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Donald Trump Could Ride Momentum to the Republican Nomination

If he wins Iowa, then an establishment candidate will face an uphill struggle to stop him.

How do you stop a boulder once it’s rolling down­hill?

For a Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment ter­ri­fied of the dam­age that a Don­ald Trump nom­in­a­tion could wreak, that’s the phys­ics prob­lem it could face if the celebrity busi­ness­man wins both Iowa and New Hamp­shire in the first nine days of Feb­ru­ary.

Those states ac­count for only 53 del­eg­ates of the 2,472 total in play, but a Trump vic­tory in both could make wins more likely in South Car­o­lina and Nevada later that month, which, un­der the laws of pres­id­en­tial-primary “mo­mentum,” could make his nom­in­a­tion all but in­ev­it­able.

“The party can’t do any­thing,” said Ari Fleis­cher, a seni­or aide to former pres­id­ent George W. Bush. “He could be the nom­in­ee.”

In past pres­id­en­tial elec­tion cycles, front-run­ner mo­mentum was usu­ally seen as a good thing by Re­pub­lic­ans Party lead­ers, al­low­ing can­did­ates such as Bob Dole in 1996 or Bush in 2000 to wrap up nom­in­a­tions re­l­at­ively quickly des­pite early scares and start fo­cus­ing on the Novem­ber gen­er­al elec­tion.

But nev­er be­fore has a GOP race been upen­ded by an en­ter­tain­er with near-uni­ver­sal name re­cog­ni­tion and a pen­chant for con­tro­versy who, while wildly pop­u­lar among a seg­ment of the party’s base, could spell dis­aster in the Novem­ber gen­er­al elec­tion—and bey­ond.

“If Mr. Trump heads the Re­pub­lic­an Party, it will no longer be a con­ser­vat­ive party; it will be an angry, big­oted, pop­u­list one,” wrote Peter Wehner, an of­fi­cial in the past three Re­pub­lic­an ad­min­is­tra­tions, in a re­cent New York Times op-ed.

Fleis­cher agreed that a Trump nom­in­a­tion would res­ult in both short- and long-term dam­age to the GOP’s stand­ing as a na­tion­al party. He ad­ded that stop­ping that from hap­pen­ing, should Trump win the first two con­tests, would re­quire self­less­ness from all but one of the es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ates—former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Sen. Marco Ru­bio. (Sen. Ted Cruz, who is also run­ning as an “out­sider” and sim­il­arly scares the es­tab­lish­ment wing of the party, is seen as hav­ing little chance if he loses Iowa.)

“Un­less all but one of the main­stream can­did­ates drop out, there’s no stop­ping Trump,” he said. “And it has to hap­pen soon­er rather than later.”

Wheth­er it’s the de­sire to get be­hind the win­ner, the fear of “wast­ing” one’s vote on a loser, or merely con­form­ing to the group, the “mo­mentum” phe­nomen­on is real—meas­ur­ably so.

Stan­ford Busi­ness School pro­fess­or Jonath­an Bendor de­scribed the “mo­mentum” phe­nomen­on in a 2011 book he coau­thored, A Be­ha­vi­or­al The­ory of Elec­tions. Bendor said what primary voters do ac­tu­ally makes sense, from the point of view of those who want to make a sound choice but haven’t spent much time study­ing their op­tions. 

He com­pared it to a diner un­fa­mil­i­ar with Mo­roc­can cuisine go­ing to a Mo­roc­can res­taur­ant for the first time. Look­ing for nat­ive Mo­roc­cans at oth­er tables and or­der­ing what they’re or­der­ing is a sound strategy. Just so, voters in Geor­gia or Vir­gin­ia or Flor­ida look to see what voters did earli­er in Iowa and New Hamp­shire and South Car­o­lina, Bendor said.

“People take cues from oth­er people,” Bendor said. “You shouldn’t think of this as simple-minded con­form­ity. … Vot­ing is an epis­od­ic activ­ity at which most of us are am­a­teurs.”

Ex­amples abound in re­cent pres­id­en­tial elec­tions.

In Decem­ber 2003, Sen. John Kerry stood at 2.7 per­cent in a Geor­gia primary poll, be­hind five oth­er can­did­ates. Three months later, after hav­ing won Iowa, New Hamp­shire, and Nevada, Kerry won the Geor­gia primary with 47 per­cent of the vote on his way to the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion.

“Let’s say Cruz wins Iowa, and he wins by a sub­stan­tial mar­gin. Then people think, ‘Oh well, Iow­ans thought about this, and they think Cruz is elect­able.’ If Ru­bio comes in third, then you get people think­ing, ‘Oh, Ru­bio can’t win.’ This is, in ef­fect, mo­mentum. This is per­fectly sens­ible be­ha­vi­or,” Bendor said, but ac­know­ledged that it leaves something to be de­sired, from a civics stand­point. “No­tice how I didn’t say it’s op­tim­al.”

The po­ten­tial good news for Re­pub­lic­ans is that un­like the boulder rolling down­hill, some­times polit­ic­al mo­mentum can be stopped just as eas­ily as it starts—as then-Sen. Barack Obama learned in 2008. After a big come-from-be­hind win in Iowa thanks to an enorm­ous voter-turnout ef­fort, Obama lost New Hamp­shire to Hil­lary Clin­ton, set­ting off a months-long, del­eg­ate-by-del­eg­ate slog that las­ted all spring.

That, in fact, is what party “es­tab­lish­ment” can­did­ates have been count­ing on, should Trump in­deed win the earli­est con­tests.

Sally Brad­shaw, a top ad­visor to Jeb Bush, said his cam­paign has been plan­ning for this for months. “Our strategy to grind it out is just that. We’ve pre­pared for a long cam­paign, build­ing sup­port­ers in crit­ic­al March states. We have ag­gress­ively ap­proached bal­lot ac­cess to en­sure we are get­ting on the bal­lot in every state,” she said. “It’s our be­lief that or­gan­iz­a­tion and ground game may be the only form of voter con­tact hav­ing sig­ni­fic­ant im­pact this cycle—but no one will know with cer­tainty un­til the votes are ac­tu­ally cast.”

Such a scen­ario could leave Trump, Cruz, and then one or two es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ates still in the race head­ing in­to the dozen con­tests on March 1, de­pend­ing on how many run out of cam­paign money in Feb­ru­ary. But even two es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ates might be too many to pre­vent Trump from win­ning large enough plur­al­it­ies to win more and more states, Fleis­cher wor­ries.

As for a strategy that re­lies on a con­gres­sion­al-dis­trict-by-con­gres­sion­al-dis­trict, state-by-state battle for del­eg­ates sim­il­ar to Obama-Clin­ton in 2008, Fleis­cher said he re­mains skep­tic­al.

“It’s nev­er worked be­fore. It’s hard to see it work­ing now,” he said.

(Image via Joseph Sohm / )