“Establishment Presidential Candidates Battle to End Flirtation With Outsiders.”
That Wall Street Journal headline sums up the race for the Republican nomination less than a month before the Iowa caucuses.
Most political analysts, including us, have long predicted that once GOP voters got serious, once they focused on the importance of their decision, they would end their “flirtation with outsiders” and settle down with a more experienced, if less exhilarating, choice.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey reinforced that point in Exeter, New Hampshire. “Showtime is over. It’s time to pick a president,” he said. “We’re not picking an entertainer-in-chief. We’re not casting a TV show. This is real.”
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He’s right: This is now real. And in fact, the forecasts of inevitable decline were correct about two outsiders who flared briefly in the polls: retired surgeon Ben Carson and former business executive Carly Fiorina. Both faded fast once the campaign spotlight revealed their glaring lack of credentials or credibility.
Of course, the candidate who has defied history and gravity is Donald Trump. His hateful brand of bombastic bigotry continues to attract about 35 percent of Republican primary voters, according to an average of national polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.
That’s good enough for a 15-point lead over his nearest rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and a 24-point advantage over Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the only other candidate to reach double digits.
There are many reasons for Trump’s tenacity. For one, he’s mastered social media, using Twitter and other platforms to energize supporters and inject his incendiary views directly into the campaign conversation.
But the main explanation is that his outsized sense of outrage matches and catches the national mood. Seven out of 10 Americans think the country is headed down the “wrong track,” according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. And GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway described the climate that Trump is exploiting: “Sour and dour. Nervous, on edge, a feeling of vulnerability and a lack of control.”
The question Republican voters must answer in the coming weeks is this: What’s the answer to this anxiety? Who can fix it? A veteran or a rookie? An amateur or a professional?
For Trump’s most ardent backers, the answer is clear. They don’t think experience helps. In fact, they think it hurts. Holding office leads to corruption, not competence.
“They think the future is weak for themselves and the next generation, and they despair of politicians, especially in Washington, getting anything done,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told the Journal. Republican strategist John Zogby added that “half the country (is) angry at politicians beyond anything we have ever seen before.”
There is an alternative to Trumpism, however, expressed by Christie at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire: “If we are going to turn our frustration and anger with the D.C. insiders, the politicians of yesterday and the carnival barkers of today into something that actually changes American lives, we must elect someone who has been tested.”
The Democrats are betting that Christie is right, that a majority of Americans want a “tested” leader in the Oval Office – not a neophyte. When Bill Clinton campaigned this week for his wife, Hillary, he stressed that no one “was better qualified by knowledge, experience and temperament to do what needs to be done now.”
Clinton’s chief rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, portrays himself as an outsider, but he’s held public office for 35 years and served in Congress since 1991.
The “tested” argument has worked well over the last 40 years. Four governors have used that pitch effectively to win the White House – think Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush 43. And George Bush 41 was tested by serving eight years as vice president before succeeding Reagan.
But “tested” is a much tougher sell this year. To many Republicans, it means tainted, not trained; stained, not seasoned.
Three current or former Republican governors have already dropped out of the race: Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker. And the four who are left – Christie, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Mike Huckabee – are registering a combined total of about 11 percent in national polls.
Most Republican voters are still making up their minds. There is still time for them to decide that “showtime” is indeed over; that the White House is no place for an amateur politician (or a professional con man). That Trump would be a total disaster – as a candidate and as a president.
But time is running out.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.