For most of last year, I thought Jeb Bush would eventually claim the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, in the same way John McCain won in 2008 and Mitt Romney won in 2012: raise a lot of money, watch insurgent candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum paint themselves into extremist corners and sweep the later primaries in big, blue states. But Mr. Bush has been a terrible candidate, in part because he has stubbornly defended his brother George’s presidency and stayed loyal to neoconservative foreign policy (i.e., committing American troops to “nation-building” and promoting democracy) when most Republican voters seem to prefer isolationism (albeit an isolationism that involves a lot of drone strikes and carpet-bombing).
Two other establishment candidates, Chris Christie and John Kasich, are hoping that a strong showing in New Hampshire makes them viable nationwide, but that is a strategy that has not really panned out since Jimmy Carter used it to get the Democratic nomination in the irreproducible year of 1976. Even with a New Hampshire win, Mr. Christie or Mr. Kasich would likely get wiped out in the Southern and Farm Belt primaries.
That leaves Marco Rubio as the last establishment hope against the isolationist, anti-immigrant and utterly unelectable Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and Mr. Rubio did become the favorite in betting markets during the last couple of months in 2015, but he has shown no momentum in the polls and no big surge in endorsements or contributions.
With the Iowa caucuses only a few weeks away, the GOP establishment may be ready to throw in the towel. “Let Trump or Cruz blow the general election,” the reasoning goes. “We’ll still control Congress,* Hillary Clinton is more to our liking than Trump or Cruz on foreign policy and immigration anyway, and we’ll have the chance to start over and pick an acceptable nominee for 2020.” The biggest downside would be that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t sign a big cut to the top income tax rate. But a Clinton presidency would save GOP congressional leaders from having to come up with an alternative to Obamacare—they could just keep repealing it, she could keep vetoing their repeals—so that’s one headache not to deal with.
*There’s some debate over whether Mr. Trump or Mr. Cruz would drag down the Republican ticket, but this isn’t 1964, when Barry Goldwater alienated enough centrist and independent voters to cost the GOP 36 seats in the House of Representatives. There are so few “movable” voters now that the identity of the Republican nominee won’t make much difference. The Senate is more unpredictable, with control hinging on whether Republican incumbents in bluish states like Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin can survive, but I doubt that they would do a lot better running with Mr. Bush or Mr. Rubio.
Mr. Trump could still fall flat on his face. At this time 12 years ago, Howard Dean was at 30 percent in Democratic primary polls, seven points ahead of Richard Gephardt. But Mr. Dean was done in by high expectations, finishing third in the Iowa caucuses and immediately getting written off by the press. As Vox’s Ezra Klein writes of Trump, “A loss in any early state might lead to a loss in every state. Losing a presidential primary is often like going bankrupt: It happens slowly, then all at once.”
This might not seem fair—I didn’t think it was fair that the press declared John McCain done in 2000 after he lost a single primary in South Carolina, a state he had no business winning when he was attacking George W. Bush from the left—but it happens. Iowa should be one of Donald Trump’s worst states (rural, evangelical, for committed Republicans only), but it’s hard to predict the magnitude of the joy that will erupt if he loses anything, and the degree to which a loss could demoralize his supporters.
But confidence in a Trump flame-out is fading. He has had a hefty lead in most polls for months, and his closest rival is Mr. Cruz, who isn’t acceptable to the establishment either. The 2008 and 2012 strategy of letting GOP primary voters in bluer and more secular states save the more moderate candidate may not be feasible. The New York Times’ Upshot blog estimates that Mr. Trump would run strongly in such states, including Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania—and New Hampshire, which was crucial in saving Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney in the last two contests. If Mr. Cruz emerges from Iowa as the new front-runner, Mr. Trump could run as the slightly less socially conservative (on abortion and gay marriage, if not immigration), less Texan candidate and sweep the blue states.
Can Mr. Rubio get into the fight? One problem may be that he has got all the baggage of establishment candidates (past support for immigration reform, support for more “boots on the ground” in the Middle East as opposed to indiscriminate bombing) without much in the way of appealing to moderates. Mr. Trump seems more accepting of gay marriage, for example, and he is more loudly protective of Social Security benefits (he would not raise the retirement age, as Mr. Rubio would). Pick through Mr. Rubio’s policy stands, as opposed to his rhetoric, and it is harder to imagine late-primary voters flocking to the Florida senator as a way to stop “extremist” candidates like Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz.
Lately, Mr. Rubio has taken to adopting the conspiracy rhetoric of his rivals. According to The New York Times, he told voters in Iowa, “What a lot of people say to me is, ‘I don’t recognize my own country. This doesn’t feel like the same place I grew up in…. The reason why is, in 2008 we elected as president in America someone who wasn’t interested in simply fixing the problems in America. We elected someone as president in 2008 that wanted to fundamentally change America.” Is this a candidate who will inspire upper-income, well-educated, risk-averse Republican primary voters in Illinois and Ohio to save his campaign the way they saved Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney?
And we haven’t even gotten to the concerns over Mr. Rubio’s personal finances and his helping to get a real-estate license for his “drug trafficker” brother-in-law, issues that Mr. Bush’s campaign have been happy to spotlight in its attempt to stay relevant.
There is still time for Mr. Rubio, or, less likely, someone else to consolidate establishment support. Mr. Romney could endorse him before the New Hampshire primary, for example, instead of being content to throw water on the drowning Bush. But the new year is finding even the most diehard supporters of the “invisible primary” theory unsure of whether the party establishment can pull this one out. Or whether it will even continue trying.