What would the 2016 race look like without Donald Trump?
For several months, Donald Trump has made it clear to all that he intends to stick around in the 2016 Republican presidential primary race. When he first began campaigning, his critics noted that Trump had bowed out of a potential 2012 bid after flirting with a campaign just long enough to promote The Apprentice. So this summer, Trump got serious. He ended his obligations with NBC and filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to launch an official presidential campaign. When analysts expected Trump to fade as voters started to pay more attention after Labor Day, he surprised everyone again by not only enduring, but thriving at the top of the polls, and at the pinnacle of media attention.
But here we are now in October, and Trump has started to consider what a Republican primary fight would look like without him. Needless to say, such a race would be, in Trump's estimation, considerably less luxurious for both the GOP and the media. The billionaire told The New York Times that the Republican primary would "collapse" in his absence. At least, Trump says, he'd lose interest.
"There'd be a major collapse of the race, and there'd be a major collapse of television ratings," Trump said. "It would become a depression in television." Trump declared that such a fight would become "boring," and hammer the bottom line of the cable news networks after Trump made them "so much money."
On the latter point, there is no doubt that Trump is telling the truth. After the first Fox News debate in August turned into a ratings smash, CNN took advantage of the situation and multiplied its ad rates for the next debate in September by 40 times the regular rate. Rather than charge its usual prime-time fee of $5,000, CNN demanded up to $200,000 per spot. It paid off, too, as the September debate generated "NFL-level" ratings. While CNN just missed the numbers for Fox (22.9 million vs 24 million for August's debate), that was still 50 percent above CNN's previous record audience from 22 years earlier, when Larry King had both Al Gore and Ross Perot on at the same time.
Without Trump and the media circus that he promotes, America's attention may well wane back down to normal primary-debate audience levels. Would that precipitate a "collapse" in the Republican primary race? No. It seems much more likely that it would facilitate a return to normalcy.
The rise of Trump has attracted so much attention that it may be difficult to recall that the Republican bench this year was quite deep — and still is. Multiple-term governors such as Scott Walker and Rick Perry may have withdrawn from the race, but Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, and Bobby Jindal remain. Young-gun Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul are still here, although some questions have arisen about Paul's intentions of late. The race still includes outsiders Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, both of whom continue to have firm grips on large blocs of voters. Without Trump sucking up all the oxygen, we might actually get to hear from the GOP's many promising candidates.
Trump's act has lost its novelty. That's not to say that Trump has lost all of his followers, but he's certainly not winning many new ones at the moment. Fiorina has ticked upward, as has Rubio much more quietly, slipping ahead of Bush to get into fourth place in the RCP average. Trump's slide downward comes as the focus of his campaign has failed to shift from himself to either policy or the voters themselves. Even these musings on a withdrawal from the race focused entirely on Trump himself, his becoming bored with politics sans Trump, and how he would become accustomed to life off the campaign trail. The self-promotion appears to have gotten a little stale, and Trump so far has failed to successfully adjust.
In the end, voters want elections to focus on their lives. They want to know about solutions to their issues, how their personal and local economies will improve with a particular candidate, and feel as though a candidate has an emotional connection to their situations. Especially in some of the key areas in which the GOP must compete to win the general election, voters want to see a pragmatic problem-solver. Donald Trump is an ideologue. Without him, the 2016 GOP race might be one that actually focuses on the things mainstream voters want to hear.
The bench in this cycle has too much talent to let that desire go unmet for long. A Trump exit might refocus the GOP on the need to win a broader range of voters by focusing on solutions-based governance and optimism about the nation's prospects. That might not be a ratings grabber for the cable news networks, but it would give the Republican Party a better chance to compete in November 2016.