With just 90 days left before the Iowa caucuses, the race for the Republican presidential nomination is wide open — and the party appears to be losing control of the process.
The last 48 hours have been characterized by efforts from the campaigns to negotiate new rules for future televised debates, with dissatisfaction being voiced against the Republican National Committee (RNC) almost as much as against the media.
The complaints about the RNC are another manifestation of the restless mood that has catapulted businessman Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors Iran thinks it has the upper hand in Vienna — here's why it doesn't MORE and retired surgeon Ben Carson to the top of the polls, despite the fact that neither man has ever held elected office.
Many in the party believe that both are destined to crash and burn before winning the nomination. If they do not do so, skeptics warn, either candidate is a near-certain loser to Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Ohio Senate candidate slams JD Vance over previous Trump comments Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion MORE in a general election.
But critics of Trump and Carson have been predicting their demise for months.
The fluidity of the race was underlined Monday when Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense & National Security — US tries to deter Russian invasion of Ukraine Senate eyes plan B amid defense bill standoff To counter China, the Senate must confirm US ambassadors MORE surged into third place in New Hampshire in new polls as his competitor and onetime mentor, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, slid to sixth place. Texas Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHospitals in underserved communities face huge cuts in reckless 'Build Back Better' plan To counter China, the Senate must confirm US ambassadors The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress avoids shutdown MORE is also on the rise, taking third place in a recent poll out of Iowa.
There have been dramatic fights for the GOP nomination in the past two presidential cycles, though insiders say this one is setting a new standard of volatility.
“More so than any other cycle ever!” said GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway. “It is neither hyperbole nor exaggeration to say that 2015 has been the wildest, most unpredictable year in recent memory — and it looks like it’s spilling into 2016.”
A Republican strategist in New Hampshire who is not working for any of the presidential campaigns but asked not to be named agreed that this year’s race is “unprecedented.“
“I just don’t think we’ve had this size of a field with this degree of uncertainty ever,” the source said.
Yet the unusual nature of the race could hurt the party in many ways. Many across the spectrum are increasingly resigned to the probability of a drawn-out fight for the nomination.
While optimists suggest that such a period of intense competition could help sharpen the eventual GOP nominee, others worry about a lengthy internecine war.
And there is the establishment’s discontent with Trump, who has defied the pundits by entering the race, taking the lead and remaining at center stage in the debates.
That has many Republicans in Washington worried.
“I think there are concerns about whether anyone leading the pack right now could actually pull off a general election win, especially after making controversial comments — comments that have marginalized Hispanics in particular,” said Ron Bonjean, a strategist and former aide to Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.
Other GOP veterans believe that, far from descending into chaos, the race is changing in a way that has its own inner logic.
Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson said the contest is at an “inflection point” at which “voters are beginning to say, ‘OK, do I want to put Marco Rubio up against Hillary Clinton — or maybe put Ted Cruz up?’ So you are seeing some growth right now with Cruz and Rubio, and you are seeing the bottom of the field sort of wither away.”
Wilson has been a frequent Trump critic during this election cycle. He spoke more warmly of Carson at a personal level but suggested he would have just as many vulnerabilities as the business mogul in a general election.
“Look, everyone agrees — and I agree — that Ben Carson is a lovely man. But no one sits there and says, ‘Wow, you know who’s really going to be great against Hillary Clinton, the best-prepared candidate of all time? Ben Carson.’ No one says that. He is not prepared for this job.”
Conway has a different take, arguing that pro-outsider sentiment is strong and that grassroots Republican voters are seeing through what she terms “this fiction of electability.” But she also argued that the classification of certain candidates as outsiders and others as insiders is overly simplistic.
“When people say they want an outsider, the determinative question is, what do they mean?” she said. “Do they mean somebody with absolutely no real connection to Washington and politics whatsoever? Or do they mean someone who has been on the inside and put himself on the outside — like Cruz — or someone who can claim to be on the outside by only being [in Washington] a few years, like Rubio?”
One thing seems certain: Efforts by the GOP establishment to anoint a candidate seem destined to be less effective than they have been in the past. The New Hampshire strategist complained that the RNC had been “too passive” in its negotiations with broadcasters and that it has also placed too much faith in mechanisms to help whittle down the field, such as the use of poll ratings to determine participation in debates.
“I think they invested too much in the idea that this would just work. The goal of truncating the nomination process a little bit was probably a good thing but early on they tried to winnow the field unofficially, through the mandate of the networks,” the strategist said.
Still, the fact that the establishment is not as strong as it once was hardly means it is impotent. In particular, the influence of big-money interests in the party remains strong — and will only be amplified if the donor community falls into step behind one candidate, according to Wilson.
“Much as people want to believe that the grassroots blah blah blah is a wonderful thing, at the end of the day you’ve got to be able to raise, in this primary, well over $100 million if you want to be the winner,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough hump if the establishment don’t put the money down [behind one candidate] and say, ‘Here it is, we’re going to make it work.’ ”
Wilson believes most of that money is now moving in Rubio’s direction, though he noted that Cruz also has significant financial support.
Looking at the field as a whole, though, the Florida strategist insisted that a new phase in the race is at hand.
“We’re at the end of the beginning,” he said.