Debate: Who's Up and Who's Down After Super Tuesday
Two Bloomberg View columnists, Francis Wilkinson and Ramesh Ponnuru, wondered how Super Tuesday would shape the rest of the race. Now they’re making sense of the night: Who’s up and who’s down, and what is the path to a Republican nominee other than Donald Trump?
Ramesh Ponnuru: It has shaped up to be a big night for Trump, as we expected. He won Alabama and Massachusetts, confirming the breadth of his support that we were discussing earlier today. Ted Cruz won Texas and can therefore stay in the race, and won Oklahoma too. Cruz can also say that Marco Rubio has shown scant ability to win and should drop out in his favor.
Francis Wilkinson: Is that scent in the air the smell of GOP leaders deciding Cruz is not such a bad guy? In some ways, I guess this is a better outcome for them than a Trump sweep. But it does, as you say, put pressure on Rubio. Cruz has won three states, including the biggest so far -- Texas. Rubio keeps coming up short. The only clarity tonight’s results provide is that Trump is still very much the front-runner for the nomination, and his rivals are falling short. Do you think that dynamic is changeable?
Ramesh Ponnuru: Trump is not going to lose momentum because of winnowing. There’s unlikely to be much winnowing: I don’t see Rubio, Cruz or Kasich getting out, although Carson will keep fading away. And Trump would get some of the votes of any candidate who dropped out. The bottom line is very simple: Trump is likely to win the nomination, and the only thing that will stop him is if Republican minds change.
Francis Wilkinson: Well, it’s hard to see minds changing decisively if the candidates remain locked in place. Anti-Trump messages don’t seem to be very effective at peeling away his voters. But even his plurality wins are often decisive. Georgia is a big state, and he won it big. The strange thing about this GOP election is that as shocking as it has been, Trump’s lead has been firm for months.
Ramesh Ponnuru: I keep hearing people say that anti-Trump messages don’t move people, but how much of a test have we actually seen of that premise? We have not seen millions of dollars in ads against Trump, precisely because of that candidate dynamic. Everyone who thought a few months ago that Trump could not go the distance assumed that at some point those ads would run. It may be that we don’t see those ads until after Trump wins the nomination, and Hillary Clinton runs them.
Francis Wilkinson: I have never understood the lack of coordination in attacking Trump. There is constant talk of how the “establishment” wants to bring him down but no real action. It’s got to come soon or not at all. Meanwhile, it looks like we could have a long contest on the GOP side. It’s a remarkable situation: a candidate barreling toward the nomination of a party whose leaders insist they don’t want him.
Ramesh Ponnuru: So what comes next? On the Democratic side, it sounds as though Hillary Clinton is moving on to the general election. On the Republican side, the question is whether a drumbeat begins that Rubio should drop out of the race -- and, if so, whether he responds to it any more than John Kasich or Ben Carson have. As I suggested earlier, I doubt it: Rubio’s supporters will say that the terrain gets friendlier to him from now on.
Francis Wilkinson: Clinton is moving but her negatives remain high. The mess on the GOP side is almost certainly a help to her. It’s hard to imagine how nasty a general election would be between Clinton and Trump or Cruz. But the quality of nasty might be quite different. Trump is already talking about being a “common sense” conservative. He sounds like he’s moving into general election rhetoric already. And a Trump general election will be as wild as a Trump primary.
Ramesh Ponnuru: Let me outline a possible scenario where a Trump general election would not be a wild ride. If I were the Democrats confronting Trump as the Republican nominee, I would run an early ad onslaught against Trump -- and, as I suggested earlier, that ad campaign might well drive his numbers, which are already pretty bad among voters in general, further down. If the race starts to look put away, can even a showman as talented as Trump keep holding the attention of the media and the public?
Francis Wilkinson: I do not doubt Trump’s ability to hold attention. THAT he does very well. But, yes, the Democrats will run a blistering campaign and they will likely begin it before Trump is even free and clear of the primary. His negatives in a general election are huge. But as someone who underestimated him, I’m wary of saying this guy is a dead duck.
Ramesh Ponnuru: I wouldn’t say he’s a dead duck as the nominee (and I don’t think it’s yet absolutely certain that he will be the nominee). I’m one of the many who underestimated Trump, so I hear you. But what I really did was overestimate the Republican party. For all the controversy, Trump has had a pretty free ride. We have, as yet, no reason to think he will do well when that ends -- as end it will.
Francis Wilkinson: Amen.
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