Just before Christmas I detailed in this space about how the entrance of Donald Trump into the Republican presidential race delivered a sucker-punch to the candidacies of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie. "Overnight," I wrote, "the establishment went from 40%, where it had been surfing for months, to 25%, from which it never came back."
While it's true that the word "establishment" has been overused this cycle to the point of near meaninglessness, it is also true (if tautological!) that there is a group of GOP voters, financiers, and commentators who are appalled by Donald Trump, distrustful of Ted Cruz, and uncomfortable with the libertarianism (especially on foreign policy and surveillance) of Rand Paul. These people worry about the long-term health of the Republican brand, and are concerned about electability. For lack of better terminology, I'm going to call them the establishment, and the aforementioned three kneecapped presidential aspirants (along with Ohio Gov. John Kasich), the establishment candidates. If you've got a better term, I'm all ears.
Now then. If you go month by month, here are the combined national polling averages of the Establishment Four, starting in August:
In other words, the flight to perceived quality was just not happening, no matter what outrage was tumbling forth from Donald Trump's mouth.
The Outsider Four, on the other hand (Trump + Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Ted Cruz, only the latter of whom has ever held elective office), was busy over that same time period doing this:
The same broad trend—outsiders steadily gain toward two-thirds, while insiders stagnate below a quarter—was present over the same August-January time period in Iowa:
Ah! But meticulous observers will note that the trajectories finally changed, if slightly, in January, just before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses. In fact, it was only in the final two pre-election polls that the Establishment Four cracked the 30 percent barrier (while the Outsider Four netted just 55 percent). Final score once the votes were tallied? O4 61%, E4 30%. That "establishment lane," long derided as too narrow by Ted Cruz, appears to have widened up at the last minute.
As it has nationwide. There have only been three national GOP polls taken so far this month, but the numbers are striking. Whereas the Establishment Four collectively have failed to attract even one-quarter of Republican voters in any average month's worth of polls over the past half year, they are jumping out of the gate in February at 32 percent. And the Outsiders are back down to their November level of 60 percent. It looks like you don't have to be Ted Cruz to beat Donald Trump for the Republican nomination.
That's the numerical backdrop to tonight's dogfight in New Hampshire, where Bush, Kasich, and Christie have all chosen to bet the farm, much in the way that Rand Paul put all his chips on Iowa. Due in part to their exertions, plus the Live Free or Die State's independent streak, the establishment lane has been widening steadily since September—25%-30%-33%-39%-41%, with the last five pre-election polls putting the E4 nearly at parity with the O4, 46 percent to 51 percent. If any among Rubio-Kasich-Bush-Christie create real separation from the rest tonight, he'll have a case to make to the donor class that this is their last, best hope to prevent a crazy person from carrying the GOP banner. There hasn't been a battle for second place this intense since Sept. 28, 2011.
So that's the good news, for those of us who want to see Donald Trump taken down a peg or three. The bad news? Well, have you looked at those four guys?
Start with foreign policy. Bush, the $100 million loser, says fantastical crap like "We need to eliminate the sequester which is devastating our military." (On planet earth, Congress eliminated the sequestration cuts in late October.) Rubio, who thinks Jeb's brother did a "fantastic job" on foreign policy, supported Libyan regime change and is a denialist about military spending impacting the national debt. Christie—did you hear that he was a federal prosecutor after 9/11?—is a grade-A fearmonger who says stuff like "we have people across this country who are scared to death" and "everywhere in America is a target for these terrorists." And Kasich, the liberal media darling du jour, answers FoPo questions with a combination of resume-recitation and pure word salad. Example:
So look, in foreign policy—in foreign policy, it's strength, but you've got to be cool. You've got to have a clear vision of where you want to go. And I'm going to tell you, that it—I'm going to suggest to you here tonight, that you can't do on-the-job training.
I've seen so much of it—a Soviet Union, the coming down of a wall, the issues that we saw around the world in Central America, the potential spread of communism, and 9/11 and Gulf War. You see what the Saudi's—deliver them a strong message but at the end of the day we have to keep our cool because most of the time they're going right with us. And they must be part of our coalition to destroy ISIS and I believe we can get that done.
One of the primary values of any GOP subset you could define as "establishment" is a foreign policy that is considerably more hawkish than that of Republican voters at large. Which is likely one reason that Donald Trump is ratcheting up his rhetoric against wasteful defense spending and the military-industrial complex: There are votes there.
As the establishment lane widens, so does the chance that we'll have another Bush/McCain/Romney on our hands when it comes to advocating the expenditure of American money and blood in the name of "defense." And so does the likelihood that Jeb Bush, Kasich, and even the hapless, serially lying drug warrior Chris Christie—who hasn't topped 6 percent in a national poll since last April—will hang around until at least Super Tuesday.
So enjoy the bloodsport tonight, but know that the more the establishment gains, the more that establishmentarians will be emboldened. As in seemingly everything else with the 2016 presidential race, there is no such thing as unalloyed good news.