May 1, 2016
Donald Trump is two days away from locking up the GOP nomination. Even if Ted Cruz wins Indiana, Trump is still the favorite. Odds are way better than 50/50 we get the Hillary/Donald matchup the media has dreamed of and many voters have feared.
There isn’t much mystery on the Democratic side. Hillary benefitted from more early endorsements than any candidate in modern history. The party has a very shallow bench. Most semi-credible options decided not to play. The email issue is still there, but hasn’t devoured the candidate or campaign.
We had the Biden moment, we had the Bernie tease. Joe stayed out. Sanders couldn’t win key contests when he had the opportunity to shake up the race. At the end of the day, we have the presumptive Democratic nominee we thought we would, even if it took a little longer than expected to get here.
The GOP is another story. Even those who thought Trump had a real chance from the beginning couldn’t have predicted the path. On the precipice of a Trump nomination, it’s time to take a look at how this happened.
WARNING: Reading through these articles may prove damaging to the predictive reputation of your correspondent and his associates. There were a few moments of clarity though.
We begin with the second piece written on the site. Plenty of Oxygen to go Around. People were worrying Trump might hijack the Republican nomination process and cause long term branding problems for the party.
On the bright side, I did a solid job breaking down the weaknesses of each candidate and pointing out why it wasn’t Trump’s fault if they didn’t break through. At times, it appeared as though I was looking at a crystal ball. Just try to ignore the part where I say Trump won’t impact Jeb much.
It was time to take a look at why we had Some Angry Elephants. Why exactly do so many 50-year-old Republicans support Donald Trump? At least some of the answer is in this piece, which takes you through the eyes of the average Republican fitting that description, not just the less educated blue collar voter we associate with Trump. He didn’t win every county and every congressional district on Tuesday just by attracting his base.
Keeping those concerns in mind, it was clear Jeb! didn’t have as much time as his team thought to convince voters he was the sane choice (or that they want a sane choice.) By September 4, I’d noticed he was very much on the clock. Update: Jeb Pulse Check.
This one looks good in retrospect. I set the second debate as an arbitrary deadline for Bush to salvage his campaign, arguing if he didn’t very effectively stand up to Trump, he was finished. He didn’t and he was.
That killed off one of three supposed front runners. Another, Scott Walker, actually led Iowa and national polls for a couple/few months. We explained his demise as he was plummeting back to earth. The Incredible Shrinking Scott Walker.
If Bush was in serious trouble, Walker wasn’t going to happen and the third semi-favorite, Marco Rubio, wasn’t making much progress yet, who would win? Did any of the candidates fit the profile of a successful Republican nominee? We took a long look. Measuring the Republicans Against History (Part Eight of the Series). The answer was no. The eventual nominee would break at least a couple of long established rules.
You know how John Kasich is popular in Ohio, does well in general election matchup polls, but still doesn’t have any traction, even after sticking around longer than anyone would have thought possible? We attempted to explain why back in October. The Perils of Popularity.
Around this time, House Republicans deposed Speaker Boehner, sending him to a life of retired leisure and calling Ted Cruz Lucifer. While he never actually directly dealt with Cruz, several of those who overthrew his regime endorsed Ted and subscribe to similar principles. After a couple/few rough weeks, with presumptive choice Kevin McCarthy gaffing his way out of the job, Paul Ryan was tabbed.
We argued the fates of Ryan and Rubio were linked. If Ryan did well, it would help the candidate most similar to him. If Marco did well in the primaries, it would give the new speaker some cover. Suffice to say, actual events are not what the two hoped for. Rubio’s Running Mate.
By Thanksgiving, Trump was making further progress in the polls, leveraging the Paris attacks to win over a few extra voters. If you think you can at all bear to read one more explanation of how Trump got from where he started to where he is now, this one is probably worth it. The Art of the Reinvention.
This was also the point where I started considering the very real possibility Trump could win the nomination. If you take a look at the numbers from very early December, things look awfully close to how they are now. Trumped?.
While Trump was competing everywhere and others were targeting a specific state to begin their push, Rubio was seemingly refusing to commit to a specific victory. In late December, we explored the logic of this unconventional approach. Waiting to See the Whites of their Eyes.
