The central drama that will play out in tonight’s GOP presidential debate is how the pack of mainstream candidates, languishing in the polls, will confront Donald Trump. Trump has benefited to this point by a widely held – but so far incorrect assumption – that if you stay out of his way long enough he will eventually crash and burn. Yet, Trump has (surprisingly) proven to be more resilient as a candidate than many of us (myself included) would have ever believed, surviving a series of gaffes and missteps that would have felled a lesser candidate.
For the pack of mainstream candidates stuck in the middle (or perhaps more accurately at the bottom), the time has come to stop waiting for the inevitable collapse and push Trump into the wall. The trouble is, if Trump does crash, he’ll take several other cars with him, including the driver who forced him out the race.
Here is where a large field of candidates makes a difference: Were Trump matched with any of the other candidates in a two-person race, the strategic calculation to attack would be obvious. In a multi-candidate race, attacks are riskier as they often impose a toll on both the attacker and the attacked. The candidate that emerges from this overcrowded field may well be the candidate who stays out of (and above) the fray. Think Ben Carson or John Kasich.
But these “stuck in the middle” candidates have other strategic imperatives they must also consider. In order to continue to garner campaign contributions and build the organizations necessary to run a successful presidential campaign, they need to show that their campaigns are gaining (and not losing) momentum. The trouble confronting Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and others is that they appear to be backsliding from contenders and front-runners to also-rans. To combat this, they need a strong and assertive performance to show that their campaigns are not “low energy.”
The polls, in this sense, do matter; though it is not simply a matter of who is winning and who is losing. In mid-September, we are still in the beginning chapters of the 2016 presidential campaign. The question of who is gaining ground and who is losing ground – and who is emerging as a viable and electable candidate – is far more important. The early front-runners in this election cycle – Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul – need to reestablish their candidacies by making a strong claim as to why they should be the nominee.
The most direct path is to stand up the classroom bully.The risk, of course, is that Trump has proven he will hit back.