Now that Donald Trump all but the official Republican nominee for president, it’s interesting to look back on the race that wasn’t. While there were 17 candidates at some point vying for the nomination, no one really had a shot besides Trump.
Back when this whole rodeo began, Jeb Bush was perceived the favorite due to his name value, his record as governor of Florida, and his deep money backing. But Jeb! had no chance simply because his last name was Bush. After Bush 41 and Bush 43, the family used all of its capital and opportunity to be commander-in-chief for the short term. Jeb’s lack of charisma and entertainment combined with his political rust left him in an immediate hole near impossible to dig out of. His message also wasn’t tailored to the electorate after Trump’s emergence. Money can only take a candidate so far even today. Our society and democracy does not reward familial dynasties. Jeb’s presidential hopes went out the door when his brother was elected. If Jeb had come anywhere close to the nomination, it would have been a miracle and an underdog story for the ages.
Marco Rubio should not have entered the race. For him to become president, he essentially had to run against Jeb then run against any other perceived establishment alternative. After that, he’d be forced to run against Ted Cruz before finally being able to run against Donald Trump. The influx of money spent against Rubio combined with youthful miscalculations such as his comedy tour against Trump doomed him as well. I firmly believe Rubio had the message and vision to win this election cycle, but there were too many obstacles in his path to trip him up.
Ted Cruz believed the key to victory was uniting the evangelical vote. However, the evangelical vote is too wide ranging to truly unite. All evangelicals are not the same and Cruz’s bristling outsider message turned off too many others when social conservatives did not ultimatum unite behind him. Again Cruz had multiple races to run: against social conservatives, against Rubio, unfortunately against John Kasich, and then ultimately against Trump. Cruz’s message simply had too many limits for the challenges in his path, and that ultimately really eliminated him before he started.
Rand Paul’s chances ended with the rise of ISIS and expansion of radical Islamic terror. Paul’s message for Liberty, limited government, and anti-interventionist foreign policy can be a winning message, but the continued rise of radical Islamic terrorism turned people away from Paul’s sometimes misconceived isolationism. Citizens want to feel powerful and safe and they gravitated towards big, tough foreign policy talk over the last couple years. Paul may have a future opportunity to capture the presidency, but forces out of his control derailed him before the race began this cycle.
Scott Walker may have had a message this cycle, but he didn’t have the personality to break through. Governing records could not alone carry a candidate this election. He just didn’t take advantage of his moment, especially when Trump entered and took out all the air.
Speaking of governing records and moving on, John Kasich was never a fit for this cycle. Ben Carson was never going to be more than a prayer breakfast darling. Carly Fiorina was too unknown to many and too disliked to few. Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Chris Christie missed their moments years ago. George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, and Jim Gilmore were always wasting their time.
We all expected a hard fight, a decent fight for the Republican nomination. Perhaps we would’ve gotten one had Trump punted on the opportunity, but no one ultimately had a clear path to the top if they even had a path at all. No candidate was positioned to secure the moment and opportunity in front of them. I do not support Trump, but I think we can all acknowledge that he took advantage of the media and followed, maybe even paved, arguably the easiest path despite fending off a “Never Trump” movement. The fact that the race was slow to dwindle and never came down to one-on-one also eased his path. His brand helped build the myth.
In 2016, the Republicans had options in front of them. But the options largely were closed from a path. Maybe they learned a lesson.