The Republican Party apparatchiks and leaders of some duration seem to have undergone a significant change of heart regarding the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for their party’s presidential nomination. For the last several months, they have been waiting for the Trump campaign to collapse under its own hot air, but that hasn’t happened. None of the “credible” candidates from Jeb! to John Kasich (who could actually win in November) has emerged as an anti-Trump alternative. The party is now faced with a choice of Mr. Trump or Senator Ted Cruz with Marco Rubio a distant third. Senator Rubio hasn’t caught fire, and so, the old guard is turning to Mr. Trump. One shouldn’t be shocked if one understands a few political laws.
That the move is happening isn’t the delusion of an opinion writer stuck for copy. “You’re seeing the Washington establishment dumping their candidates,” Senator Cruz himself told Sean Hannity on his radio show. “For example, a lot of the establishment had been behind Marco Rubio. They’ve decided now that he doesn’t have a path to victory. They’re moving to Donald Trump. We’re seeing that more and more, and you know, it’s kind of curious. Donald is publicly boasting about how all the big establishment players are getting behind him.”
In The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli wrote that it is better for a ruler to be feared than loved. For an autocratic despot, that could well be true. However, in a democracy, fear works only if one is stirring up fear in the electorate to direct it elsewhere. Mr. Trump has told his supporters to fear Mexicans and Muslims, and they have followed suit. Mr. Trump himself is not feared. Indeed, among his supporters, the word “love” is apt.
And that is the first strike against Ted Cruz. He’s not well-liked by the party. Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.), a longtime House moderate who has not endorsed a candidate, stated “Cruz isn’t a good guy, and he’d be impossible as president. People don’t trust him. And regardless of what your concern is with Trump, he’s pragmatic enough to get something done. I also don’t see malice in Trump like I see with Cruz.” Bob Dole, a former senator and nominee of the party in 1996, said, “Nobody likes him [Cruz].” So when he could use some allies, he has no one disposed toward serving in that role.
Next, there is a growing sense in the GOP that Mr. Trump could actually win in November. Polls show that in a match up against Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump is trailing by 10% or less — indeed, a recent Fox News poll had him up by 3%. While Mr. Cruz polls slightly better than Mr. Trump in such a race, he isn’t prohibitively better. In addition, there is a belief that Mr. Cruz is more likely to repel independent voters than Mr. Trump. Political pros know that Mr. Trump is close enough for him to win in November, if he can get independents to back him. Mr. Cruz needs to find an electoral college majority that relies much more on just the conservative base. If Mr. Trump can win, why bother with a guy like Mr. Cruz?
The final nail in the Cruz coffin is the perception among GOP leaders that he will not only lose his own race in November, but also that he will cost the party races down-ballot by alienating independents. There is much less ticket-splitting these days than there was a generation ago, which in part reflects the death of moderation in American politics. So, the argument goes, if the voters are going to vote against Mr. Cruz, they are likely to vote against everyone on his slate, too. Politicians don’t mind a person from their own party losing so long as it doesn’t cost them their own seats.
In the end, the GOP establishment lost this for itself. The powers that be truly believed that Mr. Trump would implode and that the mood of the nation was not so pro-outsiders. Above all, they failed to rally behind a single candidate. The old saying goes “you can’t beat somebody with nobody” has a corollary; “you can’t be somebody with everybody, either.” The accommodation that will have to be made with Mr. Trump will turn a great many stomachs, and it may still not prevent Hillary Clinton from winning the White House (if she can get past Mr. Sanders).