So since I last wrote about the 2016 race for the Republican nomination, eleven candidates have dropped out (plus probably a few too obscure to even mention), leaving the field with Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump. Basically, the field has been pared of all the no-hopers and never-weres…and Walker, whose exit was the biggest surprise of the election season to me. And even though there are a lot of primaries between now and the convention (most of them, in fact), it’s clear that there’s a certain dynamic that is favoring Trump. I don’t know that it will get him the nomination, but it certainly puts him closer than I would ever have pegged him back in August.
Basically, what we have here is a multiplayer game, where everyone is strategizing to control the greatest percentage of the voter base. Of the six players, everyone is adopting one of two strategies–Act Presidential, or Play to the Xenophobic Nutjobs Who Think That Obama Is Conspiring With the United Nations to Destroy America Through Chemtrails and Operation Jade Helm and Can Only Be Stopped by a Giant Wall Across Mexico. (Henceforth known as “the Party’s Base”.) It’s pretty much the same thing that happened back in 2008 and 2012.
But in 2008 and 2012, there was essentially one viable Presidential candidate (McCain and Romney), and lots of Base candidates splitting apart the die-hard Republican vote. So even though right now, the Base is in ascendancy in the Republican Party and is slavering to nominate someone who represents them instead of the establishment, no single Base candidate could marshal enough support to overcome the lead that the Presidential candidate had simply through a lack of opposition. All the Base candidates knew that the Presidential candidate was vulnerable to a united base of support from the Base…um, as it were…but paradoxically, game theory meant that worked in the Presidential candidate’s favor, as none of the Base candidates would drop out if they knew that the last one standing had a chance of winning the whole game, so the split support continued until they all lost.
(The “game” in this case is just the nomination. The election is purely two-player, and is a whole different ballgame.)
(Although there are no balls involved.)
This year, though, we have Donald Trump sucking up all the oxygen on the Base side of the room. He’s essentially not playing by the same rules as everyone else; Donald Trump wins when people pay attention to him, because he’s a narcissistic blowhard who can’t stand the thought of anyone not knowing what he’s saying and doing at any given moment. And since that turns out to be indistinguishable to the Base from “speaking his mind without fear or favor”, he’s pretty much eating up a really huge chunk of the Base vote, and about 35% of the total vote. (That goes up and down weekly based on his competition with Ted Cruz, who is the other major Base candidate in the race. Carson is a Base candidate, but his support has mostly withered, either because he’s a loon even by the standards of the current GOP or because push is now coming to shove and the Base tends towards being horribly racist.)
So we have the 2008/2012 scenario inverted. Kasich, Rubio, and Jeb (our Presidential candidates) have the votes combined to take out either of the two strongest Base candidates. Trump’s not dropping out because again, narcissistic blowhard (in fact, he may run as a third-party candidate if someone else wins it, which pretty much guarantees a Democratic victory in the general because then that becomes a multiplayer game with Trump and the Republican candidate splitting the support) and Cruz isn’t dropping out because…well, because he’s also a narcissistic blowhard, but also because he has a legitimate chance to overtake Trump if Carson’s people break for him instead of for Trump once Carson finally gives up and goes off to stab some more people in the belt buckle. So both of the Base candidates are pretty much at their ceiling of support. A Presidential candidate can win this.
But which one? All three Presidential candidates know that if they can only outlast the other two, they can suck up all the loose support once there’s only one Presidential candidate left in the race. (The people voting for Kasich aren’t going to break to Trump, in other words.) So even though they will all lose if none of them drop out, there’s a perverse incentive to keep playing and hope their rivals give up first.
Which is all a very fancy way of saying that unless we see a couple more people drop out in a hurry, this could actually be the year of Candidate Trump after all. Which should scare the fuck out of the Republican Party, because the polls from the last six months seem to bear out the idea that Trump’s national ceiling is probably near that 35%, and that the people who don’t love him absolutely despise him. If he’s the Republican candidate, Republican turn-out will be depressed and Democratic turn-out (which has shown a trend to be higher in presidential election years anyway) will be increased, and there’s a very real chance that they could lose a lot of down-ticket races as a result. A Trump candidacy won’t destroy America, but it could do a lot of damage to the Republicans.