If you’re a sports fan of any kind, you know what it’s like to watch a game or match between opponents who just don’t seem able to get out of their own way. You sit back, groan, reach for a drink and ask, “Doesn’t anyone want to win this damn game?”
So it is with the Republican primary for president. For months a not-very-bright Trust Fund billionaire has been leading the primary with a campaign based on flying around the country to mostly random places in search of a crowd that will listen to him rant for an hour.
This is a man who has changed parties five times, been married three, had businesses go bankrupt four times and has openly speculated about dating his own daughter. For policy prep he says he “watches all the shows,” perhaps mostly cartoons, as he is unaware of even a high school level of public policy. Nuclear triad? What’s that, a Chinese gang with really good weapons?
In politics one is blessed by the weaknesses of opponents and there has rarely been such a gift as Donald Trump. He is the perfect foil for a serious candidate ready to define his depth of knowledge and genuineness of intent against Trump’s vapid narcissism.
Trump is a man who loves to dismiss educated women as “bimbos” while proving to be the biggest bimbo ever to run for president. And yet the Republican field of past and present governors, senators, and a world famous physician have decided that the better strategy is to attack not the idiot who has the most votes but the more serious candidates who don’t have many votes.
It’s crazy. But like many popular misconception of the moment, from Tulip Mania to lobotomies, this nuttiness is based on supposedly sound “theory:” lanes.
Under the “lane theory” of politics, candidates are best served only competing for those voters who meet certain, very specific qualifications. There is an “establishment” lane and an “evangelical lane,” a “liberty voter” lane and so on. This all sounds interesting and is a convenient way to try to impose order on a chaotic process but it has one fundamental flaw: There are no lanes. The electorate consists of voters drawn in many different directions simultaneously with conflicting motivations and values. There are plenty of voters who have “establishment, evangelical, liberty” elements—and more—within them and that gives a candidate more opportunity to appeal to their vote, not less.
The result of this crackpot “lane theory” is the assumption that Donald Trump is in his own lane—God knows what spaghetti junction of intersecting roads that would be—and those voters are inaccessible to serious candidates in a different lane. Therefore the serious candidates are best served attacking each other rather than going after the candidate with the most votes. If that sounds nutty, well, it is.
In New Hampshire Donald Trump holds a significant lead and yet the airwaves are filled with attack ads of candidates against other candidates with fewer votes. I don’t think this has every happened before—the frontrunner not the main focus of paid attacks—and it’s resulted in a blood sport fight to see who can be the first or second loser rather than winner. The assumption is that somehow Donald Trump will self-destruct or fade or, well, whatever.
Marco Rubio came out of Iowa with a third-place halo and seems content to leave New Hampshire without a victory. I’ve long maintained that Trump is such a bad and unlikely candidate that he would not win a single primary and that may still prove accurate. But the reluctance of Rubio’s and other campaigns to attack Trump strikes me as dangerous and foolish.
If Rubio does come in second to Trump, and that’s a bigger if than it was before Saturday’s debate, the race will move to South Carolina where two winners—Ted Cruz and Trump—will face off against two-time second-place finisher Rubio. Is it possible for Rubio to win South Carolina from this position? Yes, but obviously he would be greatly advantaged having won New Hampshire. In 1996, Lamar Alexander came in a strong third in Iowa that then became a disappointing third in New Hampshire. The race narrowed between the Iowa winner—Bob Dole—and the New Hampshire winner, Pat Buchannan.
In the long primary nominating process, to win you have to win. The danger for Marco Rubio—and all the candidates—is that March contests will be between those who have won the four earlier races: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Maybe Rubio pulls it out in Nevada, but that’s not going to be easy after losing the first three contests. If you haven’t won a race and others have, why should you be taken seriously going forward? Voters want to focus on fewer candidates as the race advances and doing OK is never quite good enough when others are winning.
The week between Iowa and New Hampshire can be the longest week in politics. Trump staggered from Iowa, vulnerable and off his game. Yet none of his opponents moved to take advantage, allowing him time to recoup and stabilize. He’s now headed to a good night in New Hampshire and will likely move into South Carolina as a frontrunner. Not taking advantage of a fluid situation is a key mistake in most endeavors, from sports to business to politics. By sticking to game plans of playing for first or second loser, campaigns likely missed an opportunity to put Donald Trump away and seize control of the race.
Doesn’t anybody want to win this race?