Remember the crowded stage last October?

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The Four Horsemen of the Republican Apocalypse

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Last night, I commemorated Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican primaries by eating Mexican food in Utah, a redder-than-red state where he came in a distant third.

While I ate my very tasty beef taco, I mulled on the factors that have brought us to this pass. Other columnists may look forward, to the heat death of the Republican Party and the triumphant ascent of Hillary Clinton to the position of least popular Democratic president since Jimmy Carter. But I’d like to take a moment to remember the folks who have brought us to this strange pass -- the four horsemen of the Republican apocalypse, if you will.

We would not be in this situation if Republican primary voters had mostly rationally tried to pursue two goals: 1) nominate someone as conservative as possible and 2) win the general election. The field would have consolidated around Marco Rubio, and Democrats would now be anxious rather than openly celebrating the nomination of a no-hoper.

In fact, that’s usually the outcome we see in both parties: the field consolidates around the most ideologically congenial candidate who is capable of winning a general election. Why didn’t that happen? Blame the four horsemen.

  1. Donald Trump. There are any number of explanations for what Trump is bringing out in the electorate. But the most compelling explanation also, curiously, gets the shortest shrift: He’s a celebrity candidate, and celebrity candidates break election models. Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, Arnold Schwarzenegger in California: these people bring out folks who don’t normally vote. In a low-turnout election, or a badly divided field, that’s enough to turn things in their favor.
    Celebrity candidate voters aren’t normal voters. Normal voters care more about policy than normal non-voters, care more about party identification, care more about ideology. Simply trying to transfer analysis of normal voters over onto the new people that celebrity candidates bring out to the polls doesn’t work very well, because you’re searching madly for clues to things that aren’t really there. This is why such candidates often surprise political scientists by winning.
  2. Jeb Bush. I have nothing against Bush as a man or a governor. But his decision to run for president in this cycle has to rank as one of the stupidest political bids of all time, simply because his last name is toxic. His brother left office after an unpopular war and an even more unpopular economic crisis, with an approval rating of 35 percent. Why on earth would anyone think that he had any chance at the nomination? Even if his brother’s presidency had ended better, it would have been folly, simply because voters don’t like the idea that they only get to have Republican presidents named Bush.
    Yet somehow, Jeb Bush not only threw his hat in the ring, but also managed to convince Republican donors to come along for the ride. To Bush, I am sympathetic. His brother gets unfair blame for things that are not really his fault, and it can be hard to see yourself, or your family, with the crystal clarity of an outsider. The Republican donors have no such excuse. These folks suddenly and for no apparent reason decided that it would be a great idea to donate a hundred million dollars to the cause of running a completely hopeless establishment candidate. And as soon as it became clear he couldn’t win, they incinerated the remainder of the bundle taking down Rubio, the only candidate who could plausibly unite enough of the party’s factions to stop Trump at the voting booth. When those donors are sitting in their living rooms, wondering how on earth their beloved party has come to this pass, I invite them to get up and take a long look in the nearest mirror.
  3. Chris Christie. He should never have stayed in the race as long as he did. I think he was a pretty good governor of New Jersey, and at one point, I thought he was a plausible presidential candidate. But by well before New Hampshire, it was clear that the rest of the electorate did not agree, and it was time to drop out.
    But as mentioned above, I do understand that it can be hard to see these things with perfect clarity when it’s your candidacy, your dreams on the line. So now we must address Christie’s somewhat odd decision, when the hopelessness of his cause became clear even to him, to use the remainder of his candidacy to help destroy Rubio, the aforementioned only candidate who could plausibly unite enough of the party’s disparate factions to stop Trump. That decision started looking less crazy when Christie dropped out and actually endorsed Trump. Only now we have to deal with the fact that a sitting governor burned immense political capital and tanked his own approval rating in order to endorse a man whose policy knowledge was oftentimes negative (consisting of more wrong "facts" than right ones) and who was prone to pro political moves like making fun of POWs and the handicapped.
    Getting Christie’s endorsement helped Trump enormously at a time when he needed it. But it hurt the rest of the party, including Christie. In the annals of politics, this may go down as one of the strangest decisions of all time.
  4. John Kasich. At this point, I have but two questions for the Kasich campaign: “What color is the sky on your planet?” and “On your visit to earth, why haven’t you bothered to get out and meet some actual human beings?” Kasich was never going to be president, primarily because he is not a particularly compelling candidate, lacking charm or a strong political base. This is why he was forced to fall back on selling himself as the least conservative guy on the debate stage -- a really terrible selling point in a Republican primary, which should have been obvious to his campaign long before the polls confirmed it.
    But OK, yourself, your dreams -- I get it. What puzzles is his decision to stay in, splitting the establishment vote so that Trump could become the nominee. None of the stories his campaign told ever made the least bit of sense. The party would consolidate around him -- ummm-hmmm. Then he was gunning for a brokered convention, in which his party, out of exquisite gratefulness for his role in siphoning off just barely enough suburban voters to ensure that the non-Trump vote never consolidated around anyone else would, um, hand him the nomination. Or make him vice president. Or do something other than smuggle rotten fruit through convention security in order to pelt him with it if he dared to show his face on stage.

And why aren't Ted Cruz and Rubio ranked as the fifth and sixth horsemen? Certainly Cruz is a charmless candidate with little hope of winning outside the Bible Belt, and Rubio is a charming politician who failed to win many primaries, and shot himself in the foot making jokes about the size of Trump’s … hands.

But both of them behaved basically rationally throughout this campaign. Cruz executed by far the most masterful campaign this cycle, hoped that this would be enough to give him a chance outside the Bible Belt, and dropped out this week when it became clear things were hopeless. Rubio was a good politician facing impossible odds, as a series of completely irrational decisions by Bush, Christie and Kasich battered him, then siphoned off just enough of his voters to make it impossible to consolidate a lead. He made a Hail Mary pass by attacking Trump on Trump's own terms, and it didn’t work. And as soon as it became clear that it hadn’t, he left the race.

If everyone else had been behaving as rationally as these two, I suspect we would not be now looking forward to another six months of Donald Trump speeches. And perhaps then another four years of same.

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

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net