A top Reagan administration official says Donald Trump is in the driver’s seat in the race for the Republican nomination and is successfully confounding his opponents, but he cautions that the contests with the highest stakes are still to come.
Trump has scored dominating wins in the past three contests, most recently a blowout win over Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz Tuesday in the Nevada caucuses. In a record Nevada turnout, Trump collected almost 46 percent of the vote in a five-candidate race. Rubio was a distant second at just under 24 percent. Cruz finished with more than 21 percent, while Ben Carson and John Kasich managed only single digits.
“The current environment favors Mr. Trump. The foremost factor advantaging his candidacy is the split field,” said Frank Donatelli, who worked on three presidential campaigns for Reagan and later served as the administration’s political director.
“As long as the field is split the way it is with so many candidates, Trump, with his hardcore supporters will continue to win caucuses and primaries,” he said.
In addition to the logistics of the campaign favoring Trump, Donatelli says the GOP front-runner brings a new dimension to this year’s race that many struggle to comprehend.
“The Trump campaign is clearly not a campaign motivated by ideology. It’s motivated by an attitude and a persona of a candidate that’s larger than life. There’s been a lot written about public affairs and entertainment coming together and you see that in the Trump campaign,” said Donatelli.
As a result, Trump’s past positions on issues or policy changes within the campaign are tough for his rivals to attack effectively.
“He does not have a clear set of positions. The positions clash sometimes and sometimes he changes the position from speech to speech, but it doesn’t seem to bother his supporters because they’re not motivated by his views on specific issues. They’re motivated by what they think he stands for,” said Donatelli.
So what can other candidates do to blunt the momentum of Trump’s string of wins and a rock-solid base that is not swayed by some evolving policy positions.
“How do you attack it? Probably the best way to do it start beating him. I think a big part of his appeal is that he appears to be inevitable,” said Donatelli. “The way you handle that is to show that it’s not inevitable and that means who’ve got to come close or start winning.”
That may be tough to do. Trump’s 46 percent showing in Nevada may be evidence that reducing the field to two or three candidates may not be enough to stop him, but Donatelli says that is the only hope Rubio, Cruz and the others have at this point.
“If one of the candidates is able to maneuver the situation so the field can be whittled down to three or ideally two candidates, then, depending on how many delegates remain to be selected, that is the time I think that candidate would have the advantage,” said Donatelli.
For that to happen, two or three other candidates will have to admit they need to quit in order to help another rival stop Trump. Donatelli says all of the remaining rivals have too much invested to get out right away.
“These are candidates that have given years of their lives preparing for this time to run. They also know this is an historical opportunity for the Republican nominee. This should be a Republican year, given that they are the out party after eight years. They’re going to want to hang in there until the very last minute before they decide to pack it in,” said Donatelli.
Donatelli says if the field can be winnowed in relatively short order, the remaining rival to Trump could have some additional advantages going forward, starting with the chasm in how GOP voters look at Trump.
“He does have passionate supporters but he’s got a very, very high negative, even among Republicans. A lot of Republicans saying they just won’t support him. He has a pretty high threshold but I still do think he has a low ceiling,” said Donatelli.
Another possible edge for the non-Trump candidate in a two-man race is the shifting primary calendar when it comes to delegate math.
“After March 15, the delegate selection rules change, so you go from proportional awarding of delegates to a winner-take-all by congressional district with some bonus delegates for state wins being thrown in,” said Donatelli. “That’s the time when a candidate would have an opportunity to play catch-up if he could get Trump in that kind of race.”
Whether it’s four Republicans going after Trump or just one in the weeks ahead, what strategy would work? Candidates who heavily criticized Trump, like Rick Perry, Rand Paul and Jeb Bush, are all on the sidelines now.
And, as Donatelli points out, the hands-off approach of waiting for Trump to self-destruct as been a bust as well.
“Cruz thought that if he played buddy-buddy with Trump that when Trump began to descend that he would pick up that support. He’s sort of boxed in on that side now. And not only Rubio but all the other so-called mainstream candidates spent a lot of time attacking each other, because they felt if they were the last man standing, they could be the one to get Trump one-on-one and it still hasn’t happened,” said Donatelli.
“Those are the strategic decisions you make in a presidential year. Sometimes they work out, sometimes not,” said Donatelli.