After last night's sixth GOP primary debate, it looks very much like race is down to two contestants: Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, both of whom solidified their place at the top of the Republican heap last night.
As Will Rahn argues in a smart analysis for The Daily Beast, all the signs right now points to either Trump or Cruz as the nominee. It's possible that Marco Rubio, who had a good but not spectacular performance last night, might make some headway, but it's a long shot, and there's essentially no evidence that a Rubio surge is in the works. (Other folks seem to think Chris Christie had a good night. If so, I didn't see it.) Trump and Cruz aren't just leading; they're dominating.
Trump is well ahead in both the national polls and the election betting odds, where he's up 11 percent in the last week. In a new national poll from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal released yesterday, Trump more than doubled his overall lead, clocking as the first choice of 33 percent of GOP voters, with Cruz lagging behind in second place with 20 percent support. For months, the hope has been that Trump would fade as the field inevitably narrowed, but the poll suggests that Trump would win in either a three-man race against Rubio and Cruz or a head to head against Rubio. Republicans seem to be coming around to Trump as the nominee, with 65 percent now saying they can see themselves supporting him, up from 23 percent early last year.
Notably, however, the NBC/WSJ poll finds that Trump would lose a head-to-head matchup against Ted Cruz. Cruz, who is virtually tied with Trump in Iowa (and leading in some polls), seems best positioned to beat Trump, if anyone can.
One takeaway from this is that everything is kind of terrible, although that is probably an evergreen description of politics.
Another is that it means that in any likely scenario, libertarians and libertarian ideas will be largely absent from the presidential race. Trump has no ideology except self-preservation, and his instincts consistently lean toward petty (and not-so-petty) authoritarianism. Cruz holds a few positions that libertarians agree with, but many, many that run contrary. And even where there's overlap, he tends to go about things in ways that backfire: He's been better on surveillance than many Republicans, but has still declared that Edward Snowden is a traitor who needs to be tried for treason. His 2013 crusade against funding Obamacare was a disaster that resulted in a pointless and ineffective government shutdown that probably made the health law more popular while it was happening. The gambit's failure was completely predictable and widely predicted.
For the most part, then, a primary battle between Cruz and Trump means a conservative culture war, in which fist-shaking foreign policy pronouncements and trollish immigrant-bashing account for the majority of the discussion.
I find the failure to represent libertarian ideas both disheartening and frustrating, especially given how influential those ideas have been in recent year. But there's an even more generalized failure in the works: A Trump-Cruz contest means that calm, rational individuals who are not liberals, and who do not support either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, have essentially no place to go in the general election. Trump and Cruz are running angry, hysterical campaigns full of hyperbole, misdirection, and easily provable lies. They are running campaigns based on fear and nativism, and are utterly untethered to the practical realities of politics and governance. For those who find that approach incredibly distasteful but who also find much to object to in both the flippant semi-socialism of Sanders and the cynical, corrupt-seeming center-leftism of Clinton (and yes, I fall into this group myself) there is little to latch onto in this race, and more than a little reason to despair.
It is a problem that extends beyond this particular campaign. In the sense that presidential candidates represent their parties, and those parties represent the spectrum across which national politics is debated, those same people now have little home in national politics of any kind. Which may suggest an explanation for why we're seeing party identification hit all-time lows, and why the public generally seems to be more down on the political process than ever. At this point, then, regardless of who ends up winning the primaries and facing off in the general election, it seems clear that a lot of people will end up left out.