For months, the press and the Republican establishment alike have been expecting the Trump bubble to implode. Now that it's clear Trump isn't going anywhere, we're seeing stories about a long slog of a campaign or even a brokered convention. But there's a very real possibility that, far from those kinds of days of reckoning, Donald Trump could actually "run the table." Ironically, Trump not only could win — he could win more decisively than any non-incumbent Republican contestant for the nomination since the dawn of the modern primary system.
Let's see how that might happen.
First, let's look not at Iowa, but at New Hampshire. Trump has been leading in New Hampshire by double-digits since August. If those polls are to believed, Trump is poised not only to win, but to win decisively.
Conventional wisdom is that whichever establishment-friendly candidate places second — at this point John Kasich is lined up behind Trump, but Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and even Jeb Bush are all said to have a shot — is going to be Trump's most-viable challenger for the nomination. But if Donald Trump dominates with 30 to 40 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, and they come in 15 to 20 points behind, how is that possible?
More logically, whoever wins Iowa is going to be Trump's biggest challenger, and if that candidate does poorly in New Hampshire then whoever comes in second there (assuming it's somebody else) will be a long-shot third for the nomination.
So let's look at Iowa.
In recent weeks, Iowa has seen a neck-and-neck race between conservative stalwart Ted Cruz and Trump. But the political junkies have been saying that in fact, Cruz has the edge because he has a far more extensive ground operation.
And so he does. But it's worth pointing out that the Cruz campaign has raised expectations considerably by touting this fact. A narrow Cruz win at this point would hardly be an exciting upset.
And Cruz could still lose Iowa. His rise in the state came during a period when he faced virtually no fire from the Trump campaign — and when he was directing virtually no fire Trump's way. That's no longer true. Moreover, Trump has actually led in four of the last five Iowa polls. And that was before the Palin endorsement.
Because of heightened expectations, a Cruz loss in Iowa would be devastating. He's been counting on a victory there to propel him to second or third place in unfriendly New Hampshire, and to possible victories in subsequent primaries in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday.
If Cruz loses Iowa, and the air goes out of his balloon, who benefits? Who's the leading second-choice candidate of Cruz supporters? You guessed it.
And if Cruz does win, it's worth noting that Iowa frequently doesn't vote for the nominee. It voted for Bush in 1980, Dole in 1988, Huckabee in 2008, and Santorum in 2012. There's a common assumption that a narrow Cruz victory would puncture the Trump hype balloon — and it might. But that's not the way Iowa has ever played out before.
So, as the race stands now, the most likely outcomes are either a Trump victory in both Iowa and New Hampshire, or a Cruz win in Iowa followed by a Trump win in New Hampshire. How might the rest of the race play out? Let's look at the two states after New Hampshire: South Carolina and Nevada.
South Carolina, Nevada, and beyond
South Carolina was decisive for every GOP nominating contest until 2012. It gave 55 percent to Reagan in 1980, 49 percent to Bush in 1988, 45 percent to Dole in 1996, and 53 percent to Bush in 2000. McCain just edged past Huckabee in 2008.
And how's Trump been polling in the South Carolina? I thought so.
Of course Gingrich won South Carolina in 2012, and that predicted nothing except a change in the South Carolina electorate, which had, prior to 2012, showed a markedly deferential attitude toward the Republican establishment. The vote for Gingrich signaled a profound dissatisfaction with the party establishment that has clearly not abated.
And even if the establishment wanted South Carolina to perform its usual function in 2016, party leaders are not doing the things necessary to make it happen. Consider the role of Lindsey Graham. From the beginning, his campaign's main impact was to prevent party leaders in South Carolina from throwing their support to another, more viable candidate. Now he's dropped out — and endorsed Jeb Bush's struggling campaign, which will likely hobble the more-viable Marco Rubio's campaign even further.
If Donald Trump wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, why wouldn't he win South Carolina? And if he loses Iowa and wins New Hampshire, why wouldn't he still have a strong shot at winning South Carolina, even against a surging Ted Cruz?
It's a similar story in infrequently-polled, less-crucial Nevada, which Marco Rubio has targeted as his "best early state" without much evidence of impact. And so on through Super Tuesday, through Florida, and on through the entire primary calendar.
The usual response to these sorts of claims is that polling this far out doesn't really mean much. Contests can get especially volatile as we approach an election date, nobody is paying attention yet, and Trump is riding primarily on name-recognition. But the distinctive feature of the 2016 Republican primary polling has not been its volatility but its stability — at least at the top, where Trump sits.
Volatility in recent prior GOP primary contests has been driven by dissatisfaction with the presumptive nominee: McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012. But there is no establishment candidate or presumptive nominee to be dissatisfied with this time. Instead, there's a candidate from far outside that establishment, who is running explicitly against that establishment, but not running a particularly ideological campaign — certainly not one that lines up with traditional conservative shibboleths (which is what Cruz is doing). The extraordinary stability of the Trump vote may be a sign not merely of the high name-recognition of the candidate, but the wide and deep appeal of that stance — or of Trump personally.
And if voters in later states aren't paying attention yet, then what will cause them to pay attention? Primarily, the results of the early contests. Primary contests are partly ways of signaling to the partisan electorate who they are supposed to vote for. So early Trump victories could well signal to the less-engaged portions of that electorate that the party has decided — and decided for Trump. Even though, in the minds of those supposedly in charge of the party, they most certainly haven't.
Cruz is the only challenger to Trump who has gotten any kind of traction, but his rise has been overwhelmingly on the right, a path that numerous insurgents have taken and failed in. Maybe he'll succeed this time — but why assume that Trump will be easier to defeat in this manner than candidates who were manifestly more disliked by the rank-and-file GOP electorate? Isn't it more likely that, if voters in New York or Pennsylvania see their choice as "Trump or Cruz or some loser," they'll mostly go for the angry but non-doctrinaire Trump?
The rest of the crowd of candidates needs to take advantage of the nomination's "blue wall" that supposedly stops conservative candidates from winning. But Trump already has the advantage in scaling that wall. His strongest regions are the Northeast and Midwest. He polls just as well among self-described moderates as among self-described conservatives.
The mainstream candidates can't get any traction because Trump is ahead of them in their lane, while Cruz is the classic ideological conservative challenger. How does that story — a stronger-than-usual poll-leader blocking the moderate path to the nomination, and a more-divisive-than-usual candidate playing conservative insurgent — not imply that the less-ideological but charismatic poll leader is the favorite to win?
Here's the bottom line.
No non-incumbent has won both the GOP's Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary since the dawn of the modern primary system. Trump has a real shot to be the first. And no recent candidate has overcome the kind of deficit most of the other candidates face in both national and state-by-state numbers at this late date, against a candidate with as strong and stable numbers as Trump has, and gone on to win.
If Trump wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, and then goes on to win South Carolina and Nevada — as he is favored to do — he could very conceivably win every contest, or at worst lose a favored son state or two like Cruz's Texas. Nobody has run the table like that — not Nixon in 1968, nor Reagan in 1980, nor Bush in 2000.
And if he loses Iowa to Cruz, and wins New Hampshire decisively, there's little historical reason to believe that Cruz has a better chance at the nomination than Trump does, much less that anybody else has a better shot than either.
A Trump nomination would be unprecedented. But an upset victory by any of his opponents would, in many ways, be even more so.