Political parties used to have wings. 2016 is the year they developed lanes.
That's what happens when you have seventeen candidates seeking your presidential nomination, as the Republican Party did at the start of this campaign. It's pretty tough to crowd seventeen people onto two wings. Eventually, some might fall off, or even choose to jump. And a creature with seventeen wings, even a political party, is too terrifying even to consider.
Hence, the advent of lanes, popularized by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and his shrewd strategic team. Even if he doesn't win the presidency, or even the Republican nomination—and I still don't think he will—Cruz will go down in history as the guy who changed the way pundits talk about campaigns. The lane metaphor has become ubiquitous. It's the fallback catch phrase for the talking heads of the politigentsia (did I just coin that word?). When's the last time you caught anyone referring to the "right wing" of the GOP?
The way Cruz saw it, there are four lanes in the grand new version of the Grand Old Party: the evangelical Christian lane, the Tea Party lane, the libertarian lane (read: the Ron Paul lane), and the moderate-establishment-old boy lane (read: the Bush-Romney-Bush lane). As a nakedly ambitious man unable to even pretend to conceal his Machiavellian ways behind a facade of niceties, Cruz was only too happy to articulate his four-lane construct to any and all observers as he launched his long-shot bid for the presidency. None of us took him too seriously, giving him barely any chance of breaking out of the pack ("way too conservative, unlikable, irritating, a niche candidate," we said). Four lanes, huh? Nice idea, Ted. Lovely. Good luck with that. Now go filibuster something and leave us alone.
But Cruz, who has proven time and again to be an absolutely brilliant politician (you may not want him to be president, but he would make one hell of a campaign manager) who thinks many moves ahead of his adversaries (if running for president were chess, Cruz would be the Bobby Fischer of our time), had a plan. He would run from the Tea Party lane, as he did when he stunned establishment darling David Dewhurst to capture a U.S. Senate seat in Texas. But he would also court the hell out of the evangelical Christians (pardon my blasphemy), and also go after the Libertarians, whom Rand Paul was taking for granted. Cruz figured if he could consolidate those three lanes, he would be the last conservative standing, and the only viable alternative to whomever captured the moderate-establishment lane, presumably one of the Four Govs, Bush, Kasich, Christie or Walker.
Cruz succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams except his own. Walker wilted early. Paul petered out. Christie and Bush are gone. The other red meat conservatives, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, were yesterday's news. Bobby Jindal couldn't get out of the starting gate. Rick Perry became a late night punchline. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina each had their moment in the sun, only to fade into asterisk land (Carson seems to have invented his own lane: the extremely slow lane, in which all the drivers fall asleep at the wheel until they veer into the Bushes). He won the Iowa caucus by doing exactly what he'd planned: uniting the evangelical, libertarian and Tea Party lanes behind his candidacy and presenting himself as the only one worthy of taking on the unexpected Big Dog, Donald Trump.
But he ran into a roadblock in New Hampshire, and now he's hit a speed bump in South Carolina, where he finished third, tailgating-close to Marco Rubio, but third nonetheless, in a state full of evangelicals Cruz had assumed he would win.
As I wrote before Iowa voters went to their caucuses, this is a three-man race (it didn't just become one, as some are saying after South Carolina; it's been one for months). John Kasich still has illusions of emerging from the establishment lane, but he's reading road signs that simply aren't there. With Jeb! out of the running, the party establishment and moderate money men are much more likely to coaslesce around Rubio as their only hope to stop Trump. Carson is running on fumes (and seems like he's inhaling them, too) and will be the next to fade away. But the party leaders are clinging to the unrealistic notion that Donald Trump has a ceiling, and that as the other never-were contenders drop out, that not-Trump vote will distribute itself among the remaining challengers, namely Cruz and Rubio. Bush's people will split between Kasich and Rubio, until Kasich is gone, and then Rubio will overtake Trump, unless Cruz rallies the remaining conservatives to his cause by then, in which case he will.
Here's the problem with that thinking, and the unexpected development even Cruz could not foresee: that is not what's happening. When Christie and Fiorina quit the race, Trump picked up as many of their supporters as anyone else did. With Bush gone, and when Carson follows, he's likely to do the same with theirs. The exit polls show Trump actually beat Cruz among evangelical voters in South Carolina, 33-27%. Yes, a plurality of the born-again Constitution-thumpers of the Palmetto State voted for the Antichrist Himself, Donald "New York Values" Trump. So if Trump has a ceiling, it may well be vaulted, and made of gilded marble. It is Trump, not Cruz, not Rubio, who is consolidating the various lanes of the Republican Party. He may not be in control of the party's moderate establishment, but the voters in that lane are all aboard the Trump Express. Trump won 34% of self-described moderate voters in South Carolina, with Rubio next at 23% and Kasich third with 21%. Cruz was a distant fifth among that group, at just seven percent. Trump won among voters who identify as conservative, too, beating Cruz by six points. He's pulling Tea Partiers, and he's attracting libertarians. South Carolina Republicans who are "angry" at the federal government voted overwhelmingly for Trump. So did those who are looking for a candidate who "tells it like it is" and "can bring needed change." The conventional wisdom that Trump is only pulling a third of the vote, so the other two-thirds will naturally coalesce around his last remaining opponent, is flawed. Many of those "other" supporters turn out to prefer Trump once their first choice falls by the wayside.
So while some suddenly-unemployed Bush strategists and mainstream pundits and deep-pocketed donors wait for Trump to crater, and for the anyone-but-Donald vote to consolidate around Rubio, or Cruz, or even Kasich (wow, really?), Trump speeds ahead and leaves the others to eat his exhaust. It's hard to look at the primary calendar and see where Rubio picks up a much-needed primary win, even with the "Marcomentum" of his second-place finish in South Carolina (a state he vowed to take just a week ago). Cruz is likely to score some victories in some of the larger Southern Super Tuesday states (most notably, the largest of them all, his home state of Texas), but his long-range plan of using his Tea Party/evangelical base as a springboard to a March 1st primary romp no longer seems realistic. Trump has more of the evangelicals in his corner than even the man who built his entire candidacy around them. If Cruz can't win his own lanes in a state as conservative as South Carolina, and Rubio can't win a state he prioritized from the outset, even with the endorsements of its three most popular conservative officeholders, it's hard to see where they force Trump into a pit stop. It's far more likely they end up in the growing pileup behind him, nursing whiplash as they try to figure out how in the world he ran them all off the road.