For more than half a century the Republican nominating process has been the avenue through which the party chooses the nominee for the next election. This year’s nominee is never in doubt. Whoever finished second last time is this season’s nominee.
If no such person is running, as in ’68 and ‘00, the nominee is appointed by the party leadership and presented for ratification in the primary process. This is no historical accident, but rather a product of the institutional structure of the party.
That institutional structure is breaking down. Priorities and practices that took hold when the party was organized around northern commercial interests are being dismantled as the Dixiefication of the party intensifies. Republicans will enter the next nominating cycle without a presumed nominee for the first time in half a century.
Technically, the second place finisher in 2012 was Rick Santorum, but he was little more than the last clown out of the car. It’s not clear he’ll even be able to muster a challenge in ’16. No frontrunner is emerging from the party’s elite as both Bush and Christie have failed to assemble the support they would need to overcome massive resistance from the Southern rank and file.
In 2016, for the first time since 1964, the Republican grassroots will probably choose the party’s nominee for the White House. Get ready for an ugly campaign.
Handicapping the field in such a complex race isn’t easy. Adding to the complexity is the fact that Republicans will likely be running on two tracks that will not join up until late in the spring.
Track one, which we’ll call “the Gray Round,” will pit the party’s remaining credible governing figures against each other. The Gray Round is likely to include Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Rob Portman and John Kasich.
Their job is to lay low and ride out the early stages of the campaign. Whichever one of them can consistently poll in the high teens or low 20’s while retaining enough money to stay in the race until March will outlast the others and face off in the late spring against whoever wins the other track.
There has never been a Gray Round competition in the primaries before and there might not be one this cycle. The candidate in that role always started the race in that role and has never been forced to compete for it. There will only be a Gray Round campaign if Christie and Bush choose to run, which remains in doubt.
Track two will be the Race for the Base. There could be fifteen or more candidates in this TLC reality show, including Cruz, Paul, Perry, Walker, Huckabee and a rotating cast of Fox News guests and AM radio hosts. The central question of the 2016 nominating race is this – Can the base select a leadership figure that won’t self-destruct across two whole weeks of media scrutiny?
Anyone from the Gray Round is capable of becoming the nominee. Their strategy is to outlast the other flavorless old white guys while counting on the Fox News zombies in the party base to split their votes among a rotating series of incompetent clowns.
Across the coming year and through the first few months of the primaries, the Gray Round candidates will be competing for the support of major donors, Republican Governors, and pundits. Getting to March in the Gray Round isn’t about votes, it’s about organization.
A successful Gray Round winner will have consistently finished second or third all the way through Super Tuesday on March 1. He will have lost to a rotating series of first place finishers, half of whom will be out of the race by March 8.
Gray Rounders are counting on each one of the successive Race for the Base challengers to disqualify themselves with nasty racist comments, abortion gaffes, comparing Democrats to the Nazis, or that thing they may or may not have done with that woman that time. That strategy may not work this time.
First, without a clear leader going into the campaign, Gray Rounders may be forced to split too much of their energy. Unless Bush is the sole competitor there as Romney was in ’12, the strategy may collapse.
Worse, none of the Grays have any hope of reconciling with the base. No matter how nutty or incompetent the base favorites prove to be, the grassroots is screaming for a candidate that represents their worse impulses. They are unlikely to settle for another Romney.
Second, for the first time ever there are some minimally competent political figures competing to lead the party’s loony wing. Ted Cruz may be the smartest Republican to ever go after the paranoid bloc. He is as disciplined and determined as he is dangerous.
Rand Paul, if he can assume control of his father’s political organization, will have a potent body of grassroots support to take him through the campaign. And Scott Walker has just survived his third close campaign in three years in a solidly blue state. This corps is a cut above the Ron Paul, Bachmann, Cain rabble that Romney faced in 2012.
The Gray Round strategy has probably run its course. This is the cycle in which the new base, Southern, rural, fundamentalist and aging, may finally displace the old northern commercial base that defined the Republican Party for a century.
There is a narrow way that Jeb Bush could take to win the nomination and give the Republicans a credible shot at the White House, but he is unlikely to go that route. It runs against his personal temperament and every value that shapes a traditional Republican outlook.
He could do what Jon Huntsman refused to do in 2012, and combine it with an unprecedented outreach in minority communities. That’s a strategy that could win while changing American politics, but he’s probably not that guy.
Barring some bizarre breakdown on the Democratic side the ’16 Republican nominee has virtually no shot at the White House. Nevertheless, this race matters. Winning the 2016 nomination will probably grant the nominee powerful influence over the party structure at a critical moment.
A winner from the base could acquire enough leverage to squelch efforts to broaden the party’s appeal, instead accelerating the concentration of the party’s power in Dixie and further divesting the party from any interest in national politics. A base winner will put the party on the fast track to some kind of regional split. As dangerous as that sounds, it’s probably inevitable. It’s probably best that it happen sooner rather than later.
Given all of the forces at play, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Cruz is the most likely nominee. What do you think?