Originally Published 2016-01-05 06:15:16 Published on Jan 05, 2016
Trump: the GOP’s George McGovern?

In 1972, the Democratic Party leadership in the US was shocked when its preferred candidate, Ed Muskie, lost the Democratic nomination race badly to the controversial, far-left George McGovern after a chaotic primary process and an out-of-control National Convention (where the party nominee is formally named). So unhappy was the Democratic establishment that many senior Democrats refused McGovern’s invitation to join his ticket in the Vice Presidential slot.  Despite President Nixon leading an unpopular war, McGovern’s radical views and a deeply divided Democratic party led to Nixon winning by one of the biggest landslides in American presidential history.  The Republican establishment in 2016 could end up facing much the same situation as the Democratic establishment did in 1972 –a nightmare primary election that ends with the nomination of a radical who appeals to a narrow, extremist base within the party leading to certain disaster in November, even against a Democrat like Hillary Clinton who herself is quite unpopular.

Will Donald Trump become the George McGovern of the Republican Party? Maybe not.  At this stage, all we have are very unreliable polls, and only a few of these are from the crucial early-primary states. But all of them indicate that Donald Trump is the front-runner in the Republican national popularity contest, though Senator Ted Cruz leads in Iowa. This is despite the fact that Trump has said little that is specific or serious about policy issues other than exhortations (‘Make America Great Again’), outlandish schemes (building a wall on the US-Mexican border) and serial abuse other candidates or anyone who annoys him (too numerous to mention).  His solution to the heroin epidemic sweeping New Hampshire is a good representation of his lackadaisical approach to serious policy problems: “That whole heroin thing,” he said a few days back in New Hampshire,“I tell you what, we gotta get that whole thing under control.”  His bullying antics have led some conservatives – who fear him for the harm he might do to the GOP in 2016 –to name him “Biff Trump”, the bully billionaire from the Back to the Future movies.

If recent US primary elections are any guide, presidential candidates who hope to be their party’s nominee has to win one of the crucial early primaries in Iowa or New Hampshire.  In 2012, in the Republican primary, Mitt Romney lost Iowa but won New Hampshire. In the 2008 Republican primary, John McCain also lost Iowa and won New Hampshire, while in the Democratic primary, Barack Obama won both (though he was tied with Hillary Clinton in popular votes in New Hampshire, he won more delegates there).  In 2004, though opinion polls had favoured Howard Dean, John Kerry won both states.  In 2000, in the Republican primary, George W. Bush won Iowa though he lost New Hampshire to John McCain, while on the Democratic side, Al Gore won both.  We have to go back to the 1992 Democratic primaries (won by Bill Clinton) to find a case of a candidate who lost in both the Iowa and New Hampshire but still managed to win the party nomination.  But then again, whether this primary will follow recent history is anybody’s guess.

The reason for the importance of these two states in the primary process is simple: though small states with small number of delegates, victory in either state could give momentum to a candidate, even one not considered a front-runner, just as a stumble here could scuttle a front-runner, as Howard Dean (2004) and to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton (2008) found out.  Money and support tends to flow to the winners, weaker candidates drop out and the race tightens, even if it does not necessarily end.  The outsized importance of these two states has been a problem especially for larger more important states that conduct primaries later because the party presidential nominee is usually (though not always) clear by the time the primaries reach them.

Can any moderate Republican such as Senator Marco Rubio hope to win the party nomination after losing Iowa and New Hampshire to radicals like Trump or Ted Cruz? Difficult but not impossible, some suggest. The Republican primary is so unusual this time that most of the traditional political rule-books are out of the window.  Trump, for example, has fashioned a unique campaign that seems based on dominating the news cycle: as the Democratic political strategist David Axelrod put it, he has turned the media into his own advertising vehicle. Trump, though a billionaire, has been able to run with almost no funding; he has very little by way of contributions – he is not soliciting in any case – but he is not putting much of his own money into the campaign either. He is coasting with free publicity because of his outrageous antics on TV and some smart scheduling.  For example, he was the only one to schedule a campaign speech the day before the last Republican debate in Las Vegas, while other candidates were presumably busy preparing for the debate. But that also meant that TV news channels like CNN covered a big chunk of his speech, giving him free publicity.

On the other hand, the big question that will only be answered on February 1 (when the Iowacaucuses takes place) and February 9 (New Hampshire primary) is whether Trump’s general popularity will translate into primary votes.  Only small numbers of dedicated party supporters tend to vote in primaries and the peculiarities of the caucus system, where supporters vote at local party offices at a specified time, makes it difficult for candidates who do not have strong local organizations. According to multiple reports, Trump appears not to have a very capable organization on the ground (though he has claimed he does) and instead seems to be relying on his own charisma.  There is no way to know until Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans vote.

It is quite possible that Trump could lose in Iowa, where Ted Cruz leads the polls, but win in New Hampshire.  But even if he wins both (or especially if he wins both) it is very possible that the Republican establishment would coalesce around a mainstream candidate such as Rubio. Trump and the rise of angry right-wing demagogueryscares the Republican establishment more than anyone else.  William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard even suggested, only semi-seriously, that conservatives will need to start a new political party if Trump wins the nomination and tweeted for suggestions about naming the new party.  Many are convinced that even the relatively more moderate Ted Cruz might not win in a general election.  George F. Will, another leading conservative, called Trump a ‘national embarrassment’ and argued that the highest priority for Conservatives is to prevent Trump from winning the Republican nomination, failing which the Conservative movement itself might fail. With the Jeb Bush campaign going nowhere, most Conservatives appear to hope that Rubio, who can bring in the crucial Latino vote and possibly other minorities and women, might save them still.

Such appears to be Rubio’s strategy too.  Losing both in Iowa and New Hampshire does not have to end Rubio’s run if he can put in a strong showing in either or both of these states.  Rubio is currently running a distant third in Iowa but is within striking distance of Trump in New Hampshire.  But even with the Republican establishment and the Conservative ideological leaders supporting him, it would still be difficult for Rubio if he does not do very well in both Iowa and New Hampshire. As of now, Rubio faces problems in New Hampshire because he has not worked the state enough (though that might change in January) and multiple moderate Republicans threaten to divide the votes and leave Trump and Cruz on top.

The Trump danger does not end there, of course.  Even if he fails to get the Republican nomination, Trump could decide to run as an independent, despite pledging to support the eventual Republican nominee.  He might not win the general election, but just as Ross Perot’s independent presidential did in 1996, he could pull enough votes out of the Republican candidate to ensure a Democratic party victory.

After the McGovern disaster, the Democrats did win the 1976 elections with Jimmy Carter, but it was an aberration.  In ideological terms, it took the Democrats two decades to recover from ideological excesses of the 1970s that McGovern represented.  It required the electoral deftness of Bill Clinton and the ideological pragmatism of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The Republican establishment wanted to move to the pragmatic center after 2012 election, much as the Democratic establishment had wanted after the 1968 campaign.  But from the perspective of the radicals within their parties, it was the party establishment itself that was the problem. It is too early to say whether the Republicans, who are generally more pragmatic than the Democrats, will go down the same rabbit hole in 2016 that the Democrats did in 1972.  But the unresolved civil war within the GOP portends serious difficulties ahead for the party.

(The writer is Professor of International Politics at the  Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

Courtesy: ORF US Monitor.

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