The Parallel Republican Primary

After several months of preamble, the nominating process to find the next president of the United States officially started this week with Monday’s Iowa caucuses. The theme on both sides of the political divide was of outsiders breaking down barriers. Hillary Clinton became the first woman ever to win in Iowa, while Ted Cruz went one better, becoming the first Latino to win a presidential primary or caucus in any state.

With the New Hampshire primary two days away, it seems this theme will continue, with real estate mogul Donald Trump and democratic socialist Bernie Sanders the unlikely frontrunners in their respective primaries. While the arrival of the outsiders will likely dominate the headlines of Wednesday’s newspapers however, of perhaps more importance to the race is the ‘parallel primary’ taking place within the Republican field: a four-way battle for the support of the establishment.

‘The establishment’ is a very loaded term in American politics. It is an ill-defined concept, but at its base it connotes power and elitism, ties to political donors and the media, and most of all, time spent in Washington D.C. This year has seen anti-establishment rhetoric play a greater role than in perhaps any election in recent history with Sanders and Trump surging in the polls on the back of their populist messages from the left and right. Ted Cruz, despite his CV showing time working for the Bush administration and the chief justice of the Supreme Court, has made attacking the establishment a cornerstone of his campaign. And even Hillary Clinton, who has served as a senator, first lady and secretary of state, has claimed not to represent the establishment on the basis that she is a woman.

Though while candidates of both parties attack the establishment and cast themselves as independent rebels, the fact is that in an expensive, protracted primary campaign, the money, endorsements, and favourable media coverage that accompany establishment support are extremely useful. For the Republican Party, this year’s anti-establishment current that has fuelled the rise of Donald Trump has made the need to unite behind a suitable candidate even stronger. A ‘parallel primary’ is taking place alongside the normal elections: a battle to see who will represent the mainstream of the party in what is shaping up to be a three-way fight with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. At present, four candidates are competing to take that slot: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and John Kasich.

Just a few months ago it would have seemed an odd question to ask who the Republican establishment was going to support in the nomination race. Just as the Democrats had a Clinton on their side, the Republicans had a dynastic candidate of their own in Jeb Bush. A two-term governor related to the last two Republican presidents, Bush could not be more of an establishment figure, and this was reflected in the astonishing $103 million raised by his Super PAC Right to Rise in the first six months of 2015.

Since then, however, his campaign has been in freefall. The 2.8% of the vote he received in his sixth place finish in Iowa came at the cost of $14 million in advertising – a figure that works out at about $2800 a vote. For comparison, that is 18 times as much as Ted Cruz spent per vote, and 34 times the figure for Donald Trump. He performed well in last night’s debate, but with his Super PAC quietly delaying advertising buys in states that vote in March on the basis that he may have dropped out by then, he will need a strong showing in New Hampshire if he is to turn his campaign around.

With Bush’s campaign failing, establishment attention has turned to Marco Rubio. In many ways the junior senator from Florida was a better choice than Bush all along. He is young, Latino, conservative, and not saddled with the ‘Bush’ name. In Iowa, he outperformed expectations with a strong third place finish just one percentage point behind Donald Trump, and marked it with a speech that sounded like a declaration of victory. He may have come third, but for Rubio the result proved that he was the man best placed to take on Cruz and Trump – a message cheekily transmitted to his rivals’ donors as soon as the race was called in Iowa.

Rubio’s new status as unquestioned frontrunner in the parallel primary made him the main target for attacks in the eighth Republican debate, last night in New Hampshire; a role that he did not respond well to. In one bizarre exchange, he responded to Chris Christie accusing him of speaking in sound bites (‘a memorised 25 second speech’) by doing exactly that – repeating the same strange phrase three times in the space of just a few minutes. The Guardian deemed it ‘a damning, jaw-dropping moment’ and the crowd seemed to agree, booing when he used the line again later in the evening. It was, as conservative commentator David Frum wrote, ‘a display of panic at a moment of uncertainty‘. Rubio needed to appear presidential, and instead seemed anything but.

Rubio’s tormenter Chris Christie probably performed better than any of the other competitors in the debate last night. He gave strong and thoughtful answers on drugs, crime, and abortion, and emphasised his experience as governor of New Jersey, especially in relation to the response to Hurricane Sandy. It may however turn out to be too little, too late for him in New Hampshire, where he has fallen to sixth in the polls – down from second in December. With campaign funds running low, a disappointing result on Tuesday may prompt his exit from the race. A prominent figure within the party, Christie has long been considered a potential future president, but up until last night he had been unable to really distinguish himself from the pack. As Politico put it, ‘he was supposed to be the brash, blunt New York-area candidate who told it like it is. Then came Donald Trump’.

Christie’s fall in the Granite State has largely coincided with Ohio Governor John Kasich’s rise. The two offer broadly similar policy proposals and made a big show of complimenting each other at last night’s debate. However, unlike Christie, Kasich has managed to carve out a niche for himself as the positivity candidate – the ‘Prince of Light and Hope’, as he puts it. His rejection of some of the baser tactics of his opponents has gained him praise and the endorsement of several newspapers, most notably the New York Times, who called him ‘the only plausible choice for Republicans tired of the extremism and inexperience on display in this race’.

While he has the capacity to do well in New Hampshire, however, it is unlikely to translate to the wider stage. He has built up his support in the state mostly by dealing directly with voters, conducting over 100 ‘town hall’ meetings. This was possible in New Hampshire, one of the smallest states both in terms of population and area, but will not be elsewhere. Perhaps an even bigger problem for Kasich is his nationwide lack of recognition. One poll conducted after Iowa showed that 36% of Republicans were ‘not sure’ of their opinion on him – a full 14 points higher than anyone else in the race. This lack of familiarity with the candidate apparently extends to the moderators of last night’s debate, who had to be reminded to introduce him.

While Marco Rubio essentially declared victory in the parallel primary after Iowa, last night saw the senator flounder, and the three governors challenging him each put in their best performances of the campaign. It is not clear of course how much debates really matter to voters. As Nate Silver points out, political pundits watch so many of these debates and speeches that they tend to enter something of a ‘fog of war’ state where their reactions ‘aren’t necessarily good matches for those of voters at home’. However, even if voters of New Hampshire do not care too much about the performance of the governors or Rubio’s malfunctioning robot act, the donors, journalists and political figures who want to rally around a candidate just might. Rubio remains the heavy favourite to establish himself as the alternative to Cruz and Trump, but the parallel primary appears likely to continue for a while at least.

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About ourfriendsinthewest

A British take on American politics.

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