Winnowing of the Republican field is becoming more evident as we get close to actual voting. It’s about three months before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
Looking at recent polls, debate performances, fundraising and news coverage, it seems there are three tiers of candidates in terms of their viability. The first six are doomed, the next five are long shots, and the final four have enough support to go all the way to the nomination.
The Walking Dead:
- Rand Paul
- George Pataki
- Jim Gilmore
- Rick Santorum
- Lindsey Graham
- Bobby Jindal
The Highly Improbable:
- Jeb Bush
- Carly Fiorina
- Chris Christie
- Mike Huckabee
- John Kasich
The Plausible Winners:
- Donald Trump
- Ben Carson
- Marco Rubio
- Ted Cruz
It may seem delusional that some of these candidates think they’re “running” when they are really going nowhere. Rick Santorum recalled on CNN that “People say to me, ‘I wish you were running.’ I say I am running.”
And poor Jeb Bush has fallen to 4 percent in a recent poll. That’s closer to being an asterisk than a real candidate. Yet despite his embarrassing slide backward, now he has to cope with a controversy about his father, former President George H.W. Bush, calling then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld an arrogant jerk, and then-Vice President Dick Cheney an empire-building warmonger during George W. Bush's presidency. How does Mr. Fix-It fix the fix he’s in, politically?
Meanwhile, the front-runners seem to be cruising rather than running. Trump is promoting his new book, “Crippled America,” and Carson is promoting his book, “A More Perfect Union.”
Call it a soap opera or a circus or just a bad way to pick presidents, but it’s not politics-as-usual.
The winnowing process may seem less obvious than in previous contests because controversies eclipse a lot of the horse race data that supposedly reveals who is -- to use Trump’s favorite word — winning. That’s understandable. People are more apt to talk about strange incidents than about ordinary, ho-hum news.
Carson has upstaged Trump not only by becoming the front-runner in new polls, but also by generating controversy. In the case of the neurosurgeon, reporters have dug up and confronted him with issues about alleged past weirdness.
Taking the already weird state of this presidential race to new heights of weirdness, Carson said he stood by his theory that the Egyptian pyramids were not built as tombs for the pharaohs, but rather by Joseph of the Old Testament for storing grain. (This issue did not arise because of anything related to Middle East policy; it came out of a reporter’s research into Carson’s past.)
Both parties have large numbers who believe in unscientific things. A recent survey found that 49 percent of Democrats think astrology is a science and many didn’t know that Earth revolved around the sun. But usually candidates for president are thought to be more knowledgeable. So while many Carson fans are devoutly loyal and share his fundamentalist religious beliefs, in a general election many undecided, educated voters would be appalled that he doesn’t believe in evolution.
And most practical people, regardless of their feelings about transgender issues, would not think well of his latest suggestion -- building separate public restrooms for transgender people because “it’s not fair to make everybody else uncomfortable.”
As if all that isn’t sufficiently weird, the media now are questioning Carson about his past claims of having been violent in his youth. After interviewing “nine friends, classmates and neighbors,” reporters couldn’t find corroboration for his stories about how he had been a violent child and only changed his life after becoming religious.
He responded: “Well, why would you be able to find them? What makes you think you would be able to find them? Unless I tell you who they are. And if they come forward on their own, because of your story, that’s fine, but I’m not going to expose them."
Who could have imagined a presidential race where reporters go after a candidate not for bad conduct in his youth, but rather for claiming bad conduct that he did not substantiate?
Maybe the only thing we can safely predict: the weirdness and winnowing will continue.
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR and a regular contributor to the WBUR Politicker.