Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com is a smart man who usually says smart things. That’s why it shocked me so much when he said the following last night on Twitter.
The conventional wisdom had so much fun mocking Rubio’s downfall that I think it missed how big of a break it was for Trump.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) April 27, 2016
Rubio’s downfall wasn’t a “break” for Trump. Trump played out a very deliberate campaign strategy over the course of the winter: first he went after Jeb Bush, hard. Then, once Bush was out, he went after Rubio just as hard.
In this instance, I give Trump no special credit for brilliance. The need to do this should have been obvious. Bush’s war chest and hefty endorsement list made him the obvious front runner early in the game. He painted a giant target on his back. Trump – and the rest of the GOP pack – took aim at that target. Repeatedly, and with heavy artillery. Bush went down.
But Rubio was always the obvious second target. Everybody knew that all of Bush’s funding and endorsements would flock to Rubio after Bush. You don’t need to be a regular reader of alt-right blogs to know that Rubio was the establishment’s second choice. The mainstream media was happy to blast it all over the place for us. And don’t forget all of the polling that showed that Rubio was everybody’s second choice.
So Trump went after him. The only “lucky” thing about it was that all of the other candidates piled on, too. But even that isn’t as lucky as it seems. Rubio was an obvious target to them as well, for all the same reasons that Trump was. And Trump aided their decision to follow him in the Rubio dogpile by making himself seem strong enough to be not yet worth it. Remember, when a rabid bear is chasing you, you don’t have to be faster than the bear. You only have to be faster than the guy next to you. Trump was stronger than Rubio, and his opponents joined him in the dogpile.
For the record, this was a huge strategic mistake on their part. First, Trump was the clear front runner even then. Nobody wanted to believe it, but it was true by every standard that had ever applied to any other GOP presidential primary – save two: the endorsement primary and the fundraising primary. But by then it was already clear that Trump was doing well without those two factors. Second, and far worse, by joining the Rubio dogpile instead of going after the front runner, Trump’s opponents demonstrated their cowardliness. They simply didn’t have the courage to take on the front runner and everyone saw it. No matter what else these candidates offer this late in the race, their timidity earlier has dogged them to the end.
Trump didn’t “get a break.” Trump made his lucky break. It was his strategy from the beginning. The difference between him and the other candidates is that his strategy worked where theirs failed.
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