The race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is finally beginning to look a bit more conventional. After weeks in which the leading candidates, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, appeared able to flout all the rules of politics, Carson’s support appears to be declining as many had expected.
Since the end of October, the former surgeon’s national support has declined 35 percent. In Iowa—a state in which evangelical Republicans have a much-larger presence than others and where Carson has polled best—Carson has relinquished first place to Trump and appears to be headed for third as Texas senator Ted Cruz piles on the endorsements from pastors and radio hosts unknown to most but notable within the Christian nationalist circles that he and his father have traveled within for decades.
Despite the huge number of candidates, the 2016 race is now starting to have some similarities to the 2008 Republican contest with some 1996 thrown in for good measure. For all the talk about how this cycle is going to eventually come down to Cruz competing against Florida senator Marco Rubio, this contest is really a three-man race, just as 2008 was.
Everyone forgets this but in that year, there were 12 Republicans who ran for the nomination. Then as now, the party was divided over a candidate with a fair amount of support who was also widely disliked within the party. The difference this time, however, is that the divisive candidate is one favored by many conservatives (Trump) rather than one who was widely despised by the base (Arizona senator John McCain).
The ideological positioning of the leading candidate may be all that’s different this time around.
In both cycles, the highest-polling candidate was routinely attacked as a liberal pretending to be conservative. Both men certainly have given their critics a lot of material: The Arizona senator spent the better part of the George W. Bush administration sticking it to conservatives on everything from cap and trade to campaign finance while Donald Trump has repeatedly praised eminent domain land seizures and given big bucks to Democrats, including their likely presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Then as now, conservative journalists have been at war against the leading candidate. National Review in particular has been scorching in its daily denunciations of Trump. Though talk radio is divided today over Trump—Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity seem vaguely supportive while Glenn Beck and plenty of lower-rated hosts attack him frequently—it was uniformly against a McCain nomination. Several hosts even explicitly endorsed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney as an alternative.
All of that was not enough to stop McCain, however, largely because the opposition to his nomination was unable to solidify into a large enough bloc. Multiple candidates split up the anti-McCain vote repeatedly in the early states.
After starting out relatively strong, McCain was badly damaged by the Iowa caucuses where he received only 13 percent of the vote. But the Arizonan’s campaign was saved from death by a divided New Hampshire electorate which allowed him to win its primary with 38 percent of the vote. The anti-McCain vote was split between Mitt Romney (32 percent), Huckabee (11 percent), Rudy Giuliani (9 percent), and Ron Paul (8 percent).
The situation repeated itself in South Carolina where McCain managed to win with just 33 percent of the vote as his opponents split up their votes once again with Huckabee taking 30 percent, Romney 15 percent, and the late Fred Thompson earning 16 percent. Ditto in Florida where the Arizonan won the state with just 36 percent of the ballots cast. In aggregate, his opponents easily defeated him but none of them was able to come up with a plurality. Mitt Romney received 31 percent of the vote, Rudy Giuliani 15 percent, and Mike Huckabee garnered 13 percent.
It’s still December but there are indications that next year’s voting will result in a similar dynamic. The 2008 race came down to a three-man race between McCain, Romney, and Huckabee with neither of the two McCain opponents able to build a geographically diverse enough coalition to edge him out. Huckabee was strong in evangelical-dominated states while Romney was strong elsewhere. Both managed to win a few states on their own but neither was able to gain the momentum they needed to win.
This time around, we’re looking at another three-man race between Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. As before, it is starting to seem that the leading candidate (Trump) has the edge because of his ability to build a nationwide coalition made up of more than one kind of voter.
His rivals can’t quite claim that. Like Huckabee in 2008, Cruz is strong among evangelicals but he’s weak in the Blue States where GOP nominations are often decided. Rubio is widely perceived as the candidate who will coalesce the more centrist vote yet he remains weak among people very concerned about immigration thanks to his co-sponsorship of a Senate bill that would have granted legal recognition to undocumented immigrants. While a majority of Republicans favor granting legal status to illegal immigrants, the percentage who do is only 56 percent.
Trump also is beginning to benefit from a growing perception among Republicans that he will be able to win the general election next November. In a poll conducted earlier this month by the University of Massachusetts, 40 percent of respondents said Trump could pull it off, significantly higher than the 24 percent who believed the same about Ben Carson, the 12 percent who thought so about Marco Rubio, and the 8 percent who thought that Ted Cruz could win.
There’s been a lot of discussion about how Republican opponents of Trump are beginning to realize that they need to put more effort into blocking him from the nomination. With both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in the race, it seems unlikely that either candidate would be able to get enough votes to himself to win without taking away a fair number of Trump supporters.
If Trump’s poll numbers hold steady, however, we’ll see how serious the more conservative faction (Cruz supporters) and the more centrist faction (Rubio supporters) will be about stopping the garrulous New York billionaire.
All of this could change if Trump performs horribly in consecutive debates or makes a series of gaffes that offend his supporters. Given that Trump’s Republican support has held relatively stable despite his implication that most illegal immigrants are rapists and murderers, that he supports government-operated health care, and his now-downplayed embrace of birtherism, this seems rather unlikely.
A writer, television producer, and cybersecurity consultant, Matthew Sheffield is a Bold contributor. He currently is a producer and reporter at The Hill's video division, Hill.TV.