Has the GOP race reentered reality?

Above the wake of vitriol flowing from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz after Iowa, the Republican 'establishment' may have finally found its front-runner.

Rainier Ehrhardt/AP
Republican presidential candidates, Donald Trump (left) and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas (right), speak during the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum, SC, Jan. 14, 2016.

Has the Republican presidential nomination race reentered the land of political reality, where voting patterns and party behavior follow past trends and the race doesn’t seem like something out of “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Chronicles of Narnia?”

It might not seem that way at first glance. In recent days, Donald Trump has accused Ted Cruz of stealing the Iowa caucuses by passing along a false rumor that Ben Carson had suspended his campaign, among other things. The Donald has demanded that Iowa throw out Senator Cruz’s vote and move the remaining candidates up one position.

“The State of Iowa should disqualify Ted Cruz from the most recent election on the basis that he cheated – a total fraud!” Mr. Trump tweeted on Wednesday.

Cruz responded in kind, telling reporters that Trump is “losing it” and that the US needs “a commander in chief, not a Twitterer in chief.”

Then Cruz turned the insult dial up to 11.

“I mean, we’re liable to wake up one morning and Donald, if he were president, would have nuked Denmark,” Cruz said to reporters in Goffstown, N.H.

But behind the bluster there are indications that the GOP contest is beginning to reflect laws of political gravity that many political scientists and pundits long thought would reassert themselves at some point.

The first indication is that it looks like Trump’s polls overestimated his actual support. Just prior to the caucuses Trump led in Iowa polls by about seven points, according to survey averages. Yet he lost by three.

There could be many reasons for this, from an unexpected surge in evangelical votes for Cruz, to a poor Trump turnout operation. But it’s also likely that many avowed Trump fans didn’t bother to show up at the polls. Trump has many lower-income, less-educated citizens among his fans, and those are groups whose turnout can be disproportionately low.

Pollsters have long wondered whether Trump’s survey leads are soft for this reason. In Iowa, they likely were. Will the trend hold in New Hampshire?

Trump’s lead in the Granite State is so big he could withstand some shrinkage and still win. But it makes a difference whether his hard core of support is around 25 percent, as opposed to 35 percent or more. He’s got to get to 50 percent to win a head-to-head race and that might be impossible from the lower figure, given the extent of anti-Trump sentiment in the party elite.

Second, winnowing works. Political scientists have long said the future course of the race will be much clearer when all the also-rans drop out and clear the way, and that’s now happening. Rand Paul and Rick Santorum quit following Iowa. Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich are all on the edge – at least two of them will probably pull the plug following next Tuesday’s New Hampshire vote.

This means that no, there won’t be a free-for-all at the July GOP convention, with the candidates fighting for the nomination on the floor. Before then, the race is going to be over.

After the next few weeks have passed, three (OK, maybe four) candidates will remain viable. The relative support of Trump, Cruz, and the elite/establishment/donor class candidate will be clearer for the final spring season push.

Which bring us to our final support: the “establishment” (whatever that consists of) finally appears on the move.

This disparate coalition of lawmakers, consultants, media, and money hadn’t rallied around a single champion prior to Iowa. This meant 2016 didn’t have an establishment front-runner the likes of Mitt Romney or George W. Bush in previous races. But that’s starting to happen for Marco Rubio.

Senator Rubio’s rolling out some big endorsements in the wake of his stronger-than-expected third-place Iowa finish. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, an early voting state, was a good Rubio get. The Florida senator has landed colleague Sen. Pat Toomey, from Pennsylvania, too.

These endorsements may have been prearranged, and only announced after Iowa to create a sense of momentum. But Mr. Santorum’s endorsement, announced Wednesday following his withdrawal, may not have been prearranged or strategically timed, and could be a better indicator that the considerable fraction of the Republican Party that opposes both Trump and Cruz has decided that Rubio is their last and best hope.

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