With South Carolina's Republican primary and Nevada's Democrat caucus behind us, the potential match-ups for November are fast shrinking. On the GOP side, there's a frontrunner, two weakish second-place guys, and a fourth candidate who'll hang in at least until Ohio. The exit-polling suggests Donald Trump is drawing his voters from across all demographic groups and ideological inclinations. If Ben Carson were to pull out, most of his support would go to Trump. If John Kasich were to pull out, most of his support would go to Rubio, but some to Trump. If Rubio were to pull out, more would go to Trump than to Ted Cruz. If Cruz were to pull out, most would go to Trump. That's the problem for those demanding the race consolidate into Trump vs one all-powerful non-Trump.
The post-Iowa effusions over Cruz and Rubio seem a long way away - and Cruz has just asked Rick Tyler, one of too many too-clever-by-half chaps in his campaign, to resign over a false Rubio story. A lot of Cruz fans criticized this Iowa column of mine, but Carson and perhaps now Rubio have taken a permanent dislike to the guy, which won't assist anti-Trump consolidation moving forward. And Cruz himself, in firing Tyler, seems to have recognized belatedly the danger of getting stuck with a reputation for slipperiness.
Republicans supposedly want to win this time round, and the thinking was that they had a strong bench - all those governors, Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal... Down to four unTrumps, the bench doesn't look quite so strong. The underlying problem for the American right is that the Republican Party - and thus by extension American conservatism which faute de mieux uses the GOP as its principal operating entity - is a very weak brand. At the presidential level, that is. It varies locally from state to state, and it can still win mid-term elections, when turnout is even lower than it is in presidential elections.
On that last point, America's mid-terms are the only general elections for a national legislature in any developed nation in which fewer than half the eligible voters turn out. in 2014 two-thirds of the electorate didn't show up, the lowest participation since 1942 - when a big chunk of electors had the entirely reasonable excuse that they were up to their necks in muck and bullets on the other side of the globe. But even US presidential elections have the lowest participation rate almost anywhere in the democratic world:
Swedish general election (2014) 85.8 per cent;
New Zealand general election (2014) 73.2 per cent;
French presidential election (2012) 71.2 per cent;
Irish general election (2011) 63.8 per cent;
US presidential election (2012) 53.6 per cent.
None of the above, by the way, are "compulsory voting" nations such as Australia, where I presently am. All the conventional wisdom about American elections is predicated on 50 per cent of the electorate not showing up. As I wrote after Obama trounced Romney in November 2012:
I'm always struck, if one chances to be with a GOP insider when a new poll rolls off the wire, that their first reaction is to query whether it's of "likely" voters or merely "registered" voters. As the consultant class knows, registered voters skew more Democrat than likely voters, and polls of "all adults" skew more Democrat still. Hence the preoccupation with turnout models. In other words, if America had compulsory voting as Australia does, the Republicans would lose every time. In Oz, there's no turnout model, because everyone turns out. The turnout-model obsession is an implicit acknowledgment of an awkward truth – that, outside the voting booth, the default setting of American society is ever more liberal and statist.
We can speculate on why half the country doesn't show up but until they do that's all it is: speculation. However, as the 2008 turnout (58.2 per cent) demonstrated, the Dems only have to get very few of this missing 50 per cent to put in an appearance and the GOP gets absolutely clobbered. To do that that you need a candidate whose appeal is beyond the purely political, such as Obama. Hillary, fortunately for the Republicans, is not that person. The New Hampshire youth turnout suggests Bernie could be. But Hillary, again fortunately, is willing to use her party's corrupt and malodorous processes to deny Bernie victory.
As it is, in the past 30 years only two Republicans have won the presidential election and they're both called George Bush - although the second one lost the popular vote and required the assistance of the courts to win the electoral vote. Nevertheless, that map at top right shows Bush the First's victory in 1988. Look at it and marvel at his sweep across the fruited plain. In the south-west he won California. In the north-east he won four New England states. He won the home state of a young community organizer called Barack Obama.
This time round another Bush was running. Indeed, he was the favorite, until Donald Trump took him out with a single adjective ("low-energy"). But, even had he won the nomination, not even Jeb ever thought he'd be competitive in California or Illinois or two-thirds of New England. That turf has been long abandoned.
It was twelve years after Bush the First before another Republican victory - from Bush the Second. This wasn't like his dad's win. The 2000 election was the one that gave us "red states" and "blue states", as if they were a permanent feature of life. The "red states" were a solid L shape sweeping down through the Rockies and then east through the old Confederacy to the Atlantic. Except, even at its high water mark, the GOP L wasn't that solid. New Mexico went blue, leaving the red redoubts more like a Cuban-heeled boot. In lieu of New Mexico, Bush had his margin of victory provided by the four electoral votes of my own state - New Hampshire, the sole remaining piece of rock-ribbed Republicanism in New England. Our neighbors, given the choice between "Live Free Or Die", had chosen to let the GOP die.
This extremely close shave was delivered by the man Sean Hannity calls "the architect" - Karl Rove. Mr Rove is a skilled operator who thought the key to success was dividing the map into blue and red zones and maximizing turnout in the designated red zones. No serious person any longer thought it worth the GOP competing for California or Vermont - both won by Bush's dad a mere twelve years earlier but by 2000 apparently lost in perpetuity.
