So, here’s where the race to be the leader of the free world stands today.
Sen. Ted Cruz, he who doesn’t back down from a fight, is sitting back and waiting for Donald Trump and Ben Carson to flame out. Bernie Sanders wants to start a revolution but won’t challenge Hillary Clinton’s underlying weaknesses as a candidate. The “young and the restless” Marco Rubio is biding his time hoping for Jeb to crater. In fact, the only person aggressively fighting for the nomination seems to be Donald Trump. He points out his opponents’ weakness in 140 characters or less, and then takes to the TV talker circuit to do it some more. This isn’t to say that the other candidates should mimic Trump’s style or strategy. But, at some point, these other candidates have to do more than hope to field whittles itself down. There’s a reason that they call it a “fight” for the nomination: if you want it, you’ve got to go get it, not hope it comes to you.
Hillary Clinton’s frontrunner status in the Democratic primary is, at this point, not under serious threat. Her toughest potential opponent, Vice President Joe Biden, is not running. She put in a solid debate performance last week, showing not just composure and confidence, but also a willingness to go on the offense when needed. Meanwhile her strongest current opponent, Bernie Sanders, proved in that debate that he's more interested in pushing an agenda than pushing her out of the race. To be fair, the Vermont senator has been successful in setting the terms of the policy debate. He has not, however, aggressively challenged her for the nomination.
The unexpected thing about the GOP nomination thus far isn’t the rise of the “outsiders” like Trump. This anti-establishment wing of the GOP has been a powerful force within the party for years. Instead, it’s the vacuum within the establishment wing that’s the more surprising. Trump has consolidated the anti-establishment vote by exceeding expectations. Bush has failed to consolidate the establishment vote because he has underperformed expectations. It’s hard to find any member of the so-called GOP establishment who is not disappointed at Bush’s performance as a candidate thus far. No one doubts his smarts or his competence or his commitment. But, the former Florida governor is slow on his feet, weak in debates and uninspiring on the trail. Bush defenders, including Mike Murphy, the head of the pro-Bush SuperPAC, argue that Bush has the infrastructure and expertise to survive the long-haul. It’s true that Team Bush – both on the official and unofficial side – has some of the most talented and experienced operatives in the business. However, the campaign isn’t the issue. The candidate himself is.
Given Bush's weaknesses, it’s remarkable that none of Bush’s opponents in the “traditional” wing of the party are taking advantage of this opportunity. A lack of resources is one likely reason for the restraint. One-time establishment favorite Chris Christie has just $1.4 million in the bank. Ohio Governor John Kasich has $2.6 million. Rubio raised less than $6 million in the last quarter and is sitting on as much cash as he can. (Notably, all three are getting help from their SuperPACs who are running ads on their behalf). Like a marathoner, these campaigns worry about kicking too soon and not having the gas (i.e. money) to go the distance. Moreover, why go all out today, when voters are still relatively checked out until later this year?
Even so, money isn’t the only thing holding back these campaigns. There’s also a distinct lack of creativity. This nomination fight is not running on a typical timetable or by a traditional playbook. The GOP base is also more agitated and less comfortable with the “old guard.” Yet, the ads, the policy roll-outs and the press conferences don’t look any different from those we’ve seen year after year after year. It’s hard to break out of the pack when you aren’t doing/saying/trying anything distinctive. No one can, or should, try to out-Trump Trump. And, I agree with many who believe that his act ultimately wears thin. But, this doesn’t mean that a traditional candidate can’t incorporate some non-traditional, non-formulaic elements into his/her strategy.
For Rubio, the window to getting on offense may be closing. The Bush campaign is already putting him in their sites with attacks on his lack of experience and his spotty voting record in the Senate.
Cruz, like Bush, also boasts of impressive field operation and lots of cash. He’s not competing with Bush et al for the establishment vote. His goal, instead, is to win the mantle of the “outsider.” While Trump and Carson are the clear frontrunners for that crown today, the concern is that they don’t have the discipline, the infrastructure or the experience to survive the primary gauntlet. Yet, the polls continue to say otherwise. To be sure, Trump isn’t growing – he’s hit a plateau somewhere between 20-25 percent of the GOP vote – but he’s not losing ground either. Carson is both a “movement” candidate, popular with Evangelical and social conservatives – as well as a safe harbor candidate for conflicted primary voters who don’t know what they want, but see him as a nice, safe place to hang out for a while. Is Cruz hoping that voters come to the realization themselves that these two “outsiders” are just a bit too inexperienced and unprepared? Or doesn’t he need to make the case that they actually are?
I know that a campaign is a marathon and not a sprint. And, yes, polls at this point are rarely predictive. However, the best marathoners are the ones that pace themselves. Go out too strong, and you burn out half way though. But, start too slow, and you may never catch up. The goal is to find that balance. Pace, but also remain aggressive. Good things rarely come to those who just wait.