The Republican front line.

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Trump's Republican Rivals Aren't Losers

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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If the Republican presidential field is as impressive as many of us say it is, then how do we explain why Donald Trump has trumped them all so far? Rich Lowry in Politico says Trump's rise is "in part, a function of a vacuum." 

Dan Drezner over at the Washington Post puts it this way: 

So here's my question: What does it say about the deep GOP bench that none of them have managed to outperform a guy who has no comparative political advantage except celebrity and a willingness to insult anyone who crosses his path?

Sorry, Dan: It says nothing. 

The strength of the Republican field isn't about the candidates' polling numbers coming into the race. Most of them are largely unknown; even in the case of Jeb Bush, voters know little about him other than his family. So far. What counts is that many of them meet the basic tests of having conventional qualifications for the job while also falling within the party's mainstream on questions of public policy. And a number of them appear to have additional political talent as well.

Party actors, from elected officials to activists, have plenty of solid options to choose from. But the choice is complicated since there is no obvious nominee -- no sitting vice president, or strong runner-up from the last contest. It's even difficult for the various groups within the party, except for libertarians (who only have Rand Paul). Just from the viable candidates, religious conservatives have Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum or perhaps Scott Walker; hawks have Chris Christie or Marco Rubio or perhaps Scott Walker; and so on. 

The last time Republicans had a somewhat similar field, party actors quickly ended all uncertainty by lining up behind George W. Bush in 1999. It's possible that many of them regretted their fast decision, given that Bush wound up being an unpopular president (and Republicans lost the White House and their majorities in Congress). At any rate, they certainly haven't coalesced early around any 2016 choices, either before or after Trump became a thing.

That's probably smart. Why panic and rally around Jeb Bush, say, when it isn't clear he's as strong a candidate and future president as, say, Rubio or John Kasich? Nothing is lost if the party waits until the Iowa caucuses are a lot closer, or even a bit later, to decide, and by then it will have more available information. 

In the meantime, Trump is going to draw attention away from the other, largely unknown candidates. So his lead in the polls may persist for a while.

Just remind yourself: Voters haven't engaged yet. They won't engage for months. Since most voters aren't in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, by the time they do pay attention, their choices will be different from what they appear to be today. And what they hear about those candidates will be different, too. Nothing is wrong with the Republican candidates that won't be solved by waiting a few months.

  1. Will Trump distort the normal winnowing process? Perhaps, since the party actors are seeing nothing but Trump, Trump, Trump in early polls, reducing opportunities for other candidates to surge. Then again, those early surges can be misleading, so it isn't clear there's any harm in having Trump front and center. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net