It’s long been said that the best way of thwarting a Trump nomination is for the establishment to rally around a single candidate, be it Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, or Jeb Bush. This analysis likely still stands correct even with Donald Trump’s continued poll domination and a rising number of Republicans saying they could see themselves supporting a Trump nomination. The National Review points out that while Trump has solidified the blue-collar vote, white-collar individuals continue to split their support and dollars between the aforementioned candidates. Coalescing around a single candidate would generate momentum and an influx of donor money to the campaign committee and super PACs that could fund ad assaults on Trump. There are signs that winnowing the field alters the race: A recent NBC/WSJ poll found that Ted Cruz would beat Trump in a head-to-head match up while Rubio would lose, but slightly. So why hasn’t the establishment picked a candidate?
It may very well be that the establishment is waiting to see which “moderate” or establishment-friendly candidate finishes highest in New Hampshire. Rumblings have come from the establishment machine – party leaders have recently decried Cruz and have seemingly acquiesced or in other ways come to terms with a potential Trump nomination. These signals serve two purposes. First, in line with the theory that the party decides the ultimate nominee, establishment figures bashing Cruz signals to voters and donors that the party does not want Cruz to be Trump’s challenger. While they haven’t decided who should bear the establishment pin, they have decided that it won’t be Cruz. Second, by coping with the potential for a Trump nomination, the party inherently raises his expectations. That means a lot. Trump’s entire campaign is premised around winning – both his winning and the winning American will do under his presidency. Should Trump either start losing contests or failing to meet expectations (his and those implied by establishment figures), his campaign’s founding principle will collapse, potentially taking down his candidacy. Furthermore, the establishment’s sudden cozying up to Trump could eat away at his “rogue” image – after all, he gained much notoriety and popularity by insulting the same people who are now introducing him at campaign events. With the right messaging and framing, the establishment (or super PACs) could turn this against Trump by portraying him as a hypocrite or another typical politician.
By waiting until after New Hampshire to support a candidate, however, the establishment runs a risky gambit: If Trump wins Iowa and New Hampshire – as seems increasingly likely – his momentum may simply propel him to the nomination. Republican voters may find him as the best chance to defeat the Democrats in November and, regardless of establishment signal, rally behind Trump. Donors, even those who support moderate candidates, may jump to the Trump Train to try and gain influence with the front runner. Allowing Trump to win further cultivates his image and invites acquiescence to his dangerous and extreme beliefs.
Presumably, the highest placing moderate in New Hampshire becomes the establishment’s standard bearer. As of right now, that’s Rubio (and he seems the most able to defeat Trump because of his deep conservatism, youthful vitality, and electability). The establishment’s best hope is that his second or close-third place finish (to Cruz) prompts the donor class to flood his coffers with contributions and encourages senators and governors to get off the sidelines and endorse the young Floridian. Though the worries above remain, the primary calendar does favor Rubio. He would likely lose South Carolina, despite his goal of winning the Palmetto State, but would have a good chance to emerge victorious in the Hispanic state of Nevada. The SEC primary on March 1 tends to favor Trump and Cruz’s constituencies – deeply conservative and religious. However, many of these contests award delegates proportionately. Trump and Cruz could land large percentage victorious but not open up a sizable lead over Rubio. Interestingly, while the elites trash Cruz, they need him to remain in the race and strong throughout these southern states to siphon support from Trump and somewhat dull his momentum. March 15 becomes decision day. Florida and Ohio award over 150 delegates on a winner-take-all manner. They tend to support mainstream candidates (though that may be because few insurgents reach that date with strong momentum) and appear ripe for Rubio’s taking. The primary calendar is backended with big, blue state winner-take-all contests that, according to 538, demographically favor Rubio. Trump and/or Cruz could amass delegates early, but Rubio could easily close the gap by winning the likes of Florida, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, and California. For that reason, the establishment forfeiting early states may not preclude a moderate victory.
Of course, that theory depends on donor patience and stumping Trump, a task that has eluded all candidates and elites since his declaration. To allow Trump to start winning is risky – he may not stop. But coalescing around a single candidate with his path to the nomination still clears extends the amount of time PACs and other organizations can tear down Trump and buildup Rubio (or whomever earns the support of the establishment). Though the path to 1236 delegates becomes murkier with every poll in which Trump continues to lead, the establishment still has plenty of time to nominate the candidate of its choice.