Mission: Impassable

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on March 1, 2016

The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at The Wall Street Journal written by the editor, James Taranto.

Mission: Impassable
In the latest nationwide poll of Republicans, Donald Trump is either tantalizingly or terrifyingly close to majority support, depending on your point of view. “His support tops that of his four remaining opponents combined,” reports CNN, which commissioned the poll. “The businessman tops his nearest competitor by more than 30 points: 49% back Trump, 16% Marco Rubio, 15% Ted Cruz, 10% Ben Carson and 6% John Kasich.”

So much for the low-ceiling theory. The poll also seems to call into question the proposition that a non-Trump vote is an anti-Trump vote:

The survey asked those Republicans not currently backing Trump whether they would support him if he became the party’s nominee, and just a quarter of Republicans overall say they probably or definitely wouldn’t support him in November. That’s about the same as the share saying they wouldn’t back Rubio or Cruz.

The actual numbers tell a somewhat more complicated story. The share of non-Trump voters who say they probably or definitely wouldn’t support him in November is 48%; the equivalent shares of non-Cruz and non-Rubio supporters who say they wouldn’t support Cruz and Rubio, respectively, are 31% and 29%. Those work out to similar proportions of “Republicans overall” because Trump has so many more supporters—and correspondingly fewer nonsupporters—than either Cruz or Rubio.

Perhaps more important, the breakdown between “probably” and “definitely” is unfavorable to Trump. Among non-Trump supporters, 13% say they probably wouldn’t support him and 35% definitely. For non-Cruz supporters it’s 20% probably, 11% definitely; for non-Rubio ones, 17% probably, 12% definitely. So it’s fair to say Trump would have more resistance to overcome in consolidating Republican voters than either Cruz or Rubio would.

No wonder Republican “elected officials, political strategists and donors” are in a panic. In a series of interviews with the New York Times, dozens of them “described a frantic, last-ditch campaign to block Mr. Trump—and the agonizing reasons that many of them have become convinced it will fail.” The story, by Alexander Burns, Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin, is headlined “Inside the Republican Party’s Desperate Mission to Stop Donald Trump.”

Some of what we learn is unsurprising. “There’s this desire, verging on panic, to consolidate the field,” says South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham, who backed Jeb Bush after withdrawing from the race himself. “But I don’t see any movement at all.” Kasich’s “persistence in the race” has been a particular “source of frustration” for Washington Republicans because his support is so low:

One senior Republican senator, noting that Mr. Kasich has truly contested only one of the first four states, complained: “He’s just flailing his arms around and having a wonderful time going around the country, and it just drives me up the wall.”

Meanwhile Rubio, probably the best hope to stop Trump, has shown “a lack of finesse in dealing with his fallen rivals’ injured egos”—or at least with that of one ex-rival in particular:

[Chris] Christie had attacked Mr. Rubio contemptuously in New Hampshire, calling him shallow and scripted, and humiliating him in a debate. Nevertheless, Mr. Rubio made a tentative overture to Mr. Christie after his withdrawal from the presidential race. He left the governor a voice mail message, seeking Mr. Christie’s support and assuring him that he had a bright future in public service, according to people who have heard Mr. Christie’s characterization of the message.

Mr. Christie, 53, took the message as deeply disrespectful and patronizing, questioning why “a 44-year-old” was telling him about his future, said people who described his reaction on the condition of anonymity.

On Friday Christie endorsed Trump, who according to the Times had “made frequent calls to Mr. Christie once he dropped out.”

We had suspected there was some sort of personal backstory behind Christie’s remarkably vicious (though indisputably effective) attack on Rubio in that New Hampshire debate, and on first reading the Times account seemed to confirm our suspicion. But it’s also possible that Christie overreacted to Rubio’s slight because it helped him justify his earlier hostility to Rubio.

Some political observers have singled out this paragraph as particularly shocking:

While still hopeful that Mr. Rubio might prevail, [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell has begun preparing senators for the prospect of a Trump nomination, assuring them that, if it threatened to harm them in the general election, they could run negative ads about Mr. Trump to create space between him and Republican senators seeking re-election. Mr. McConnell has raised the possibility of treating Mr. Trump’s loss as a given and describing a Republican Senate to voters as a necessary check on a President Hillary Clinton, according to senators at the lunches.

