It’s a commonplace to say that the Republican presidential contest, with its vast field, consists of races within a race. Pre-Trump, we could discern three sub-races — conservative, moderate-conservative, and evangelical.
The headliners in the conservative race were thought to be Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and maybe Rick Perry. The moderate-conservative headliners were Jeb Bush and Chris Christie (along, perhaps, with John Kasich if he decided to run). The evangelical race featured Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and maybe Ben Carson. I viewed Marco Rubio as a bridge candidate with some appeal in all three races.
Based on this analysis, I expected the front-runners to be Walker, Bush, Rubio, and maybe Cruz (there being room for at least two from the conservative sub-race). The winner of the evangelical sub-race, most likely Huckabee, might also be in contention, I thought.
Post-Trump, we should, perhaps, identify different sub-races — “career politicians” and non-politicians. It’s an artificial and probably silly division. Anyone who runs for president automatically becomes a politician with the hope of making it a career, as far as I’m concerned.
Moreover, the anger said to be fueling the pertinence of the dichotomy — the inability of elected Republicans to do what they promised (e.g., repeal Obamacare) — should not be directed at everyone who holds office. Washington may be “broken,” but what about Madison, Austin, and Columbus? And what sense does it make to blame, say, Ted Cruz for the fact that Obamacare is still with us? He did everything short of fire-bombing the Department of HHS to make it go away.
Be that as it may, we see the three “non-politicians” — Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina — surging in the polls, while most other members of the field struggle to stay where they are.
This can be explained partly by debate performances in two senses. First, Carson and Fiorina did well in last week’s debates. Second, as relative unknowns, they had more room to grow. Nonetheless, not having held office seems to be a credential as far as many Republicans are concerned.
If we view the sub-races as politician and non-politician, whom should we identify as front-runners. On the non-politician side, Trump is a front-runner unless and until he implodes. There’s probably room for a second — Carson or Fiorini, but not both — if debate performances remain strong. Carson may have the edge because he appeals to evangelicals. If Trump implodes, Fiorina, strident and with substantial experience in business, would probably be favored over Carson to pick up a decent share of that support.
Among the politicians, Rubio, Walker, and Bush seem the strongest, with Kasich also a possibility. Two of these four might make the top tier. Walker, though, needs to pick up his game. Otherwise, he might become this cycle’s Tim Pawlenty.
Cruz is a special case. He’s a bridge candidate with strong potential appeal to “anti-establishment” voters, but also political experience and a great grasp of the issues. Cruz has a good shot at the top tier.
Over the next few months, then, the top tier will likely include two candidates that virtually no one expected to attain that status. And at least one candidate presumed to be top-tier will probably drop back to the second.
After that, don’t be surprised if there’s another re-shuffle.