For months now, the race for the Republican presidential nomination has actually been split into two races.
In the one that gets talked about the most by the professional political press, the Republican race is all about Jeb Bush failing to take his enormous lead in money and organization and distance himself from his rivals. In this race, Marco Rubio looks like the candidate that the party will eventually rally around. Perhaps, Carly Fiorina or Ted Cruz will emerge as the conservative movement's insurgent in this race. The big questions in this contest: Which candidate will be the greatest matchup against Hillary Clinton? Are they accomplished enough? Do they represent change? This is the politicians' race.
You've also heard about the other Republican race, the populists' race. You find it featured more on conservative talk radio, especially recently. On one side of this contest is Ben Carson, cast as the godly man of virtue who will save the character of this nation from galloping secularism and political corruption. His opponent, Donald Trump, is going to save America's white working class from economic and cultural dispossession, defeating the pincer of badly negotiated globalization from above, and uncontrolled immigration from below.
Since September, the politicians' race has been conducted as if the populists' race doesn't matter, or as if the risks of engaging the populists are greater than the upside of taking them on. Political elites have all kinds of theories for why the populists' race is no big thing. Silly season always comes to an end, doesn't it? Perhaps Trump will say something that finally, really gets him in trouble. Perhaps voters aren't really paying attention now, but when they do, they'll come join the grown-ups in the politicians' race. Maybe Trump and Carson are just riling up the low-information voters, the people who won't ultimately show up to cast ballots. Or maybe once the party apparatus rallies behind a real candidate, these non-politicians will fade for good. Trump and Carson aren't building real ground organizations. They can't win.
And yet, in all polls, and for weeks on end, Carson and Trump each individually lead all the candidates in the politicians' race. Together, these two outsiders attract 48 to 50 percent of poll respondents. Combined, they lead all the other candidates put together, excluding only those under the margin of error. And yet, the last two debates, and who knows how many news cycles, have been all about Marco Rubio's rise and whether his finances can survive close scrutiny. Or Jeb Bush's plan to relaunch his campaign and eliminate Rubio. Put Bush and Rubio together — they still can't even match Carson in the polls.
If we take polls at all seriously — and in the age of Nate Silver, I think we do — then Rubio and Bush are in a squabble over the Republican copy machine, while Trump is executing a hostile takeover of the corporation. Trump leads Carson in polling averages in Iowa by a hair. He leads by double digits in New Hampshire. This is real.
Maybe all the comforting stories conservatives and establishment Republicans are telling themselves about Trump and Carson are true. Individually any one of them is possible. I've tried believing them, certainly.
But then I look overseas. Until recently, Labour voters in the U.K. never thought they'd be wiped out of Scotland. And then they didn't believe Jeremy Corbyn could become their leader. Many French thought the momentum of the National Front and Marine Le Pen would have been exhausted by now. In both countries, major parties had bid hard for the middle, leaving core constituent concerns unaddressed, and giving ground (moral and political) to far-off challenges. Can it happen here?
To many Republican primary voters, the politicians' race is populated by traitors in waiting. They look ready or even anxious to cave on religious liberty, or on mass immigration. Maybe immigration and economic insecurity for the working class are going to do to the Republicans what these issues have been doing to major parties in Europe.
No longer can the politicians' race be conducted as if the populists' race doesn't exist. If today's Iowa and New Hampshire poll numbers look anything like the future results of those states' presidential contests, the bubbled existence of the politicians' race will be the greatest self-delusion in modern American politics. If they want to win, the leaders of the politicians' race need to actively push Trump and Carson out of their way and find a way to attract their supporters. If the politicians don't fight for their party, someone else might just wreck it for them.