The next paragraph, however, is rather anticlimactic: “[McConnell] has reminded colleagues of his own 1996 re-election campaign, when he won comfortably amid President Bill Clinton’s easy re-election.” In that analogy, Trump is Bob Dole, who was a weak presidential candidate but no one’s idea of a mortal threat to the GOP.

The gist of the story is that a fractious GOP “has been gripped by a nearly incapacitating leadership vacuum and a paralytic sense of indecision and despair,” causing a series of tactical and strategic failures. It seems to us, however, that at the root of all this is a deeper failure of understanding.

Trump has been the front-runner since entering the race last summer, and political professionals were very slow to grasp that his support was real and reflected genuine voter dissatisfaction with Republican politicians. As Justin Sherin, writing under the nom de plume “Dick Nixon,” observes:

They sat on their butts through the summer and fall thinking the evangelicals would carry them, but gays are getting married and there’s about to be a fifth liberal vote on the Supreme Court. Instead of sniffing at Trump, the thing to do was pluck feathers from his cap; for years they’ve stolen phrases, attitudes, and approaches from Reagan without regard to what they mean, so why not?

Marginalize and appropriate him. That was the way. But now it’s too late.

“These New Trump Poll Numbers Should Absolutely Terrify Republicans,” according to the headline of a Greg Sargent post at the Washington Post’s liberal Plum Line blog. He notes that the CNN poll finds Trump’s support among Republicans to be surprisingly broad: He “is dominating” among college graduates (46%), suburbanites (51%), those making more than $50,000 a year (50%) and those under 55 (47%).

The poll also finds, as CNN reports, that “Trump’s supporters are incredibly enthusiastic about the coming election. . . . Nearly 8 in 10 say that they are more enthusiastic about voting this year than in previous elections, [whereas] among Republicans who are not supporting Trump, just 39% say they are more enthusiastic than in years past.”

A vote is a vote, whether cast enthusiastically or grudgingly, but enthusiasm can be good for turnout. And the Puffington Host’s Zach Carter has some worrying news for Democrats—which, since politics is zero-sum, ought to offer some reassurance to Republicans.

“Hillary Clinton had a great night on Saturday,” Carter begins. “The Democratic Party had a terrible one”:

[Mrs.] Clinton trounced Sen. Bernie Sanders by nearly 3-to-1 in the South Carolina primary, winning every single county in the state. . . .

But Democratic Party elites shouldn’t be high-fiving each other. They should be very, very worried.

In primary after primary this cycle, Democratic voters just aren’t showing up. Only 367,491 people cast a ballot for either Clinton or Sanders on Saturday. That’s down 16 percent from the 436,219 people who came out in 2008 for Clinton and Obama. Factor in the 93,522 people who voted for John Edwards back in the day, and you can see the scope of the problem. Democrats in 2016 are only getting about two-thirds of the primary votes that they received eight years ago.

Michael Barone notes:

Many commentators have noticed that blacks constituted a higher percentage of South Carolina Democratic voters this year, 65 percent according to the exit poll, than they did in 2008, 55 percent. But this represents not a surge of blacks into the electorate, but rather the fact that black turnout declined by only 18 percent, whereas white turnout fell nearly in half, by 44 percent.

Republican enthusiasm and depressed Democratic turnout would normally be an unmixed blessing for the GOP.

This year it’s complicated because many Republicans doubt Trump could win—or even, given his inexperience, dubious temperament and ideological heterodoxy, that his winning would be preferable to Mrs. Clinton’s. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska has raised the possibility of supporting “some third candidate—a conservative option, a Constitutionalist.”

In due course, however—and assuming no big surprises in tomorrow’s primaries—professional Republicans may find themselves hoping the Democrats underestimated Trump’s appeal as badly as they themselves did.

For more “Best of the Web” from The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto click here.