Mike Littwin: Donald Trump wins angry voters. Can he lose the primaries?
February 25, 2016
If you're among those unready and unwilling to buy into the notion that the Donald is now a sure thing to win the Republican nomination — even as many of the same pundits who once said he couldn't possibly win are now saying he's unstoppable — your best hope is something we'll call the Trump Ceiling Theory (TCT).
The TCT is, at once, the last refuge of the Trump skeptics (see Nate Silver for a full explanation), of the Republican establishment (such as it is, in the suddenly post-Bush era) and of all sane Americans (who may, God help us, get a full reading on the nation's sanity quotient come November).
Anyway, the theory is that, yes, Trump's special brand of demagoguery may attract something like a disaffected, angry third of the Republican vote — and, yes, that third is enough to win in a crowded primary field, and if the number grows to, say, 40 percent, that's enough to win in a not-so-crowded field — but when you finally get down to a two-person race, presumably Trump against establishment favorite Marco Rubio, well, all bets are off. Because of the TCT.
This theory — that Trump has a high floor and a low ceiling — is based on simple math and simple logic, not to mention dozens of polls showing Trump's unfavorables to be truly unfavorable.
And so, we are to believe that whatever Trump has managed to do so far (runaway victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, a second place in Iowa, a huge polling lead in most of the Super Tuesday states), there is no way that fully half of Republican voters would ever support Trump. Because come on.
Therefore, Republicans must inevitably, and quickly, rally around one not-Trump, presumably Rubio, because it's a matter of not only self-interest, but also self-preservation. Forget about Trump's chances of beating Hillary Clinton, assuming she beats Bernie Sanders. Think instead of the damage the GOP would do to itself in choosing Trump, basically saying that ideology doesn't matter, religion doesn't matter, so-called family values don't matter, not even Obamacare matters. So, yeah, come on. Politics may not be beanbag, but it's not suicide-pact either.
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Feeling better now?
I didn't think so.
There are at least two problems with the theory. First, there are still five people in the field, if you insist on counting Ben Carson. Republicans are begging John Kasich to get out for the good of the party. But while Kasich may be running as the nice-guy Republican, he ain't that nice. A billionaire just signed on to his team. He's rounding up endorsements. This doesn't look like someone ready to drop out before — in the Kasich game plan – the March 8 Michigan primary. If he hangs on there, the Ohio governor goes to his home state the next week. If you think it's a long shot, tell that to Kasich's new billionaire buddy.
And besides, Kasich isn't the problem for Rubio, any more than Jeb! and Chris Christie were the problems. Rubio's problem is Rubio, advertised as the forward-looking voice of a new generation who is still looking for a theme to his campaign other than being the one who can most often say that Obama is knowingly destroying the country. Rubio's biggest moments so far have been outlasting Jeb! (everyone beats Jeb!) and, after getting endorsements from virtually all of South Carolina's GOP leadership, finishing two-tenths of a percentage point ahead of Ted Cruz for second place. Rubio, who has yet to register anything close to victory, claimed victory anyway, with most of the GOP establishment loudly joining in, and pronounced it now a two-person race between him and Trump, whom Rubio has spent most of the campaign studiously avoiding.
And if Cruz wasn't laughing at the effrontery, it was only because he was dealing with his chief spokesman being caught re-Tweeting a video falsely accusing Rubio of dissing the Bible. It became a big deal only because Cruz is Cruz, and so, to dispel with the notion that he knew exactly what he was doing in attacking Rubio, Cruz had to fire spokesman Rick Tyler on the eve of the Nevada caucuses while apologizing for his campaign being so Ted Cruz-like. Yes, TrusTed was BusTed, and it's that kind of race.
Which doesn't mean Cruz is going anywhere. Sure, South Carolina was a disaster for him. In a primary in which 73 percent of voters self-described as evangelists, Cruz, whose entire campaign is based on pandering to the religious right, lost the evangelist vote by six points — to Donald Trump, in what you might call the anti-humility sweepstakes.
But why does anyone think Cruz, who brags about his Nixon-like unlikeability, who brags even more about the fact that he is not a team player, would leave the race unless it's entirely in his interest to do so? He wouldn't. He won't.
Let's say, though, that Rubio starts to show some of his obvious potential. And let's say that Cruz gets embarrassed — that's already a stretch — by a poor showing on Super Tuesday and Kasich is done a week later in Michigan. Let's say that Ben Carson figures he has better things to do than show up for GOP debates. Let's say that eventually, somehow, we do get to Trump-Rubio.
What do we think Trump is doing all this time? If Cruz is losing badly and Kasich is losing badly and Rubio is trying to hold on though the Southern states, that must mean Trump is, well, winning. And winning so much that we'll all be sick of his winning, not to mention all the delegates he's accruing, not to mention the GOP leaders' continuing unwillingness to call out Trump for his reprehensible campaign.
And so while there is the ceiling theory, based on the notion that no self-respecting political party would ever nominate someone as unrespectable as Trump, there is also the competing theory that, for any candidate, winning begets winning, which, I'm guessing, would go nicely on a campaign cap.