For six months now, eager rivals have been waiting for Donald Trump to fall from atop the Republican primary polls. Perhaps the time has come for them to borrow a tactic from the French.
The trick with right-populist candidates like Trump — who thrive on nationalist pride and staunch opposition to immigration — is that they often face a kind of electoral ceiling. Trump’s support is built on a minority of a minority, something like 30 to 40 percent of likely Republican voters. That’s enough to outdistance a crowded field, but it might not suffice against a single, mainstream opponent with full party support.
That’s a lesson French politicians understand well. Last month, for instance, when it looked like the far right might run away with French regional elections, the mainstream parties mobilized — turning out lots of unlikely voters and joining forces to make the election more like a referendum: them or us.
It worked, and a similar approach might work in the United States as well, breaking the hold of an anti-immigrant, right-populist figure like Donald Trump.
How secure is Trump’s position?
With less than a month to go before the early contests, Trump holds a double-digit advantage in New Hampshire, and an even bigger lead in the national polls.
Iowa is up for grabs, but Trump is among those closest to the prize. And betting markets like PredictIt.com have finally boosted Trump’s odds over the last few weeks and made him the new favorite.
How did France beat their Trump?
In France, support for the far right is broad, but it is still vastly outmatched by fear of the far right.
That means two things: 1) Given a simple choice between the far right and the mainstream, French voters consistently choose the mainstream; 2) Odds of a far-right victory greatly increase when the mainstream parties are fractured.
Last month’s regional elections provide a clear template. In the preliminary phase, the mainstream was divided and the far right took advantage, with preliminary victories in a number of areas.
But when final voting happened a week later, the situation changed completely. Shaken by the threat of a far-right victory, the Socialist Party actually dropped out of a number of contests, throwing its support behind the center-right Républicains to create a single, “centrist” choice.
Voters, too, played a key role, showing up in droves to support the united center and effectively blocking the challenge from the far right.
Would the French approach work among Republicans?
There is one, serious impediment. In France, the far right has its own, separate party, the National Front, which is distinct from the right-centrist Républicains.
That’s not true in the United States, where right centrists like John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, are lumped together with radical populists like Trump.
And it doesn’t seem like that’s going to change. Even when a mainstream figure like USHouse Speaker Paul Ryan condemns Trump’s plan to block Muslim visitors and immigrants, saying it is “not what this party stands for, and more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for,” he doesn’t follow up with a call to kick Trump out of the party.
If anything, Republican leaders have been working hard to hold the party together, out of fear that Trump might break away and mount an independent campaign.
But there are still things Republicans can borrow from the French playbook.
Most important, they could narrow the field, giving voters a stark choice between a responsible, electable standard-bearer and a radical figure like Trump. But then the Republicans would need tochoose one candidate, be it US SenatorMarco Rubio, former Florida governor Jeb Bush,New Jersey GovernorChris Christie, or whoever seems most likely to mobilize unlikely voters in a primary election that could be framed as Trump vs. not-Trump.
Can the Republican party force candidates to drop out?
In today’s GOP,there’s no party overlord who can force candidates out of the race. Worse, each candidate has a strong incentive to stay in, hoping that if he or she holds on long enough he or she will outlast all rivals and become the last non-Trump option standing.
But the current strategy is failing. With every passing day, Trump’s odds of winning just keep going up. So if the goal is to prevent a far-right figure from becoming the Republican presidential nominee, some new approach is needed.
One option is what you might call a brokered primary, where the back room deals start now, with donors, candidates, and party leaders searching for inducements — Cabinet posts or funds for future campaigns — to smoothly usher candidates off the campaign trail.Top national Republicans have already started talking about doing something similar at the national convention this summer, but by then it might be too late. A “brokered convention” would work only if Trump fails to get a majority of the delegates.
Alternatively, candidates could simply act on their own, shutting down their campaigns and uniting behind a consensus candidate for the greater good of the party.
If that kind of sacrifice sounds implausible, think of it this way: Socialists in France did it, giving up their shot at power in order to keep anti-immigrant, far-right politicians from winning the day. Why not Republicans in the United States?