On the whole, I thought it was a reasonable approach, if hardly guaranteed to work. His big issue was only having one shot and needing to time it perfectly. When he finished a surprising and strong third in Iowa, he was moving into position to do well in New Hampshire and win South Carolina.
But that limited margin for error bit Rubio hard when Chris Christie pushed him into the Worst Presidential Debate Choke Ever? At the time we couldn’t completely measure the impact, though it already looked devastating. I now believe it was even worse than it looked at the time.
Pre-debate, Rubio was a clear second in New Hampshire polls. He finished fifth, only 5 points behind second place John Kasich. If Rubio doesn’t choke, he finishes second. More importantly, Kasich does not. That means Kasich exits. With a better result in the Granite State, Rubio may well have won South Carolina. He closed well anyway and improved his position by about 10 points in 10 days. From a higher starting point, he at least gets close.
The closer finish prevents Trump from getting all 50 delegates, as Rubio would have won a congressional district or three. Far more importantly, an absent Kasich wouldn’t have taken crucial votes from Rubio on Super Tuesday in Virginia, Alabama, Vermont, and Arkansas.
It cost him a win in Virginia, delegates in Alabama and Vermont, and a finish ahead of Cruz in Arkansas. With that result, Rubio has a better March 1st than his main rival and doesn’t start spiraling downward immediately after. He doesn’t pull back from his attacks on Trump. In the real world, shaky March 1 results made him waver.
I don’t think it’s controversial to say Rubio would have an easier time uniting anti-Trump forces right now than Cruz is, particularly with Kasich not existing in this scenario. While we can’t assume Trump wouldn’t still find himself ahead, I’m willing to say Rubio would find himself in better position than Cruz is. He was far better suited to places like Oregon, Washington, and California too.
This counts as the single most important event of the campaign so far. Rubio’s choice of strategy put him in the running, but also left him extremely vulnerable. When the choke happened, he never fully recovered. As a young, first-time presidential candidate, there was no margin of error to absorb the string of defeats that followed.
Cruz was once in better position himself. As January dawned, he was noticeably ahead of Trump in Iowa and dangerously close nationally. Without any actual votes proving The Donald was for real, he was in danger of losing momentum before he really got started. Desperate times call for extra Trumpy responses. Whoa Canada?
Trump successfully used the Canadian birth issue to throw Cruz off stride. As the Iowa caucus approached, Ted was trailing in the polls in a state many thought he needed to win. We expressed concern a narrow comeback victory might teach Ted the wrong lessons. Forecasting Iowa: What if Ted Loses?
The idea was he couldn’t win the nomination by complaining Trump wasn’t conservative enough. He would need a solid, reliable 35-40% of the vote once the field consolidated. His partisans, those who care about consistency and social issues above all, weren’t going to get him there. He must repackage. He didn’t. He’s almost cooked.
As we know, he did win Iowa. In doing so, his team spread rumors Ben Carson was leaving the race. We didn’t think this was a top tier dirty trick, at least in historical perspective. However, we did think Ted’s response would damage him greatly, putting the Doctor in a position where he would stick around and cause problems for Cruz. Dr. Carson & Mr. Cruz.
Plenty has happened over the past 10 to 12 weeks, but most of this was locked into place earlier. Many of the candidates were not as strong as they first looked. Trump’s strongest challengers, Rubio and Cruz, each made key strategic decisions that left them vulnerable. No anti-Trump managed to fully address voter concerns that were visible a full nine months ago.
Despite all of this, Wisconsin provided hope for #NeverTrump. A combination of ads, endorsements and a strong effort from Cruz dealt The Donald a defeat and made it look like we were headed for a contested convention.
Soon after the vote, we wondered if #Never Trump was willing to do what it took to take down the front runner, or if they were almost equally #NeverCruz and would pass on the opportunity. How Serious is #NeverTrump?
We now have our answer and are only days away from Presumptive Nominee Trump. I can’t tell you where we’re going next, but hopefully this nostalgic tour through the past 9 months explained how we got here.