Though there are many Republican presidential candidates whose continuing presence in the race seems to defy common sense, last week saw the first withdrawal of the campaign, as former Texas governor Rick Perry decided to pack it in and sashay back to Texas. So we're now down to a mere 16 GOP candidates, at least 14 of whom are hoping that at some point there will be a sudden and inexplicable surge of interest in the possibility that they might be president. Meanwhile, the two who are actually gaining support, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, are the most wildly implausible in the bunch.
Relish this primary race, my friends, because we may not see its bizarre like again.
The candidates will be debating again on Wednesday, and the RNC's plan to limit and space out the number of debates seems to be working—if the idea was to heighten anticipation and the possibility that something interesting might occur when you cram all those contenders on stage. But unless you believe that Jeb Bush's brain trust has come up with a zinger to use against Trump that is so spectacularly clever that it will be a rhetorical rapier driving straight through the heart of the latter's campaign, I suspect we're about to enter a new phase in the race.
In the three months since he announced that he was running, the tone of discussion around Trump's bid has gone from "Isn't he a crazy character?" to "Sure he's leading now, but he has zero chance of being the nominee," to "OK, he's way ahead, but there are a lot of good reasons why he won't be the nominee." And what's coming next? "Oh my god, Donald Trump could actually be the nominee."
This is the point where, as a sane observer with a reasonable grasp of presidential campaign history, I'm supposed to say that as entertaining as the Trump candidacy has been, he can't possibly win his party's nomination. His support has a natural ceiling, as even in the GOP there could only be so many voters who will fall for his shtick. Unlike more traditional candidates, he won't be able to put together the endorsements of key politicians and activists who bring with them the apparatus that turns primary voters out to vote. It's one thing to lead in polls for a while, but it's quite a different thing to actually get voters to push your button in the booth. Above all, as those of us in the know all know, eventually the act will wear thin and primary voters will turn to one of the more traditionally qualified candidates.
And yet here we are, and Trump is getting more, not less, serious. We keep thinking he's reached his apex, but his support has only been going up. He now averages polling percentages in the mid-30s, and the only other candidate in double digits is Carson. Even if Trump originally decided to run as half a lark, he's now most certainly acting like he thinks he can win. It's only three and a half months before the actual voting starts—a period that will go by extraordinarily quickly, just you watch. Primary voters may well turn away from him for any number of reasons, but it isn't as though millions of them are going to say, "Wait a minute—I thought Trump was a serious guy, but it turns out he's just a blowhard! How could I have been fooled!?!" Everybody knows who he is already.
If you're looking for someone whose candidacy will experience a quick fall, I'd bank on the good doctor, who knows as little about governing as Trump does, but has no particular argument to make to voters about why he should be president other than the fact that he has a compelling personal story. Which is nice as far as it goes (I don't think anybody's going to make a TV biopic about Jeb Bush's inspiring journey from Kennebunkport to Tallahassee), but after voters hear it and say, "What a great guy!" the next part of the equation is extremely hard to come up with.
Trump, on the other hand, has an argument, one that may be even more perfectly suited for the Republican electorate in 2016 than most people realized. After seven years of all-out ideological combat against both Barack Obama and internal apostates, the case so many thought the GOP candidates were going to have to make—about who is the most conservative—turns out to be a secondary consideration. The emotions boiling up in the Republican ranks are dissatisfaction, disgruntlement, even disgust, not just with "Washington" and "government," but with their own party and its leaders, who are seen as a bunch of ineffectual phonies who can't get anything done.
So the guy who built a persona on firing people, not to mention on the single-minded pursuit of profit and garish excess, couldn't have been better positioned to capitalize on the Republican moment. Voters may be deluded if they think that Trump is going to march in to Washington and whip it into shape, right before he builds a 2,000-mile wall on the southern border and forces China to give us back all our jobs. But when he tells them, "We will have so much winning when I get elected that you will get bored with winning," it sounds like exactly what they've been waiting for.
Am I saying that Donald Trump is going to be the Republican nominee after all? I'll be frank and say I have no idea (which is part of what makes this all so interesting). But what I can say is that it no longer seems as impossible as it did just a few weeks ago. Bizarre, absurd, horrifying? Absolutely. But far from impossible.