Donald Trump‘s entry into the political arena has restructured the GOP from the already fractious “establishment vs. base” struggle that helped cost the party two presidential elections (even while making significant gains at the state and local levels) into a more complex and dynamic three-camp race.
If the polls are even close to accurate, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio – in descending orders of certainty — will each end the primary season with about a third of the votes, setting up a scenario in which negotiations among them would determine the 2016 GOP nominee. Barring a surprise resurgence of one of the other candidates or collapse of one of these three, the future of the GOP—and perhaps the nation—may hinge on next summer’s negotiations among a consummate deal maker, a champion debater, and a natural political talent.
Ted Cruz, the debater who has long positioned himself as the most outside of all Washington insiders, appears uniquely positioned to play the Trump and Rubio camps against each other. The other two candidates have oriented their campaigns around different visions of America’s role in the world. Trump’s positions on immigration, trade, and the Middle East suggest talking tough while holding the world at arm’s length, allowing people and goods to enter the country subject to tight rules. Rubio, on the other hand, envisions a fully engaged America, committed to global economic and security integration. Cruz seems to draw in part from both playbooks, currently infuriating both Trump and Rubio supporters, but also laying the groundwork for them to give him their eventual, if grudging, support as far superior to Hillary Clinton.
Cruz possesses this flexibility because his own supporters vote primarily on sociocultural issues. On foreign policy, they seek a candidate who paints an overtly Judeo-Christian portrait of America’s role in the world — achievable while embracing Trump’s policies, Rubio’s policies, or a combination of the two. And while this portends a highly motivated base for Cruz on the ticket, the focus on social issues could also weaken Cruz’s hand a bit in negotiations. The progressives who dominate the Democratic Party have spent eight years imposing values starkly different from traditional Western morality, on issues ranging from marriage and the free exercise of religion to free speech and due process on campus. Because Cruz represents the faction most clearly reliant on a Republican victory, his supporters seem least likely to sit at home and hand the Democrats a victory even if he is not on the ticket.
If Rubio or even the socially liberal Trump recruits a vice president with appeal to this “moralist” faction, they may be able to secure factional support without Cruz.
Donald Trump, the deal maker who prides himself on his negotiation skills, is poised to deploy a “no retreat” strategy. He appears unlikely to accept a VP slot, and he has no prominent allies to rally his troops in his stead. It is unclear what the GOP can offer Trump to retain his active support if he is not the nominee. If Trump does take the top of the ticket though, he will have to choose between a VP candidate capable of appealing to Cruz’s moralist followers or Rubio’s backers, who long for an America that is fully engaged in global economic and security leadership. Either choice will complicate his reintegration of the remaining third of the party.
Trump might be able to compensate for his alienation of at least a third of the party in the general election, however, by bringing the class struggle into full view. A Republican platform opposing free trade and immigration, willing to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, preserving the social welfare system, talking tough while committing relatively little in the way of military resources, and untethered to the environmental lobby, seems tailor-made for organized labor — and capable of making inroads among minority working Americans. Furthermore, Trump is hardly an unknown commodity to the labor unions; his long career in heavily unionized industries shows minimal history of labor troubles. Trump could give Clinton a run for her money with important parts of the Democratic base. Still, if too many Republican voters sit at home, Hillary Clinton will win easily; relying on the idea that they will support anyone running against her seems risky, and it is unclear how Trump plans to reconcile with the party establishment.
Rubio would face an analogous difficulty. With Trump off the table, Rubio could select either an ideologically compatible running mate with demographic appeal or balance the ticket with a moralist from the Cruz camp. It is unclear how Rubio could accommodate Trump’s supporters. To do so, he would have to reach back to his roots as a Tea Party insurgent who defeated an anointed establishment candidate — twice — on his way to the Senate. Such a feat of salesmanship would put Rubio’s much-vaunted political skills to the test.
As we head into 2016, the energy is all on the Republican side. The Democratic strategy appears to have coalesced around pursuing a ‘third term” mandate, making for boring debates but a unified base. If the early caucus results help the GOP coalesce, and if the party can make the Trump camp feel at home, that energy imbalance will likely lead to a GOP victory. Otherwise, it will combust in a spectacular display of Republican self-immolation.
It’s what Hillary and the DNC are counting on.