Four years ago, around this time, the super PAC that preferred Jeb Bush was unloading attack ads against Marco Rubio, and the super PAC that preferred Rubio was hitting back at Bush, mocking his poor finishes. Keep in mind, the two Florida Republicans were former colleagues and generally on good terms, and the policy differences between them were miniscule compared to both men’s policy differences with Donald Trump.
A few months earlier, in September, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker departed the race surprisingly early, declaring, “I feel I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top of the field . . . I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same so the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive conservative alternative to the current front-runner.” No one listened to Walker; the other candidates were all convinced they could be the last man standing against Trump, and then beat him in a one-on-one matchup.
Perhaps one of those non-Trump candidates could have beaten the Manhattan mogul in a two-man race; Trump finished with 14 million votes and the other candidates combined finished with 17 million votes. But that one-on-one race never happened. John Kasich won exactly one of the first 34 contests (his home state of Ohio), but he remained in the race week after week, ensuring that Cruz — who had at least won eight primaries and caucuses — would never get a one-on-one matchup. Kasich’s decision wasn’t the only reason Trump won the nomination, but it did ensure that the non-Trump vote was always split between at least two candidates. The other Republicans spent far too much time and too many resources trying to beat each other; while they were focused on winning “lanes,” Trump went out and won the nomination. The Republican primary was a classic “tragedy of the commons.” The best outcome for those other 16 (generally) conservative candidates was to unite behind one alternative to Trump. But nobody wanted to give up his or her dreams of being president to help the party as a whole. By the time those candidates faced reality, it was too late.
Oh, did the Democrats laugh four years ago! Those foolish Republican primary voters kept casting ballots for a guy who could never win a general election and that hapless GOP Establishment couldn’t kick anybody out and get the rest of the party to unite behind an alternative. What a bunch of fools, so out of touch with their party’s grassroots and so unaware of the actual political environment! (They didn’t stop laughing until, oh, 10 p.m. Eastern on Election Night.)
Four years later . . . here we are. Bernie Sanders had the most votes in Iowa, he looks like a solid bet to win New Hampshire, he’s got the money to hang around until the very end, he’s got an extremely motivated base of supporters, and Nate Silver thinks he’s the man most likely to win the primary.
Joe Biden looks like a sinking ship, Pete Buttigieg is solid on paper but has to figure out how to win the nomination without African Americans, Elizabeth Warren is on that Rubio-esque “nice finish but didn’t win” track, Amy Klobuchar is still struggling to hit the 15 percent threshold, and Mike Bloomberg is a caricature of the kind of rival Sanders would love to run against.
The Democrats could stop Sanders if they quickly united around one rival. But that requires candidates to recognize the long odds, accept reality, and give up their presidential ambitions to protect and advance the causes the claim to support. Funny how all of these people who insist they’re “public servants” and proclaim “this campaign isn’t about me” find that so hard to do.