on what, how the rules committee functions and what state conventions are like will only end poorly.
If Cruz finishes a distant second, or even regularly third in the remaining April primaries, it will make his delegate successes look even more shady to many. While it’s fair to wonder how Trump will handle China if he can’t solve Wyoming, the average voter will see him crushing Cruz in Connecticut while Ted wins state conventions.
If you can think of a popular, decently respected GOP leader, who hasn’t already disqualified themselves with the voting public yet and is available to appear on Sunday shows, cut commercials, appear on election night panels on various cable networks, and otherwise make him or herself useful, please contact Reince Priebus, care of the RNC ASAP.
Otherwise he’s going down for the count. If Priebus-Trump were a title fight, they couldn’t find a state governing board to sanction it for fear of death in the ring.