Election 2016: Executive Experience, Outsiders, and the State of the Race

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The Republican Party has always tried to portray itself as the party of managers and executives, the party that knows how to lead and direct government. So it was no surprise when, at the start of the 2016 cycle, many pundits predicted that Republicans, sick of Obama’s apparent failure as a chief executive, would probably plump for a governor.

Governors in Trouble

Yet, if anything, this has been a bad cycle for governors. All three candidates who have formally dropped out of the race are two-term chief executives. Rick Perry, Scott Walker, and Bobby Jindal had all been touted at various times as serious contenders, yet their candidacies collapsed in short order. Other governors are fairing little better. Chris Christie, once considered a serious contender, was relegated to the kiddie table during the last debate, as was the governor-turned-TV host Mike Huckabee. George Pataki and Jim Gilmore are virtually invisible at this point (when journalists repeatedly ask if you are still running, your campaign is not long for this world).

The governors doing best in the polls (a highly relative term) are Jeb Bush and John Kasich, with average ratings of 5.4 and 3.4 percent respectively. Hardly anything to write home about.

Yet the pundits weren’t wrong about Republicans’ desire for an executive as standard bearer, just the kind of executive.

A Different Kind of Executive

Donald Trump continues to hold a solid lead in national and state primary polls across the country. The rise of Ben Carson seemed for a time to threaten Trump’s supremacy (though that would hardly be a vindication for governors seeking the nomination), but the retired neurosurgeon has stalled in polls thanks at least in part to a number of gaffes and stumbles on foreign policy.

Some commentators predicted a similar stumble for Trump, especially in the wake of the Paris attacks. It has been suggested that the attacks might shift the race in favor of experienced political leadership; that it is unwise to take a gamble on an untested leader in the face of growing insecurity.

But everyone already knew Trump lacked rigorous foreign policy knowledge, and his own rhetoric has promoted a mentality of danger. If anything, the apparent failures of the Obama doctrine play into Trump’s narrative, not against it. The notion that security issues will create an opening for the serious governors to get back in the race has yet to materialize.

The True Contenders

At the top of the current pack are four candidates with double-digit poll support: Donald Trump (24.6), Ben Carson (21.8), Marco Rubio (12.4), and Ted Cruz. It seems likely that Trump, Rubio, and Cruz will be end up the standard-bearers of the three competing factions of the Republican Party: anti-establishment outsider, moderate insider, and social conservative respectively. These three are really the people to beat to stand a chance in the primary season. It is almost certain that supporters of each faction with coalesce around the banner of their leading candidate as the actual contests near.

The question, then, is whether someone can unseat each of these leaders. Trump’s main rival is Ben Carson. Yet Carson is showing neither the knowledge normally required of a president, nor the contempt for such knowledge that is a unique strength of Trump. It is unlikely that he will be able to supplant the frontrunner.

Rubio has the most precarious perch of all. While he is in third place in the polls, improved fundraising, and unsurpassed debating competence, he is not invulnerable to attacks from a number of other moderates desperate to return to the top tier. Jeb is foremost among these, with a constellation of wealthy supporters, a sophisticated organization, and the best-funded super PAC in the race. The former governor of Florida has the resources to stay in the fight and wait for an opening. Whether he finds one is a function of how well Rubio keeps it together over the coming months.

Cruz is in the odd position of trailing the other top contenders, yet at the same time having the least to fear from rivals for his sector of the GOP electorate. Candidates like Carly Fiorina and Mike Huckabee have been losing traction, leaving Cruz well positioned to eat into the bases of others who falter. He has already managed some of this from Rand Paul. But the real prize would be to shave off some of Carson’s backers when the good doctor inevitably begins to recede.

The contours of the final stretch of the race are beginning to take shape, but it is still a remarkably fluid contest. There is still time for an upset or two, but the window of opportunity is certainly closing.

About John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His work has been featured by the Heartland Institute and the American Thinker. His first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013. John is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford.Read more from this author.