The Republican establishment is nearing full-blown panic about Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCheney challenger wins Wyoming Republican activists' straw poll We must do more to protect American Jews 6 in 10 say they would back someone other than Biden in 2024: Fox News poll MORE.
The demise of Trump’s candidacy has been predicted by centrist Republicans and the media alike virtually since the day it began. But there is no empirical evidence at all to suggest it is happening.
Last month, the liberal ThinkProgress collated more than 30 predictions of the business mogul’s imminent demise. One typical example was The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, who discerned “the beginning of the end of Trump” in mid-July, soon after the mogul criticized the Vietnam War record of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Redistricting reform key to achieving the bipartisanship Americans claim to want MORE (R-Ariz.)
Despite all that, Trump has led the RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average in a virtually unbroken spell for four months. The only person to briefly wrest the lead away from him, Dr. Ben Carson, appears to be fading. And numerous polls show Trump drawing double the support of his closest establishment-friendly rival, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioPut partisan politics aside — The Child Tax Credit must be renewed immediately These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Lawmakers press Biden admin to send more military aid to Ukraine MORE (R-Fla.)
Add to all this the fact that Trump’s lead over the rest of the GOP field has expanded since the terrorist attacks in Paris, and it becomes clear why anxiety among his many Republican critics is reaching new heights.
“He has a real shot at this. He is the clear front-runner,” said Ron Bonjean, a consultant and former aide to GOP leaders on Capitol Hill.
Adding that “months ago, we all discounted Trump as a candidate,” Bonjean now acknowledged that it seems “safe to assume that he is going to continue with this strong momentum right into Iowa.”
The Iowa caucuses are set for Feb. 1, a little over two months away. Voters tend to pay less attention to politics over the holiday season than at other times, a trend that makes dramatic shifts in the race less likely during that period.
Only one more televised debate will take place before the end of the year, on Dec. 15 in Las Vegas. Beyond that, there will be only one more such clash, in January, four days before the caucuses.
“The media has twisted and turned through a number of different positions where they tried to explain that it was just a fad — the summer of Trump,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa. “Well, it’s lasted all fall. There is a realization that you are not going to wake up tomorrow and he’s going to vanish.”
Robinson, who is not affiliated with any candidate, was scathing toward those GOP centrists who assert that Trump will be unable to translate his polling support into votes because of a weak ground game.
“That is the wishful thinking of the establishment,” he said. “That is what they tell themselves so they can sleep at night. The truth is, Trump has one of the better ground operations in Iowa. Will he turn out every single person who shows up at his rallies? No. But if he turns out a fraction, he will roll over the field.”
Trump’s critics within the GOP are now coming to believe that an air war — that is, negative TV advertising — is more likely to deliver results than anything else. They note that a $1 million campaign in Iowa by the conservative Club for Growth appeared to put some dent in Trump’s numbers. (It also drew the threat of legal action from the candidate.)
A super-PAC backing the presidential candidacy of Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) is already targeting the business mogul. On Nov. 20, The Wall Street Journal reported that Liz Mair, a well-known Republican operative, was planning a “guerrilla campaign” against Trump. A memo prepared by Mair’s organization, Trump Card LLC, stated that “in the absence of our efforts, Trump is exceedingly unlikely to implode or be forced out of the race.”
Rick Wilson, a Florida GOP strategist who has agreed to help produce TV ads for Mair’s group if it raises funding, told The Hill, “I expected that the other candidates and campaigns would by now have stepped up to knock down Trump’s numbers, and I was wrong. Unlike Donald Trump, I will admit when I have made an error.”
But Wilson added that capsizing the businessman’s chances at this point would require a significant financial effort.
“It’s going to need a sustained commitment from people who need to understand that if you hand the Republican nomination to Donald Trump, you hand the White House to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNo Hillary — the 'Third Way' is the wrong way The dangerous erosion of Democratic Party foundations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat MORE,” he said.
Some experts still contend that Trump will fall of his own accord, or that his current poll ratings will prove deceptive. Statistician Nate Silver, of the FiveThirtyEight website, has argued that the majority of voters only make their decisions much closer to polling time.
Others have cited the 2012 cycle, when several Republican candidates’ stars rose and faded, to suggest that Trump will lose altitude before the first votes are cast.
Silver’s thesis seems to rest on the idea that late-deciding voters will make completely different choices than those who have already tuned in to the process — a supposition that may be true but is unproven for now.
As for 2012, while it is true that former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) was leading the RCP average at the equivalent point to now, that was to be a relatively short-lived phenomenon, just as earlier boomlets for candidates such as then-Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBoehner says he voted for Trump, didn't push back on election claims because he's retired Boehner: Trump 'stepped all over their loyalty' by lying to followers Boehner finally calls it as he sees it MORE (Minn.) and businessman Herman Cain had proved to be.
In fact, the consistency of Trump’s polling performance this cycle has more in common with the steady showing of eventual 2012 nominee Mitt Romney than anyone else.
Other anti-Trump forces within the GOP hold out hope that as the field winnows, the whole dynamic of the race will shift, with primary voters coalescing around a different option.
But none of that is guaranteed. Trump remains as bullishly confident as ever. And Republican insiders know the hour is getting late.
“If Trump is not your cup of tea, it’s time to bring your own coffee pot out and start brewing something,” said Robinson.