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Things are about to get nasty in the Republican presidential race

Whoever wins the race, they will most certainly be up against Hilary Clinton, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THESE DAYS, A perusal of the numerous columns from American newspapers and websites featured on realclearpolitics.com, a superb resource for anyone interested in next year’s US presidential election, will reveal an unusually diverse range of opinions on the race to be the Republican nominee.

Almost certainly, he or she will face off against Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee in 2016.

Some of these keen and seasoned political columnists argue that billionaire Donald Trump and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the party outsiders currently and unexpectedly topping the polls, are for real and could win the nomination.

Others continue to claim that Messrs Trump and Carson will fade from serious contention either before or shortly after the first votes are cast in Iowa and New Hampshire in early February.

GOP 2016 Debate Source: Mark J. Terrill

The sinking fortunes of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, once labelled the candidate to beat on the Republican side, are the subject of considerable analysis from pundits. There is disagreement as to whether he is all but finished, or can still resuscitate his flagging bid to be the third member of his family to occupy the White House in the past quarter century.

As Bush has struggled, a first wave of speculation as to whom the Republican establishment and moderate conservatives might rally centred on ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Ohio Governor John Kasich. A more recent wave has focused primarily on the ascendant Florida Senator Marco Rubio and, to a lesser extent, on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Meanwhile, Texas Senator Ted Cruz has been mentioned by a few observers as a candidate who is positioned well to the right, yet could still attract enough support from more mainstream conservatives to prevail.

An unpredictable campaign 

The experts are noticeably divided about what might lie ahead in what has been a topsy-turvy, unpredictable Republican primary campaign. Why?

Context is, as always, crucial. And it is tricky to unpack. Since the outset, especially given Jeb Bush’s failure to capture as much money and as many endorsements as had been thought, the race has been wide open. The same could be said as well of the 2008 and 2012 Republican nomination battles, but those attracted relatively weak, smaller fields of candidates, particularly four years ago.

Considering that the overwhelming majority of the party’s 14 serious 2016 presidential aspirants once held or currently hold governorships and/or seats in the US Senate, this is a very strong, deep field by comparison.

GOP 2016 Debate Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado last month. Source: Mark J. Terrill

Additionally, the leadership of the Republican Party, while buoyed by a stellar performance in the 2014 congressional mid-term elections, are desperate to retake the presidency and worried about the demographic trends in the US that militate against it.

The role of the US in the world 

At the same time, they are increasingly dependent upon the votes of tens of millions of people in “Middle America.” These men and women have been left behind economically by free trade agreements and the other, myriad, unyieldingly transformative effects of globalisation; have extremely conservative views on cultural issues and immigration; and have a resolutely isolationist perspective on the appropriate role of the US in the world.

In one sense, it is no wonder that this perhaps unprecedentedly complex milieu has so confounded and confused political pundits. What has happened over the past several months appears indecipherable to those urgently trying to spot the ultimate winner or, at the very least, to assemble a top tier of legitimate frontrunners.

In another sense, Mr Trump has adroitly appealed to and exploited the anger and fear that is to the fore of so many Republican voters’ minds when it comes to the economy, globalisation (eg, Ireland’s 12.5% corporate tax rate is cited regularly in his stump speeches) and immigration. Mr Carson speaks without filter and without concern for “political correctness” to religious conservatives.

Jeb Bush’s name does him no favours 

External perceptions aside, Jeb Bush was felt by political insiders to be a poor, uninspiring prospect who last won an election in 2002 and whose surname would do him no favours.

Portrayed in this light, the initial resonance of the messaging from the two outsiders and the former governor’s mediocre candidature are less surprising.

Moreover, the fact that other eminently capable candidates, such as Senator Rubio and Governor Kasich, have surged in polls at various stages is also no shock.

The reality is that attempting to identify the frontrunner(s) is nothing more than an exercise in futility at the moment. Indeed, one poll that unfortunately has not garnered much attention in the US or international media is a recent CBS/New York Times survey indicating that 70% of Republican voters don’t know which candidate they will actually cast a ballot for next year.

There is a significant difference between “support” from people who are half- watching and listening in 2015 and a vote from people who travel to their polling places in 2016. Recent history bears this out. Around this time in 2007, at least one poll showed former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani leading his Republican rivals by 10 percentage points. His dream of being elected president was over early in 2008.

The bottom line, then, is that it will remain impossible to predict who will be the Republican presidential nominee with any reasonable degree of accuracy until more voters make up their mind about who they will vote for.

When will we know?

The probability is that a majority of Republicans will reach their decisions after the Thanksgiving and Christmas/Hanukkah periods, when there will be blanket media coverage and campaign advertising in advance of the caucuses and primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and elsewhere.

Of course, it is important to track which candidates are raising the most money and building the best organisations between now and early January. Only those who excel on both fronts will be in the final reckoning.

Moreover, the candidates will ramp up their attacks on one another. For instance, Jeb Bush and Governor Kasich have condemned Mr Trump for his bombastic style and unrealistic policy agenda. The pitfalls of Mr Carson’s flat tax proposal and his seemingly woeful command of detail have been pointed out by his opponents.

Mr Trump has criticised Senator Rubio for his credit card expenses while in office. And if he continues to climb in the polls, others are likely to assail the first term Florida Senator’s inexperience and question why he used to claim that his parents fled the Castro regime when they had left Cuba years previously. Things will get nasty.

The campaign for the Republican presidential nomination may have been going on for a long time already, but the truth is that it’s only just begun.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a columnist for TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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