24 November 2015

Why the GOP’s strategy to knock out Trump is failing

By Brian Cattell

Shortly after the Paris Attacks, numerous US political commentators took to the airwaves to declare that this world-changing event would profoundly impact the race for the Republican Presidential nomination. This was, they said, exactly the opportunity establishment Republicans needed to demonstrate their superior policy credentials and restore sanity to a 2016 race hitherto dominated by the crazy yin and yang Donald Trump/Ben Carson double act.

The problem is, more than a week and a half after the Paris atrocity, Trump is only getting stronger, and Carson is hanging on to second place in the polls, nearly eight points ahead of his nearest challenger.

In the wake of Paris, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz – the only other credible contenders and all current or former holders of political office – huffed and puffed, and paraded their smarts. But the outsiders’ house is still far from falling down.

In two national polls published on Sunday November 22 (one for ABC/Washington Post and the other for Fox News), Trump was favoured by an average of 30% of Republican voters; with Carson still comfortably holding second place with an average of 20%. Rubio was in third place with an average of 12.5%. These numbers followed a week of supposed gaffes and intense scrutiny on the foreign and security policy credentials of both Trump and Carson.

Carson’s character and command of basic facts were trashed viciously in a series of articles in the New York Times, among other outlets. Meanwhile, Trump sparked outrage after he appeared to support a national database for Muslims, then later said that he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrate the 9/11 terrorist attacks on TV – though nobody else could corroborate the claim.

Carson’s poll numbers have slipped somewhat under the barrage, even though Bush, on 5%, would be delighted with the doctor’s 20%. Trump, however, has gained significant fresh momentum in the days since Paris.

With every politically incorrect comment appearing to add at least a percentage point to his poll numbers, establishment frustration appeared to boil over last weekend. The Wall Street Journal revealed that Liz Mair, the former online communications director of the Republican National Committee, was set to be part of a “guerrilla campaign” to “defeat and destroy” Trump’s candidacy to be backed by “secret donors”.

Whether the story, in the establishment friendly and virulently anti-Trump WSJ, was placed there by Trump’s foes in the belief it would harm him, or not, the most likely outcome is the opposite of what was intended.

The GOP establishment profoundly misunderstands why Trump and Carson connect so strongly with its base. They need to wise up soon to retain any control over the primary race.

The establishment tries to batter grass roots primary voters with a full frontal assault of reason and logic. But, in an age of inexperienced (Rubio/Cruz) and uninspiring (Bush) conventional Republican contenders, the outsiders’ connect in a way that is emotional and spiritual – and anything but rational.

The more the Republican National Committee tries to tell ordinary conservative voters how unqualified, ideologically inconsistent, and naïve the outsiders are, the more those voters will flock to their folk heroes.

It must be terribly frustrating for the Republican insiders not to be able to control the fate of their party’s choice of Presidential nominee. However, unusually in the vicious world of US politics, letting events take their course, rather than trying to dictate a candidate to the base, may be their best course of action.

Most analyses of the Republican outsider phenomenon have noted that we live in a time in where the respect of ordinary Americans for the political establishment and political institutions could hardly be lower. That is true. But Trump and Carson have also tapped into a powerful, millennia-old idea that should give political hacks of all persuasions pause for thought: the noble ideal of the citizen-politician who first achieves something momentous in life, then gives back to society by placing his talents at the service of his country.

That yearning for citizen-leaders is only strengthened when voters suspect, as many do in the US right now, that some of their political leaders might have achieved very little in life had they not enjoyed the modern system of professional politics. And when those professional politicians appear to deliver so little to the people they serve.

The anti-establishment insurgency on the American right could yet evaporate. But if one of the two outsiders somehow captures the Republican nomination, it could have long-term ramifications for the conduct of politics and government around the world.

Brian Cattell is co-founder and partner at New York and London based communications consultancy Cattell, Locke, Pendleton and Partners. He is also a senior research fellow and former chairman of the Bow Group think tank.