It is actually going to happen. After months of fervent denial, Donald Trump is the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for President. With a resounding victory in the state of Indiana, destroying any hope of sustained opposition, Trump is now looking forward to a showdown with (presumably) Hillary Clinton. Short of any massive revelation, he will be crowned the Republican nominee come July in Cleveland. Where did it all go so wrong for the Republican Party?
For decades, the dominant political theory has claimed that unelected insiders in both major parties have already pre-screened and selected their candidates before citizens ever cast their ballots. Highlighting the massive clout party elites had, political scientist, Marty Cohen, claimed that it would be impossible for any major outsider to upset the carefully crafted structure the ruling class had created. Looking at past elections, this theory seems to have held true in the vast majority of cases, and there was no clear reason to suspect anything different in 2016.
It is with this reasoning in mind that seasoned political pundits like Nate Cohn claimed that Trump’s lack of establishment support and inflammatory language would cause him to flame out quickly. It is now clear that these pundits could not have been further from the truth. While party elites do have massive clout over the nomination process, this year’s overly competitive field and an overreliance on political commentary have ultimately done the party elites in.
When the election cycle began, the number of Republican candidates was a staggering 17. It was within the clamoring for attention that the brash language of Donald Trump cut through the din. In any other election, there would have been one or two establishment candidates to rally behind. But the sheer number of candidates kept many party elites and donors on the sidelines, biding their time to see who would become the front-runner. This period of indecision led to diffusion in the party elite’s influence, as they waited for the field to clear out. Unfortunately for the leadership, it never did.
But while this collective action failure explains why the party leaders did not back a sole alternative candidate, it still does not clarify why they did not attack Trump from the beginning. The reason behind this lack of action is a circular one. Because the establishment read the overwhelming consensus among the political pundits that Donald Trump could never win, they saw no reason to act otherwise. But here is the catch. The political analysts had factored in the party elite taking action when in reality, the party elite had factored in political analysis when debating internally on what action to take. In other words, because the “experts” had said that Trump had no chance because of the elites’ influence, those very same elites assumed Trump would burn out because of the pundits’ analysis. By the time that theory was disproven, it was already too late, and Trump had already taken a commanding lead.
As of now, Trump’s nomination is all but inevitable. Looking back just a month, the conventional wisdom was that the Republican Party could still nominate a less divisive figure. Perhaps this would have been possible. But the party elites should have done something sooner, rather than suffer from the bystander effect and wait as Trump won state after state, heading to an inevitable nomination.