We're now less than two weeks from the Iowa Caucus, and Donald Trump is still the Republican front-runner. That doesn't mean he'll win in Iowa, but he's still in very good shape for many early state contests. This is the outcome many of us thought impossible a few months ago.
A party is supposed to be able to prevent a celebrity with only modest commitments to its core values from winning a nomination. Thus far, it appears that Republican party elites have failed in this effort. Why?
To some extent, because they largely haven't tried. Don't get me wrong—quite a few important party elites have signaled their opposition to Trump. It's no small thing for the Speaker of the House to publicly criticize Trump's candidate's immigration stance, for South Carolina's governor to call him out for his tone during her response to the president's State of the Union address, or for a longstanding Republican insider to vow on the pages of the New York Times that he would never vote for Trump. In many ways, party leaders have communicated that they consider Trump's nomination unacceptable.
There are some signals that a few key actors—evangelical leaders, Mary Matalin—are open to a Ted Cruz nomination, but this has hardly been a torrent of support.
But there are basically two things a party needs to do to prevent someone it doesn't like from winning its nomination. First, attack that candidate. Second, coordinate support around someone else. The party has done neither.
A few public criticisms do not really constitute a sustained attack on a candidate. As Tim Alberta reports, basically no candidates are running advertisements against Trump in the early states. That in itself is rather remarkable. It may well be that campaigns believe that such advertising just won't work. Calling Trump out for being boorish, sexist, or racist would likely only endear him further to his substantial fan base, and it's possible that few would believe criticisms that his stances on many social issues are too liberal for the party. That said, billions have been spent on political advertising in the past few years without much concern over whether it would actually work. Why should that matter now?
The related problem is that the candidates desperately want to win over Trump's supporters, who are fanatical in their support for him. So how do you attack Trump without sounding like you're attacking his supporters? Also related is the fact that the party doesn't want to alienate those supporters and drive them away from voting.
Probably the most important reason Trump isn't taking heavy fire is that he has options. He's said that he wouldn't run as a third-party candidate should he be denied the nomination, but he's hardly been very consistent on that question. And more so than any other candidate, he has the ability to mount an independent candidacy that could substantially cut into Republican support in November. Republican leaders are treating him with kid gloves because they're trying to keep that from happening.
As for the other goal—coordinating around an alternative to Trump—the party has been strikingly unable or unwilling to do this. Even at this late date, only a smattering of governors and members of Congress have offered endorsements in the presidential race, and those have been split among several different non-Trumps. There are some signals that a few key actors—evangelical leaders, Mary Matalin—are open to a Ted Cruz nomination, but this has hardly been a torrent of support.
It is quite likely that Trump's presence has made such coordination exceptionally challenging. Were he not in the race, party leaders might well be considering whether to jump behind Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio in an effort to undermine Cruz, who has earned a good deal of enmity from party elites. But for many, Cruz is now looking like a way to stop Trump, even if they despise both of them.
Through their powers to coordinate on candidates and dispense endorsements, funds, campaign expertise, and other valuable campaign resources, party elites can be a formidable force in nomination contests, and thus they usually get what they want. But when party leaders don't do any of those things, it's quite easy for a crowded contest to simply go to the person with the best name recognition who's making the most noise. That's how this race looks to be shaping up as the invisible primary comes to an end.