For now, the outsiders are in, and the insiders are out.
Donald Trump has broken every rule, but he leads in the polls. The more he boasts about politicians he has bought, leased or rented, voters are drawn to this "reformer." Indeed, Trump offends and never apologizes. Rick Perry, Rand Paul, Megyn Kelly, Jorge Ramos, Hugh Hewitt, and even other candidates are mere props. And if Trump were elected, we don't really know what he would do. Many voters don't care, because he seems a strong, can-do leader to "make America great again." Do not underestimate Trump's ability, in a general election, to draw new voters to the polls and appeal to independents, disillusioned Democrats, union members and African-Americans. For the time being, that embryonic appeal will show up in general election polling that rebuts the conventional wisdom that he is an automatic loser in November 2016. But if his temperament and judgment emerge as viable discussion points, Trump's ceiling of support could fall below building code levels.
Ben Carson, an accomplished neurosurgeon with a compelling personal story has wisdom, humility and prudence, three qualities lacking among many of his fellow candidates. Who knows how far he could go with policy guidance? In temperament, Carson is the anti-Trump who has the potential to challenge the frontrunner in the next debate. But he has started to criticize Trump's mass deportation plan and questions Trump's faith. These seem to comprise both a strategic and tactical error. They were not the optimum Carson attack for now, and Carson has put Trump on notice before the second debate and lost the element of surprise. Yet, Carson's low-key and gentle inquiry into Trump's humility and faith could shape a broader discussion of Trump's character.
Also moving higher is Carly Fiorina who, like Carson, has never held elective office but scores points with her direct and brief answers, even to most "gotcha" questions. And, with staying power, there is insurgent U.S. Senator Ted Cruz who rails against the Republican establishment and can even answer the most challenging 'gotcha' questions.' All three have consistent and grounded views, so - unlike Trump -- we can reasonably infer what they might do as president. On the national ticket: Carson appeals beyond the base, and Fiorina deflects the 'war on women.' In the lead-up to the next debate, Fiorina is elevated by Trump's Rolling Stone interview with his remarkable and boorish remark about her appearance.
Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum will not be nominated. But Trump does because the anti-Trump vote is shared by these candidates, with their token support, and also with persistent others polling viably, whom I shall now mention.
Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum reach out populist-style to disenchanted Americans who, like Trump supporters, see America as becoming where the rich live well, the poor get government assistance, and everyone else is caught in-between. Huckabee, like Trump, pretends we cannot even slowly increase the social security retirement age. Santorum has written Blue Collar Conservatism to argue another heresy, in favor of government corporate subsidies to boost employment, the very crony capitalism that Rand Paul and the other candidates reject. Paradoxically, the super-rich Trump, a crony capitalist according to his critics, is perceived by voters as the preeminent populist. Both Huckabee and Santorum are still seen mainly as evangelical candidates with a narrow appeal and will not be nominated.
Rand Paul started off with admirable outreach, but he is haunted by his father, Ron Paul - a huckster for doomsday ads - who also continues publicly to favor the Iran deal. In the upside down political universe, Trump insults reporters with impunity; Rand, merely overly defensive in interviews, was criticized as hopelessly thin-skinned. Rand now talks more deliberatively, but his time is past. Rand will drop out to run for reelection to the U.S. Senate,
Jeb Bush is an intelligent man and a nice guy who could be secretary of state, but everyone keeps asking, "Why is he running?" His opening television spot is typically mediocre. He has lowered himself to trading twitter barbs with Trump. The dynasty dynamic: the worse Clinton does, the more Bush is hurt. With $100 million, Jeb will not quit, so Chris Christie's path remains problematic. Imagine if that money were deployed instead next year for key races for U.S. Senate, Congress, and Governor.
