Fish Bowl Decision 2016: the GOP primary so far

With primary season finally kicking off in earnest, I thought I should give my thoughts on the state of the race for the GOP.

The Contenders

  • Trump: The ongoing surprise at his sticking power misses a few facts. Trump’s appeal comes from the center and the disillusioned voter, not a broad part of the conservative base. (See Cruz for a note on that.) The center and the disillusioned are generally the poorly informed, which jives with the sort of person who might support Trump—the sort which doesn’t realize that Trump holds different positions almost daily, or positions that would never actually work. Unfortunately, since most people are poorly informed, Trump’s strategy has been working so far. Fortunately, he gets enough news coverage that even the worst-informed of primary voters is starting to understand that Trump is style, not substance. May win South Carolina, but expect it to be closer than the polls show.
  • Cruz: If I were handicapping, I’d give Cruz about 40%. His ground game is superb, the best of any GOP candidate, which he parlayed into an upset win in Iowa, and a solid third place in New Hampshire, considering he spent about zero dollars. Questions about his values seem misplaced to me: stories about his Iowa operation remark on how he let his volunteers go off-script when canvassing, which fits the conservative ideal of bottom-up organization. Concerns about his likability are overblown. Not every candidate has to be an inspirational orator. Has an outside chance to win South Carolina: most polls show him well behind, but several leaked polls from candidate campaigns in the last few weeks have put him much closer than major polls would indicate.

The Possible Surprises

  • Rubio: The establishment’s golden child is underperforming expectations; his Marco Robot impression in the New Hampshire debate didn’t help anything. Light on substance in the same way that Trump is, without the populist shiny to draw in the jackdaw voters. Has the benefit of money and Washington backing, which will keep him in the race, and maybe even in a few top-3 finishes. The most Obama-like of the Republican candidates in terms of oratory. He’ll eventually peter out, and his supporters will lean Cruz: neither Trump nor Cruz is inspirational in the same way, but Cruz lines up a little better with the thoughtful conservative values Rubio purports to represent.

The Death Watch

  • Jeb!: Why anyone thought another Bush running would work is beyond me. (And I say that as someone who thinks history will be significantly kinder to W than the media of his time were.) He seems a little confused by the lack of support, but name recognition is not the same thing as preference. Jeb!’s deep pockets, and the deep pockets of his supporters, will keep him around long past his use-by date, but he probably won’t climb above 15% in any primary. The SEC primaries, with their proportional delegate awards with a minimum threshold, will probably knock him out of contention altogether.
  • Carson: It grieves me that we see this side of him. One of the first biographies I ever read was a short, middle-school-level take on him. I still think he has an amazing story of faith, a self-reliance informed by that faith, and a climb from obscurity to preeminence in his field. I don’t think he has ‘president’ in him.
  • Kasich: No matter how much a certain set of centrist Republican voters want this to happen, it isn’t happening. He’s burned too many bridges with the base, and seems to be running a general election campaign in the primary. Maddeningly, his record is solidly conservative, and I suspect he wouldn’t be all that bad a choice, but he seems set on running as the Democrat’s preferred Republican primary candidate. Unfortunately for him, most Republican primary voters are Republican, and not buying it.

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