Throughout the 2016 presidential election, pundits have breathlessly speculated on what a race without “whoever” would have looked like. Media personalities have created endless amounts of content by adding different candidates’ results together to craft scenarios in which Candidate B+C beats Candidate A.
These hypotheticals are fun to imagine and may offer limited insights into the presidential contest. However, they’ve led to a potent distraction in this race: the constant lamenting that so-and-so being in the race hurts your guy. If the remaining presidential candidates want to push other campaigns out of the picture, quit punching down and take on Donald Trump. Unless he loses, no one else wins, no matter how many people are still technically in the race.
That’s not to dismiss the effects that the unprecedented number of candidates has had on the race. Few would argue that Marco Rubio did not suffer from fellow Floridian and one-time mentor Jeb Bush hogging potential endorsers and donors, or that experienced conservative governors like Scott Walker and Rick Perry wouldn’t have stood out more in a less crowded cycle.
There’s no doubt that a winnowing field benefits some candidates (Rubio/Cruz) and hurts others (Donald Trump). But is it necessarily a campaign’s duty to drop out “for the good of the party” and let a similar candidate with a clearer path to victory win?
Do Candidates Have a Duty to Drop Out?
Post-South Carolina, Ben Carson and John Kasich are receiving pressure to hang up their campaigns for the good of the party. Rubio argues this is a three-man race, Cruz argues it is a two-man race, and Trump started declaring himself the victor back in September.
So let’s assume Rubio is correct and the smart bet is on one of those three. Let’s also assume that Trump, with his tendency towards vulgarity, defense of Planned Parenthood, and eerily Michael Moore-derivative anti-George W. Bush rhetoric, is not an acceptable standard-bearer for the Republican Party. In that case, do Carson and Kasich have a duty to drop?
The short answer is: maybe. Kasich is pulling just enough support to possibly force an open convention and win by brokering deals for other candidates’ delegates. Wins in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and California would put him on that track, but it’s the longest of shots. Carson increasingly seems to be justifying his run with a soft smile and “we’ll see,” and while his poll standing plummets, there he is in Nevada inexplicably telling voters what he’ll do as their president.
Both candidates are running campaigns based on the Dumb and Dumber mantra, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.” They’re admirable men and they’d both make good presidents, but at this stage, perhaps they should get out for the good of other candidates and the party.
As a side note, it is worth acknowledging that several pundits have also called for either Rubio or Cruz to step aside so the other one can consolidate support and take on Trump. Ben Shapiro eloquently argued for Cruz to step down and allow Rubio to press on, while D.C. McAllister offered a strong rebuttal stating the opposite. These arguments are somewhat of a moot point. Neither Rubio or Cruz has come this far to simply drop without being forced out by hard results, and both represent fundamentally different wings of the party.
Rubio is a hawk’s hawk who comes from the Paul Ryan school of proposition governance, not opposition governance. Cruz has a bit more of a libertarian foreign policy streak and has built his brand on opposing everything but the purest conservative legislation, blasting his colleagues for not doing the same. It is unthinkable that either of these men, who have spent the past year viciously competing to shape the party’s post-Obama identity, would simply step aside and let the other have his way with the GOP.
Who Cares About Dropping Out?
There is a more nuanced and more difficult-to-accept answer to the original question. Do long-shot candidates have a duty to get out of the race for the good of the party? The answer: who cares? None of this matters as long as Trump continues to stay at the top of the pack. While traditional Republicans debate which anti-Trump candidate to coalesce around, they’re missing the point. Trump is winning, and he’s going to keep winning until the rest of the field takes him on directly.
If you believe Rubio is the candidate who can unite the Republican Party and defeat Trump and Hillary Clinton, don’t spend your time urging Kasich to drop out of the race. Lobby your candidate to engage with the front-runner. If you think Cruz can rally true conservatives to top Trump and win in November, stop harassing Carson to get out of your way. Get out there and fight the guy who’s actually beating you.
Cruz spent months building up Trump with the hope he would self-destruct and endorse Cruz. That’s not happening. Rubio has run a campaign designed to respond to attacks, not tear down his rivals. It is admirable, but without exposing the fraudulent conservative credentials of our front-runner, it won’t do much good for the party or country.
So far, every candidate has waited to attack Trump until they seem poised to pick up voters who abandon him. That has failed. The remaining candidates must hold the lid on his support and pick off the vulnerable supporters who lean Trump based on his perceived invincibility. The fabled Teflon Don will falter when you hit him hard enough, enough times.
How to Win
Even as the field shrinks, Cruz and Rubio will never win until they get in there and slug it out with Trump. So why wait around while Trump climbs higher? Prosecute Trump with an aggressive television advertising campaign highlighting stories of his abuse of eminent domain. Harp on his support of Planned Parenthood, single-payer health care, and Hillary Clinton in your rallies and interviews. Potshots and dismissal will not work. Rubio and Cruz will each have to build a case against Trump with multiple lines of attack across every medium at their disposal.
Each of the two has an anti-Trump message they are uniquely credible in delivering. Cruz has built his entire brand on conservative purity. Trump continues to flagrantly violate conservative principles on the campaign trail every day. Cruz diminished the impact of attacks on Trump’s conservatism with his eight-month bear hug, but better late than never. Build the case that Trump is still a liberal progressive in conservative clothing. There’s plenty of material to work with.
Rubio can make an anti-Trump argument from electability. Trump’s favorability ratings are underwater, while Rubio remains one of the most well-liked conservative politicians in America. Draw attention to Trump’s embarrassing antics and use that famous charm to make us laugh at Trump again. Show us, don’t just tell us, how aggressively Hillary Clinton and her media allies will mock Trump, then drive him to irrelevance before she has the chance. Except one notable exception during the pre-New Hampshire debate, nobody counterpunches like Marco Rubio. Draw Trump into attacks, then unleash on him. And do it sooner rather than later.
Without sustained, enthusiastic opposition, Trump will sail to victory in the primary, and more than likely crash and burn when confronted with a Clinton machine that will have the courage to take him on. Top Trump alternatives need to stop worrying about what other campaigns are doing, and start building the case against Trump. The GOP is counting on it, and can’t wait much longer.