Don’t Let Anyone Fool You, It’s Now Trump Versus Rubio
And then there were two. While formally the field of candidates for the Republican Party nomination now totals five now that Jeb Bush has ended what history will remember as the saddest campaign for President in history, in truth there are only two that really matter at this time: Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. The fight for the nomination is between them now, and all the other also-rans still in the field are really just a distraction, destined to be a chapter in someone else’s book.
Ted Cruz needed a win or a very clear second-place showing in South Carolina and it simply failed to materialize. Unlike New Hampshire, with its New England tinged libertarian bent of blue-blooded moderation, the Palmetto State was precisely the kind of red meat, evangelical heavy environment that was perfect for a candidate like the senator from Texas. By failing to beat Trump, and losing second place to Marco Rubio (admittedly by a nose) it increasingly looks like Cruz’s win in Iowa was a misnomer; that he is only another Rick Santorum capable of blitzing one early state but unable to go further. Even more damaging, by losing the South Carolinian evangelical vote to the Donald he’s now lost the ace up his sleeve which was the argument that the twice-divorced, “New York values” philanderer would simply never be acceptable to the more conservative wing of the party thus making Cruz the only candidate to hit the sweet spot of being both outside the establishment and meeting the bar of ideological purity demanded by primary voters. It’s not impossible for Cruz to come back from this, but his path to the nomination ran through the South (unlike Trump whose peculiar coalition of voters could potentially be just as viable in states like Illinois and Minnesota as it proved to be in South Carolina) and if upcoming contests in Florida and Tennessee and Virginia prove to be repeats of last night then that path becomes all the steeper.
For Donald Trump it is now indisputable. He is the front-runner at this point. In a week where he insulted George W Bush, complimented Planned Parenthood, came out in favour of Obamacare’s mandate (kinda) and had a fight with the Pope he still managed to bulldoze all opposition and win not just the State’s popular vote by comfortable double digits but also all seven individual districts thus capturing all fifty of delegates at stake that night. The other candidates in the race simply have to reconcile themselves to this simple hard truth: even though Trump’s personal life and political positions in many ways go against the conventional mould of a winning candidate a large enough number of GOP voters JUST DON’T CARE. To his electorate of blue-collar, down on their luck, largely white and working class voters who feel ignored by the conventional right and outright despised by the conventional left, Trump represents a candidate who for the first time in forever finally has their backs. They don’t like the modern world, and they’re now turning to someone they see as not being complicit in the creating of it. Telling the unemployed factory workers in the rustbelt that Trump will ruin the economy is unlikely to sway them, to those poor souls America is already in ruins. Waiving his two divorces in the faces evangelicals who feel under siege by speech codes and safe spaces and trigger warnings will accomplish little; they’ve given up on electing one of their own and now are merely looking for a bodyguard.
It would be premature to pop the champagne just yet, however. Trump still faces one potentially fatal weakness and that is the question of whether he can grow his support beyond the quarter to a third he already has sewn up. That’s enough to win in a five to six person race, but if the field shrinks to three (which is not actually as guaranteed as some are assuming it is) it becomes much less likely and impossible should it come to a head to head showdown. Can Donald Trump do this? I honestly don’t know. It is worth noting he’s increasingly be trying to moderate and tone it down (his very gracious comments towards both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in his victory speech for example), and if we tally up his voters with those currently behind Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, who might very well choose to go over to him than the ironically labelled “establishment man” named Marco Rubio, he actually commands a slim majority of the electorate. However, at this point the earth may be salted beyond his existing base of support. Only time will tell otherwise.
Rubio also has plenty of reason to celebrate. Rebounding from his lacklustre showing in New Hampshire, the senator from Florida managed to beat out Ted Cruz for the second place spot and it is fair to say he is most likely the only man still in the race who could beat out Trump for the nomination. His speech on the night of was clearly straight from the heart, as a visibly moved Rubio pledged to be the candidate of those of aspiration and ambition and to lead “the children of Ronald Regan” into a “New American Century”. Rubio has proven that he possesses the charisma and credentials to lead, and I will admit I have been very impressed with his championship of the traditional family unit as the bedrock of society and by his willingness to advocate specific policies that would strengthen it. Not to mention the irony of seeing a youthful Latino son of immigrants campaign against either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, both of which could take first place the “Ancient Old White Person” contest at the county state fair in a breeze.
Rubio also has reasons of his own to worry, however. It should be noted that despite having the endorsements of Nikki Haley, Trey Gowery and Tim Scott he only managed to beat out Ted Cruz by the skin of his teeth. Fairly or not (and calling the pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, genuinely devout Roman Catholic a “moderate” most assuredly is not), Rubio has been labelled as the establishment man in this race. That is a weakness he will have to address, especially if he takes the nomination, particularly on the immigration file given that the base has spoken on this issue and made it clear they are tired of all talk and no action on the question of the border. Those dreaming of a Rubio/Haley ticket should likely cool their jets and realize he would be much better served by choosing a Rick Perry-esque figure with tough border security credentials.
More immediately, Rubio may also be facing a ceiling of his own. Even with Jeb Bush now out of the picture there is no guarantee all of his support, measly as it was, will go over to him. John Kaisch, holding out vain hope that he might turn things around when the race turns to the New England states in the few months, seems determined to remain on the ballot through the upcoming southern states and Super Tuesday, denying Rubio his 5-10% of the vote. Ben Carson seems equally determined to remain in the race if only to take a lingering revenge on Ted Cruz for his shenanigans in Iowa (and anyway his supporters might just as easily go to Cruz or Trump if he were to drop out). A grand-alliance between Rubio and Cruz is likely a pipe dream; the two men have despised each other since they both entered the Senate and neither is in a desperate enough position to drop out and endorse the other. If the field remains divided for the next few contests, Trump continues to win, and eventually Rubio will face questions over “Is he ever going to win a state outright?” that will have to be answered.
Regardless, it is clear that barring an unexpected reweighing of the scales (which is always a possibility) the course now seems set. It is Donald Trump, the brash and at times bullying nativist, against Marco Rubio, the charming and smooth great Hispanic GOP hope. In a way it is almost poetic. Both have certainly proven themselves to be strong, indeed even compelling, candidates in their own ways. Both have their own weaknesses that their most fanatical supporters would prefer to pretend were not there. Indeed, I am actually quite glad to not be American at this time, because choosing between the two would be a true struggle.
I find Trump to be quite personally dislikable, and I have serious reservations about his volatile personality, but on the issue of immigration he is right. “Either we’re a country or we’re not” quite aptly sums up the great debate of the 21st century between nationalism and globalization, and I know firmly which camp I am in on that one. His willingness to at least acknowledge the unspoken failures of modernity are also highly compelling, even if I find his proposed solutions somewhat lacklustre. On the other hand, I find Rubio to be a highly commendable and charismatic figure. He has the poise and dignity to be President without question. I also find his stance on social policy to be much more in line with mine. However, I do disagree with him very strongly on the issue of immigration and border security, and more broadly he seems to be a captive of the same old thinking and ways of doing things that have so spectacularly failed in recent years. Who shall ultimately triumph? Only God knows, so ask him.