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Republican 2016 race: Why it's getting late early

Time is growing short. But the Republican field remains in disarray.

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    Republican presidential candidates, from left, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Ted Cruz take the stage during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Wednesday, in Boulder, Colo.
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To paraphrase Yogi Berra (as many people do), it’s getting late early out there in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Berra, a charter member of the Aphorism Hall of Fame, was referring to afternoon shadows gathering in Yankee Stadium’s left field. We’re talking about the fast approach of actual voting – next Tuesday marks the halfway point between the first GOP debate on Aug. 6 and the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses.

So time is growing short. But the Republican field remains in disarray, in this sense: The party establishment hasn’t picked a candidate. That means there’s no one person to rally around for the many GOP bigwigs – state party chairman, veteran donors, D.C.-based pundits – who oppose insurgent outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

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Narrowing the field could make a huge difference in the dynamics of the race. The party elite know this and so do the candidates. That’s increased the pressure level of competition and made stumbles, such as Jeb Bush’s widely panned debate performance Wednesday night, seem more fraught.

“What every Republican not in the outsiders’ tent is waiting for is some kind of consolidation in the ranks of the more mainstream candidates. In other words, some contenders in this large field who haven’t caught on must drop out,” write University of Virginia political scientists Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley in the post-debate edition of their Crystal Ball newsletter.

Why does it matter if party insiders agree to back a single horse? Well, many political scientists subscribe to the “party decides” theory of primary contests, which holds that candidates need some degree of establishment support – and the money, expertise, and organization muscle that brings – to win a presidential nomination.

Maybe this year is different and GOP renegades Mr. Trump or Dr. Carson can seize the crown. But it’s clear that most national Republican lawmakers and other GOP insiders believe that would lead to President Hillary Clinton and damage the party’s down-ticket prospects. They’re looking to coalesce around a candidate for the establishment “lane” in the contest, whether they think that will actually decide the issue or not.

And the time to start coalescing is nigh. It’s only three months or so until the Iowa caucuses. Things move quickly after that: The first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary is Feb. 9, followed in short order by the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary. Super Tuesday arrives on March 1. By that point, or shortly thereafter, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 had just about wrapped up their nominations.

Yet many party figures remain firmly planted on the fence. You can see this in the pace of official candidate endorsements, which are an important means of intra-party signaling. Republican lawmakers are issuing endorsements at their slowest rate since at least 1980, according to data site FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement tracker. And the pace is slowing down, not picking up. Since Labor Day, only a handful of GOP legislators have announced their support for one contender or another.

This is in sharp contrast with Democrats, where party figures and officeholders have coalesced around Mrs. Clinton. She has about twice the endorsements as does the GOP field combined, according to FiveThirtyEight. She might lose the New Hampshire primary to the firebrand populist Sen. Bernie Sanders, but she’s pulled ahead of Senator Sanders in Iowa in recent polls, and she has comfortable leads in South Carolina and every Super Tuesday state except Sanders’s home of Vermont.

The Democratic nomination race is likely to be effectively over by March, according to Norm Ornstein, a veteran governance scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

“The endorsement of Clinton by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a major figure on the populist left, shows the striking degree to which elected officials are rallying behind her – including, by the way, the governor of Vermont – in a fashion far more sweeping than, say, Walter Mondale in 1984 or Al Gore in 2000,” writes Mr. Ornstein in The Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the outsiders continue to dominate the top levels of GOP polling. If you combine their support, Trump and Carson together attract 49 percent of Republican voters, according to the latest RealClearPolitics rolling average of the race. Throw in ex-business leader Carly Fiorina and the number rises to 55 percent – a clear majority for the nonpoliticians.

Does this mean it’s inevitable that the GOP this year will nominate someone who’s never held elective office? Well, probably not – party insiders continue to insist that’s not going to happen (though they’re probably crossing their fingers as they do so). Trump et al have unique weaknesses. Plus, they don’t necessarily attract the same voters. Trump’s supporters tend to be blue-collar Republicans lower in the income and education scale. Carson’s are evangelical Christians and skew toward higher pay grades. It’s not clear whether Trumpians would become Carsonites, or vice versa, if their guy dropped out.

There’s evidence that media coverage drives support for the outsiders, particularly for Trump. Once the field shrinks and there’s a single establishment figure in the race, that person will get correspondingly more ink and airtime. Support for them will rise and that for the leading outsider will fall.

That’s one theory, anyway. Right now it’s untested because the “shrinks” part has yet to kick in. When Scott Walker dropped out of the race, he called on his fellow poll laggards to do the same, clearing the way for the coming outside vs. inside confrontation. So far that’s produced little but whistling and looking at shoes. Whither Jeb Bush? Whither Marco Rubio? What’s up with John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Chris Christie?

Senator Cruz of Texas seems to be emerging as the Trump/Carson understudy – a more experienced candidate waiting to inherit the outsider label. Governors Kasich and Christie are waiting for an opportunity that has yet to arrive, like soccer players lurking outside a scrum for the ball to bounce out. Former Florida Governor Bush and Senator Rubio, also of Florida, are the top-polling establishment figures and direct rivals, as Bush’s misbegotten debate attack on Rubio’s Senate attendance showed.

Much of the media seems to be assuming that the Bush campaign is reeling and he’ll be the next to go. That’s certainly possible. But he’s got enough money to hang around through early voting states. His father and brother were president. He doesn’t want to be this cycle’s Tim Pawlenty – the Minnesota governor remembered for his quick exit in 2012.

And Rubio has his own problems. Bush is likely to hit him hard with negative attacks. His fundraising has been unimpressive. His polls are still in the single digits. He does not have a campaign organization in every crucial early state.

“We can seem some trepidation among GOP insiders about unifying behind Rubio,” write Sabato, Kondik, and Skelley.

They may have no choice. The alternative could be lengthy intramural warfare stretching through early 2016 and peaking prior to or even at the Republican Convention in Cleveland in July. This could raise the chances of an outsider seizing control of the delegate race early and perhaps even winning the nomination.

Meanwhile, Clinton will have wrapped it up early and spend the spring and early summer raising money for the general election, pulling together all Democratic Party factions, and fine-tuning her themes for the fall campaign.

That wouldn’t guarantee a Democratic victory, of course. But it’s a contrast the Republican leadership has worked to avoid ever since the close of the 2012 race. So far, they’re not succeeding.

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