The red state/blue state division has been horribly unhealthy in a civic sense: It's given us the worst of all worlds - a hyperpartisan public discourse that provides a tedious and pointless vaudevillian cover for the cozy bipartisan Washington conspiracy that's screwing over your future 24/7 regardless of who's in office. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, Rethuglicans are always at war with Demo-rats, and hey, let's toss another trillion into the great sucking maw of the federal leviathan.
Another twelve years later, and the big Republican L shape was even more nibbled away at. In Mitt Romney's hands, the Cuban boot degenerated into a Marco Rubio stiletto heel with a hobo's flapping toecap: Colorado joined New Mexico in the blue camp, and so did Virginia and New Hampshire. The Rovian turnout-model model of electioneering would work fine were it not that year on year formerly red states are turning purple and purple states are going blue. This is in part because the Democrats and the kamikaze wing of the Republican Party have spent the last 30 years electing a new people, by importing them. But it's also due to something I talk about in The [Un]documented Mark Steyn - the abandonment by conservatives of all but the non-electoral levers in society, from education to pop culture. The average person doesn't want to live an aggressively partisan life, and, if you're one of those persons raised in almost any American public school in the last four decades, it's easier to be liberal: To be opposed to, say, climate alarmism is to choose a position that requires eternal defending, whereas to profess to be concerned about the future of the planet is just the default setting of society, from kindergarten on. A liberal culture is good at making conservatism seem more trouble than it's worth.
Given the remorseless demographic transformation and the cultural advantage, the Rovian L model gets riskier every year. To get back to Bush the Second's squeaker of a win, this year's candidate has to win everywhere that Romney won and then put New Hampshire, Virginia, Ohio and Florida back in the bag. Maybe he could forego New Hampshire by reverse-engineering "the Colorado model" and thereby pad his margin a little. But outside those five states where does a Republican nominee go for electoral votes?
The survivors of the mod squad, Rubio and Kasich, are offering conventional wisdom. Nominate a candidate who doesn't frighten "centrists" and "swing voters" and shore up those purpling polities like Virginia and Florida. The evidence suggests, alas, that swingable centrists are an ever tinier sliver of the electorate.
Ted Cruz is betting on a 2016 update of the Rovian model: It's a base election, so you motivate the base by tossing them red meat. It worked in Iowa - although his speech that night was an interesting revelation of his potential weaknesses in the general election. It didn't work in "moderate" "libertarian" New Hampshire, and it flopped pretty comprehensively on the supposedly friendlier turf of South Carolina, where he won not a single county. He talks about "Reagan Democrats" and I have no idea what that phrase means in the context of 2016 - nonagenarian FDR voters? If he has in mind bluecollar white males, he seems to be losing them to Trump.
Marco Rubio is a little bit Ted and a little bit Jeb: He says he'll both "unite" the Republican Party and "grow" it. I think the "growing" part is mostly hooey: Platform-wise, he's running as Dubya's third term, and the media won't be shy about hammering that.
Donald Trump is offering Donald Trump. He thinks he can put New York in the GOP column because that's his home turf. And he thinks he can win enough Democrats to put other blue states in play. And he reckons he's sufficiently seductive that if just five per cent of that fifty per cent who stay home were to show up - if America were to be, in other words, not Sweden but just a few points shy of Ireland - then all the turnout models go to hell and you might wind up with a victory margin closer to Bush the First's. The theory is appealing, and New Hampshire's semi-open primary gave a small measure of support to it.
But, as things stand, these three electoral maps - 1988, 2000, 2012 - are a portrait of remorseless Republican decline. What other bits of that Cuban heel might drop off? The usually very astute Michael Barone says not to worry:
Republican fears that Hispanics would make Arizona, Texas and Florida as solidly Democratic as California are unfounded.
1988, 2000, 2012... What about another 12 years? In Arizona, a majority of grade-schoolers are Hispanic: Are you entirely confident AuH2O country will still be red a decade hence? In 2010, seventy per cent of births at Dallas General Hospital were "anchor babies": If the GOP loses Texas' 38 electoral votes, there is no conceivable math that on the Rove turnout-model model gets them to the magic 270 - or anywhere near it.
None of the above has to do with philosophy or ideology, which is for voters to weigh as they see fit - Rubio on amnesty against Trump on the Obamacare mandate. But the question for the party as an institution is simple: how do you put back together that bare-minimum Bush 2000 "L"? And, if you find it hard to imagine Cruz winning New Hampshire or Rubio Colorado, what's your alternative? The Republican Party has spent a generation rewarding failure: Mike Murphy, who blew through 100 million bucks to get Jeb to 2.8 per cent in Iowa, will nevertheless walk away from yet another floppo campaign with "a minimum of $14 million". No one loses as expensively as Republicans.
Long term, two things have to happen: America has to restore the integrity of its borders, and conservatism has to get a piece of the action in the schools and the culture. Short term, the GOP has done a grand job of screwing itself out of electoral viability.