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Eye On Candidates
December 31, 2015

Race Heats Up in the Crowded ‘Establishment’ Lane

Although outside candidates have attracted a great deal of attention in the Republican nomination contest – candidates promising to upend Washington, D.C. – there are still a substantial number of voters who are more readily classified as establishment-friendly, or at least not anti-establishment. It seems likely that someone will claim the establishment mantle, and several press reports this morning and yesterday suggest the battle for these voters is beginning to heat up. From The Washington Post:

Iowa emerges as a free-for-all among GOP’s establishment candidates

While New Hampshire remains the hub of activity for [New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie and other establishment-favored Republican candidates, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Iowa has suddenly emerged as a playground of opportunity, where an intense and stealthier battle among them is getting underway.

None of the establishment candidates expects to win Iowa, but associates of Christie, Bush and Rubio see an opportunity for a victory of momentum — and positive media coverage — for whoever can capture the most mainstream Republican support. That faction, which the campaigns see as up for grabs, is estimated at anywhere from 20 to 35 percent of the electorate….

The voters the establishment candidates are going after in Iowa, including business people and farmers, are described by the campaigns as motivated more by economic interests and perceived electability against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton than by conservative ideology. They also make up the political base of Terry Branstad, the state’s even-tempered and long-serving Republican governor.

The fourth candidate vying for establishment support, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, does not have much of a presence in Iowa, according to the article, but has placed a great deal of emphasis on New Hampshire.

Rubio is ahead in Iowa, but Bush and Christie remain competitive:

Of the establishment contenders, Rubio has been performing the strongest, running third behind Cruz and Trump with 12 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of recent state polls. Bush is at 4.8 percent, and Christie is at 2.3 percent. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, another establishment candidate, is at 1.5 percent, though he has had a more limited presence in Iowa.

Craig Robinson, the founder and editor of and a former state GOP operative, said of the establishment dynamic: “It’s the most interesting race in Iowa, to be quite honest. I don’t think Rubio has put enough distance between himself and the Christies and Jebs of the world. That leaves the door cracked open.”

U.S. News & World Report also covered the fierce contest for establishment-oriented voters in the GOP race:

The candidacies of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have not been most stifled by [businessman Donald] Trump or [Sen. Ted] Cruz, but instead by each other.

Most Republican primary contests over the past two decades have featured a more conservative challenger attempting to upend an establishment favorite, from Pat Buchanan against Bob Dole in 1996 to Rick Santorum against Mitt Romney in 2012. Over time, it could again whittle down to that binary choice. But never has the establishment faction been more divided among so many options and without one who looks convincingly stronger than the rest by this late point in the race….

At this venture in the 2012 primary, the final national poll of the year, conducted by CNN, found Newt Gingrich and Romney knotted at 28 percent. Perhaps more strikingly, while Romney ceded the polling lead to several challengers during the fall of 2011, he always remained in double-digits and in second place.

In the 2008 cycle, the end of the year Pew Research Center poll pegged Arizona Sen. John McCain at 22 percent nationally, good enough for a 2 percentage point advantage. There again, the eventual nominee was in respectable standing, not dwelling in the polling basement.

The final national snapshot of the 2016 primary this year looks markedly different than years past. Combined, Trump and Cruz collect 57 percent of the vote in the CNN/ORC poll. Take Rubio (10 percent) and add Christie (5 percent) plus Bush (3 percent) plus Kasich (2 percent), and their sum doesn't equal even half of the two front-runners' combined total.

Which leads to another Post article this morning, suggesting that the establishment vote might be split among these four candidates, or at least divided among two or more, for quite some time:

The Republican nominating contest has entered a new, more desperate phase. The four GOP candidates vying to occupy the so-called establishment lane all turned on one other yesterday. Attacks that circulated for months on background flared up in the open.

“It’s now down to the last five weeks here,” Chris Christie told reporters in Iowa. “We need to make distinctions…”

The New Jersey governor then ripped into Marco Rubio for missing more votes than any other senator. “Dude, show up to work,” he said in Muscatine. “Just show up to work and vote no. And if you don’t want to, then quit.”

Rubio, also campaigning in Iowa, fired back: “You know, Chris has been missing in New Jersey for half the time.”

The article notes that the super PAC supporting Bush is also weighing in on Rubio’s absenteeism and Kasich’s support for the 1994 assault-weapons ban and 1980 support for Phil Crane over Ronald Reagan in the Republican nomination contest, while the pro-Kasich super PAC is questioning whether the American public is willing to vote for another Bush.

Finally, also at the Post, Dave Weigel explains how the four establishment candidates are effectively blocking one another from becoming the viable alternative to Cruz or Trump:

The current crisis of the Republican establishment can best be explained -- as so many things can be explained -- by "The Simpsons."

In the Season 11 episode "The Mansion Family," lovable plutocrat C. Montgomery Burns visits a doctor and is told that he is "the sickest man" in the world. He's being kept alive only because the many diseases inhabiting his body are canceling each other out. After demonstrating this by trying and failing to shove some stuffed toys through a tiny door, Burns's doctor dubs the problem "Three Stooges Syndrome."

Now: The people running down the "establishment" lane of the Republican Primary are not viruses. They are not even bacteria. (It occurs to me that this analogy has some problems, but it's too late to hit the brakes.) Right now, though, the four Republicans with the strongest claims to that lane -- Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and John Kasich -- are all counting on one or more of their compadres to fail. Until that happens, none of them are getting through the door….

That brings us to what we'll call the game theory of the establishment lane. Increasingly, Republicans are saying that Iowa both (1) has a habit of giving victories to guys who don't win and (2) will clarify the race by humbling Trump. Right now, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are in a race for first place, with no "establishment" candidate winning even half their support. Thus, people like Kristol are revisiting the idea that Iowa offers "three tickets" to New Hampshire -- quietly increasing the number of tickets. Right now, Bush already leads Christie and Kasich. But there's a hope that Iowa will give enough of a boost to some "establishment" candidate to allow him a New Hampshire breakthrough.

With most of the early attention to date focused on insurgent, anti-establishment candidates, the establishment vote has often been overlooked. But polling suggests there is a sizable block of votes out there for an establishment candidate, and the one who can also appeal to a significant number of more conservative voters who aren’t quite as hostile to the establishment could be a serious contender for the nomination.