Supporters of Scott Walker insist it's way too early to count him out. But I do. He comes across as a lightweight and is not improving. In the first debate he advocated prohibiting all abortions, even to save the life of the mother, and Carson tilts down that dead-end road. If Walker continues to falter, the very-intelligent Ted Cruz might benefit, but the also-bright and almost-charismatic Marco Rubio has the most upside potential. But Rubio's political instincts are off: he opposes Trump's popular and sensible plan to end lower tax rates for hedge fund tycoons. Rubio looks even younger than his years and sounds scripted, even inauthentic. He needs a slower, thoughtful delivery.
Much can happen, but for now Trump, Carson, Fiorina, Rubio, or Kasich remain the most likely contenders. We'll know very soon if any states move from winner-take-all delegate primaries to proportional delegate representation, to thwart a Trump nomination. But that gambit could antagonize Trump as unfair, jeopardizing his no third-party run pledge. It could also prevent a pre-convention nominee and create a suspenseful, yet divisive series of convention ballots, even a brokered convention could yield Mitch Romney or, who knows?
A deadlocked convention looking at an electoral vote strategy might opt for Kasich from Ohio, along with much younger Rubio from Florida as running mate, if an outsider like Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina is not chosen. Typically, the presidential nominee - not the vice president - turns out the base. And John Kasich must do a lot to become a draw.
Kasich has no automatic claim on any Republican base - establishment (Bush and Christie), conservative (Walker, Rubio, Cruz), evangelical (Huckabee, Santorum) or outsider (Trump, Carson, Fiorina). Right now, it seems hard to imagine Kasich getting the nomination through the primary process or in a brokered convention. But he is working New Hampshire effectively, and victory there or even a second place showing could yield momentum. In the first debate Kasich came across as honest, forthright and an adult.
At a time of volatile rebellion, will a safe electoral strategy work? Kasich is remarkably comfortable in his skin...as a career politician. However, the party's hardcore wanted no accommodation with Obamacare; Kasich accepted Medicaid expansion. Activists cringe at Common Core; Kasich accepted it. At times he sounds too much like a George W. Bush "compassionate conservative." One conservative Member of Congress told me, "John is a Nixon. But I guess that's better than a Bush." Kasich's public congeniality is an asset, but insiders say he's stubborn and temperamental. Conservative leaders have no rapport with Kasich and distrust him. Movement conservatives in Ohio complain they can't work with him.
On two important issues, Kasich has credibility and knowledge. As a U.S. Congressman, he was a fiscal hawk as Budget Committee Chairman, and a defense stalwart as Armed Services Committee Chairman. As a governor he not only can argue he is a proven manager who limited the budget, cut taxes, and presided over a growing economy, but he led his state's movement for criminal justice reform, which goes beyond the base. And he has low-key appeal to evangelicals without wearing religion on his sleeve. His family's working class background gives him the in-vogue populist twist.
But John Kasich must convince Republican primary voters that he is not just another Mitch McConnell or John Boehner, both increasingly unpopular. And he also must convince general election voters that he's not a country club Republican. And he can do both simultaneously by taking on the establishment. He needs a Clinton "Sister Soulja" moment to tell off the Chamber of Commerce.
Kasich should take a lesson from Donald Trump, who called for taxing hedge fund guys at regular rates. Kasich needs to challenge the special interests and the K Street lobbyists, to be plausible. Talk down Wall Street and talk up Main Street. Involve the reformist and populist Tea Party followers with good-government and open-government proposals that also satisfy a larger general electorate. Reach out to new-age libertarians and movement conservatives. Prove before the convention that if you're the nominee, conservatives will not stay at home in November.
The right-wing talk radio hosts say Kasich strayed too far, yet they have inexplicably cut slack for Trump. Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and others won't be so easy on Kasich. Should there be this double standard that rejects a wayward Kasich and accepts an unrepentant Trump?
The right-wing arbiters say Ronald Reagan was elected because of his conservative principles, but what about Reagan's engaging style? They say only a rigid conservative can turn out the base in 2016, not the more pragmatic (they would say, unprincipled) Kasich. If Hillary is the nominee, she could yet turn out the conservative base, which, regardless, remains a smaller share of the electorate than in Ronald Reagan's time, a generation ago.