CHICAGO, Feb. 12, 2016 – He’s the Republican establishment’s worst nightmare come to life: Donald Trump as winner of the critical New Hampshire primary by a landslide. Donald Trump as official front-runner. Donald Trump as GOP presidential nominee.
Politically incorrect and proud of it, Donald Trump doesn’t appear to be going anywhere and the GOP powers-that-be aren’t happy about that at all.
What will the Republican establishment do about Donald Trump now? Will they work with Trump or will they fight him? What will happen if they attack him in South Carolina?
If they attack him, will it only make Donald Trump stronger?
After watching Trump defy his political critics for months, party leaders have a right to be concerned. How do you attack a man who delights in the political kryptonite that would destroy most candidates and then thumbs his nose in your face? Or in Trump’s case, gives you the finger?
America has never witnessed a candidate like Donald Trump but voters who feel disenfranchised and betrayed by their party are embracing him. Ted Cruz, Trump’s closest competitor, also benefits from his “outsider” status. That the establishment despises both Trump and Cruz has only cemented the loyalty of likely GOP voters and made them resistant to attack.
Even when Trump has been at his weakest, the GOP establishment has proved incapable of defeating him.
Trump landed in an expected place in Iowa: second. It was uncomfortable for him. It was the first time he was visibly shaken. This is not a man who is used to coming in second.
This would have been the time for leadership to seal Trump’s fate but…no.
Licking unexpected wounds, rubbed with salt by a gleeful mainstream media, the Trump campaign refocused on its New Hampshire ground game and bounced back big time. The result was a stunning 19-point victory over his nearest competitor, John Kasich, in just eight short days.
Why did Trump win so HUGE? Exit polls in New Hampshire reveal that 50 percent of GOP voters feel betrayed by the Republican party. He performed well across almost every demographic and age group – men, women, college-educated, blue-collar, young, and middle-aged, rich and poor. Trump doesn’t do as well with seniors but that’s about it.
This should have silenced the elite media punditry who have always insisted Trump’s national poll numbers would never translate to actual votes. They have been proven wrong over and over again.
Now with New Hampshire notched in Trump’s belt, statistician Nate Silver chided the Republican leadership to start “treating Donald Trump like the front-runner.”
“At the very least, Republicans can no longer afford to hope Trump fades out on his own — unless they’re ready for him to be their nominee,” wrote Silver.
Jumping forward to South Carolina, insiders are predicting a bloodbath. The Republican field is still establishment candidate-heavy with Rubio, Kasich, and Bush dividing the vote. Cruz and Rubio splitting the evangelical vote. Silver’s polls-plus forecast predicts Trump’s odds of winning the Palmetto state are 55 percent.
But even beyond South Carolina, this is not a question of how the GOP copes with Trump or Cruz as the front-runner. The question is: How does the GOP cope with an electorate that feels betrayed by the political parties and is willing to do anything to retaliate?
Trump and Cruz have taken positions anathema to a moderate GOP leadership that favors amnesty for illegal immigrants or, as they say, a “path to citizenship.”
But Republican and independent voters are desperate for this message. They are angry about the Gang-of-Eight’s “immigration reform” bill and Marco Rubio’s participation in it.
This is a litmus test for GOP voters that no one other than Trump and Cruz can pass.
Burned GOP voters find Trump’s blood-and-guts style appealing precisely because an insider would never say the things he says. Blue-collar workers are attracted to Trump because they see how unfair trade policy has destroyed their jobs and way of life. The GOP has talked tough on ISIS but cowered in the face of being labeled anti-Muslim bigots. Neither Trump nor Cruz is afraid to speak out against the potential terrorist threat of Muslim refugees in the U.S. without safeguard.
This has become a two-person race, and neither choice is acceptable to the GOP establishment that has compromised too much and lost the trust of the people.
If the GOP establishment’s attacks destroy Trump or Cruz, it could spell victory for a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders presidency. They say that’s not what they want, but maybe they do.