Will a clear frontrunner ever emerge in the Republican race for the White House? After Thursday’s Republican debate, and with only weeks until primary elections begin, Jack Mountford takes a look at the remaining candidates.
The Republican Party finds itself in quite a predicament. With the Iowa caucus – the first primary election to select a party presidential candidate – just weeks away, there is still no clear frontrunner among the 11 major candidates. Plenty has been said about Donald Trump – the flood of media coverage has undoubtedly boosted his campaign – but what about the lesser-known candidates?
This has certainly been a season of surprises for the Republicans and the US political system at large. The ongoing voter backlash against the political “establishment” has led to the withdrawal of candidates who commentators initially saw as potential frontrunners. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was just one of the (formerly) strong hopefuls who fell in the wake of unconventional candidates like Trump and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, ending a campaign which previously led the polls in Iowa after just 71 days. Another presumed frontrunner, libertarian Kentucky senator Rand Paul, has also seen his hopes diminished, even being excluded from Thursday’s debate in South Carolina.
Like Hillary Clinton for the Democrats, Jeb Bush (brother of former President George W. Bush), had been touted as the favourite. Currently however, Jeb! (as his unfortunate campaign logo goes) seems only to be treading water. According to a Gallup poll, his favourability among Republican voters has plummeted by 28 points since July 2015. Bush has failed to properly define himself in a heavily crowded field, and even his huge financial reserves and heavy spending on advertising don’t seem to be helping. Despite eight years of experience governing Florida, Jeb seems to lack the dynamic personality and flair which is now so vitally important for candidates to possess. Bush seemed to observe mainly from the side-lines during last Thursday’s debate, which certainly won’t help to dispel that image. His ineffectual attempts to oppose Trump’s proposed Muslim ban left Bush with a lukewarm performance at best.
Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson had previously risen with Trump as an unorthodox candidate. His appeal to the Christian right was important; for example, he based his taxation policy on the biblical principle of tithing. Unfortunately for Carson, various economists pointed out that such a policy would have disastrous effects, with some estimating that it would leave the federal government with a $1 trillion hole in its budget. In the aftermath of the November attacks in Paris, Carson’s deficient foreign policy knowledge has severely disadvantaged him – such as his apparent confusion of Hamas with hummus, a mashed chickpea spread. The sedate candidate’s campaign has been in trouble ever since. His poll numbers have fallen precipitously, and an exodus of major staff members has left his campaign in a tenuous position. Widespread criticism of his unenergetic performance in the South Carolina debate could mark the beginning of the end for Carson’s campaign.
So can anyone stop Donald Trump? For the Republican establishment, hope may lay with Florida senator Marco Rubio. A quintessential conservative candidate, Rubio opposes government regulation of business, has pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and strongly supports Second Amendment gun rights. Rubio has previously put on strong debate performances. However, he has been consistently dogged by his 2013 support for comprehensive immigration reform, a policy opposed by a majority of Republicans. Despite steadily climbing poll numbers, it may be too late for Rubio to make the impact he needs to win in Iowa and across the country. Despite a few strong moments, Rubio was mostly eclipsed by the exchanges between Trump and Cruz during the debate. His inability to convey his message was a serious misstep this close to the primaries.
We are left with Ted Cruz. The Texas senator is certainly in an enviable position, battling against Trump in the Iowa polls, where he is expected to win the caucus which kicks off the primary elections. Cruz is set to capture the evangelical vote, a key demographic in the Republican electorate, and his support from the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party will allow him to tap into the conservative vote.
Should Trump begin to fade, Cruz is also in a good position to capture his disaffected and disengaged supporters. An opponent of gay marriage, Cruz describes himself as “strongly pro-life” and disputes scientific consensus concerning climate change. Cruz is also an opponent of the rapprochement between the US and Cuba, describing the thaw as a “tragic mistake”. A recent debate over his citizenship, and therefore eligibility to hold the office of President, has done little to impair Cruz’s campaign. Indeed, Cruz confidently rebuked Donald Trump during the South Carolina debate, with commentators noting that the “Trump/Cruz Non-Aggression Pact” is over.
Undisclosed campaign contributions from the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs (employer of Cruz’s wife) during his 2012 Senate race has recently been revealed by the US media. Given the populist Tea Party’s original stance as an anti-Wall Street group, it remains to be seen how heavily this will damage Cruz’s support among Tea Partiers in the critical final weeks before the Iowa Caucus. Indeed, for an outsider candidate who has built his campaign on populist opinion against Wall Street, this has the potential to be hugely damaging.
The battle for the Republican nomination has undoubtedly been the most complex and surprising in recent history, abound with shocks and surprises. The crowded field has made it difficult for commentators to make accurate predictions on who may emerge victorious. Will Trump fade? How will Jeb Bush fare? Can Cruz triumph in Iowa? For most observers, the only answer seems to be waiting for the Iowa Caucus on 1 February.
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