Political analysts and pundits have scratched their heads so much over the phenomenal staying power of Donald Trump that they risk scraping through to the bone. Not only has Trump managed to defy expectations that either he would get bored and bail out of the presidential race, or that voters would tire of his shtick and jump off the bandwagon, but the billionaire continues to lead in almost every national poll, as well as in Iowa and New Hampshire. In the Granite State, Trump's lead has been in double digits in all but four polls since Labor Day, the point on the calendar when most prognosticators expected voters to look more seriously at traditional candidates.
Clearly, that has not come to pass. In fact, the second-place candidate in most polls is Ben Carson, another outsider in a cycle seized by anti-establishment sentiment. The only two traditional Republican candidates to come within sight of Trump and Carson are Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both of whom owe their Senate seats to fights with the GOP establishment.
The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary are only two months away. The fact that Trump could actually win the nomination has finally begun to dawn on doubters. Polling analyst Alan Abramowitz told CNN this weekend that Trump's resonance with voters has not abated. Veteran newsman and columnist Bernard Goldberg admitted that he had misjudged the Trump phenomenon, writing on Sunday that he was "throwing in the towel" and saying Trump could win the nomination — adding that he hoped to be proven wrong again about that conclusion, too.
It is time to consider what a Trump nomination would mean for the GOP. Because it really could happen. And if it does, it will be a disaster for conservatives. Make no mistake: Donald Trump would lose to Hillary Clinton.
In the modern era of presidential politics, the choice for voters has essentially been either to maintain continuity or change direction, often spurred by an evolving idea of who we are as a people and country. Let's start with the 1976 election, the first after the end of the Vietnam War, the fall of South Vietnam and our hasty evacuation from Saigon, and the Watergate scandal. We elected Jimmy Carter, an outsider to Washington and a candidate of proclaimed high ideals and values, as a means to distance ourselves from the stench of corruption and failure.
In 1980, after Carter had led the U.S. into more failure and insisted that we needed to set our aspirations lower, voters turned to Ronald Reagan, embracing his sunny vision of America and his personal charm and optimism. In 1984 and again in 1988, the nation chose continuity with that vision. By 1992, however, George H. W. Bush seemed more like an out-of-touch patrician. Voters flocked to a change candidate: Bill Clinton, the baby boomer from a humble Arkansas upbringing. In 2000, with Americans tired of scandal, George W. Bush narrowly captured enough of the electorate looking for a fresh start and personal integrity.
Seven years ago, Democratic primary voters started the process of choosing aspiration over continuity by rejecting Hillary Clinton in favor of Barack Obama, and general election voters concurred in a landslide. Obama represented a new generation and new direction in politics. After eight years of the Bush administration, and faced with a longtime Washington denizen in John McCain as their only choice, voters chose to assert an evolving vision of the American identity over continuity.
Four years later, Republicans might have had an opportunity to beat Obama on performance, but they chose a flawed messenger in Mitt Romney. Voters may have been dissatisfied with the direction of the Obama administration, but Romney's conspicuous wealth and his dismissiveness of "the 47 percent" did not give voters the emotional connection they crave in presidential elections. Instead, they stuck with Obama — even as he lost four million votes in his re-election bid, the first president in at least a century to win re-election with fewer votes.
Here's the key thing: Presidential elections are not just about who the candidates are; it's what they say about who we are, and more importantly, who we aspire to be. The party that offers a nominee that taps into that desire has the best chance of winning.
This dynamic should present Republicans with a golden opportunity in 2016. Democrats will nominate Hillary Clinton, whose long track record in Washington and deep connection to the Obama administration makes her a continuity candidate at a time when much of the electorate — Republican and Democratic alike — is clamoring for change. Clinton's personal negatives, especially on trust and honesty, make her a strikingly flawed candidate. Unlike Obama, Reagan, and her own husband, there is little about Clinton that reflects an aspirational identity or a change from the past.
Many of the GOP candidates provide a near-perfect contrast to Clinton. Think about how Carson's soft-spoken mien and his inspirational life story stack up against Clintonian cronyism, or how a new vision articulated by the younger Rubio and Cruz would look compared to more of the same Clintonian politics. These candidates could plausibly offer a restless electorate an emotional connection to a new idea of what America is.
But they might not get the chance. Because Donald Trump may very well beat them.
Now imagine what Donald Trump, Republican nominee would say about who we are, and who we aspire to be.
Trump seems intent on focusing on a narrow brand of anger and celebrity fandom. Where Romney downplayed his wealth, Trump brags about it. He denigrates his opponents and his critics in personal terms. On the campaign trail, Trump mugs for the crowd while belittling a Carson anecdote about an attempted stabbing that led Carson to faith for redemption. Trump has also made a number of claims that stretch credulity with everyone except Trump's followers. The most recent of these controversies prompted The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes to remark on Fox News on Monday that "fact-checking Donald Trump is like picking up after a dog with diarrhea … [there] just isn't much point."
Is Trump how America sees itself? Is Trump how America wants to see itself?
Trump has proven resilient, and he's not dumb. At some point, he will have to figure out how to offer a vision that isn't all about himself. Or, hopefully, the GOP will find a candidate that can beat Trump to the nomination. Because if Republicans fail, and Trump succeeds, the same electorate that couldn't find a connection to Romney will go right back to choosing continuity in November 2016, and keep the Republicans out of the White House for another four years.