By now, almost everyone has seen the list of presidential candidates who had excellent poll numbers the year before the race, but who eventually faded or collapsed. I won’t rehearse the full list, but think of Rudy Giuliani and Howard Dean.
I believe Donald Trump will join this list, primarily because until fairly recently he was a Democrat and more liberal than conservative. But even if I’m right, Trump might well scramble the GOP race, delivering major blows to “top tier” candidates and throwing lifelines to candidates not so highly rated.
It all depends on when Trump fades (assuming he does). If he fades this year, he probably won’t scramble the race, although the scramble for Trump supporters might help Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.
But let’s say Trump is still doing very well in early 2016. Suppose he wins the Iowa caucus and/or the New Hampshire primary. A Trump victory in Iowa would be a huge blow to Scott Walker because the “expectations” are that he will win there. Similarly, a Trump victory in New Hampshire would set Jeb Bush back considerably.
The winners, other than Trump, would be quality candidates who lack an early primary or caucus to use as a springboard. I’m thinking of Cruz, Paul (if he steps up his game), Marco Rubio, and possibly Rick Perry (if his debating skills have improved). But others in the middle of pack might emerge as the campaign moves on.
The absence of an early victory ordinarily might well be fatal, or nearly so, to these candidates. But if no one other than Donald Trump has an early win, quality candidates will remain viable, provided they finish respectably in one of the early races and avoid performing significantly below expectations.
Early Trump victories would thin out the field. In this context, Trump would need up to twice the support he has now to win primaries in key states like Ohio and Texas. That level of support will be extremely hard for him to obtain.
So even if Trump doesn’t self-destruct or fade, his chances of winning the nomination aren’t good. But in this scenario, the eventual nominee might not be the one who would be nominated if Trump were to fade this year.
NOTE: I have modified the fifth paragraph of this post from the original version