Goldwater vs. McGovern in 2016?

by Stuart Rothenberg January 20, 2016 · 4:31 PM EST

The strangest election in our lifetime continues to get stranger.

Very rarely, one party decides to make a suicidal statement about its views and values. It happened in 1964 and again in 1972, for example. But this time, both parties are at least flirting with the idea of nominating candidates who, under normal circumstances, appear unelectable in 2016.

The two front-runners in the GOP race, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, have narrow appeal, though for different reasons.

Trump relies on his self-proclaimed reputation as a leader (and winner), promising he will solve problems even though he shows little understanding of issues, the American political system or the meaning of dignity or diplomacy. In most years, he would not pass the smell test for seriousness.

Cruz, on the other hand, is an ideological candidate who will run an ideological general election campaign, pushing an agenda that appeals to the most conservative elements of the GOP but lacks appeal to many swing voters and a substantial chunk of Republicans.

Each candidate insists he can turn out voters who in the past have not bothered to vote. That is possible. But the nomination of either also would produce substantial defections by normally reliable Republican voters or cause some habitual Republican voters to stay home.

Who would be the bigger albatross for down-ballot GOP candidates, Trump or Cruz? There is some disagreement about that among veteran campaign operatives.

A number of Republican and Democratic strategists believe Cruz is the bigger problem for his party’s House and Senate candidates. According to this view, Trump’s candidacy would be neither partisan nor ideological, but entirely personal. Voters would regard him as a wild card, not as someone who represents the views of the GOP.

Cruz, on the other hand, is a more conventional Republican nominee, and voters across the spectrum would see him as defining his party. This would be fatal in northern swing districts, particularly in the suburbs, as well as in swing states with Senate races.

My own view is that if either man is nominated for the presidency, he would create incredible headaches for the GOP. Republican down-ballot candidates would be asked daily whether they agree with Trump (or Cruz), forcing candidates for state and local office to go on the record. Either answer could create problems for those candidates (alienating base voters or swing voters), who would become prisoners of the presidential circus. They would be unable to run their own races, on their own issues.

In addition, I have a hard time understanding why Trump would not be seen as representing the larger party. He would be running as a Republican, after all, and unless a credible mainstream conservative entered the race as an independent (which would guarantee a Democratic presidential victory), there is no reason to believe that Trump would not define his party.

Nominating either Cruz or Trump would almost certainly hand the Senate to the Democrats, with all or almost all of the competitive races flipping to the Democrats. The House is a different story.

Considerable House Democratic gains would be likely, but the relatively small number of competitive districts and a handful of Democratic recruiting disappointments would make it difficult for Democrats to net the 30 seats they would need to win back the House. But gains in excess of 30 seats could not be ruled out, at least initially.

On the Democratic side, Democratic voters will choose between a 75-year-old ideologue whose views are to the left of George McGovern, and the alleged front-runner, whose assets are at the same time serious liabilities: her name recognition and lengthy experience in and around power, her service as secretary of State and her support within the Democratic establishment.

Amazingly, Hillary Clinton, who is universally known and is widely regarded as a political heavyweight, has not only not locked up her nomination yet (against someone who is not even a Democrat), she continues to show poorly against potential Republican nominees in key states.

A Jan. 2-7 NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll found Cruz leading Clinton in Iowa 47 percent to 43 percent. The same survey found Rubio leading Clinton 47 percent to 42 percent. Those margins were little different from those found by PPP, a Democratic polling firm, in mid-December.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll conducted in New Hampshire over the same time as the one in Iowa found Rubio leading Clinton by a dozen points, 52 percent to 40 percent. Even if those results dramatically understate Clinton’s competitiveness in the state, they surely raise questions about her appeal. Cruz held an 8-point lead over Clinton, 48 percent to 40 percent.

In a Nov. 11-15, 2015 Quinnipiac poll in Colorado, Cruz held a 51 percent to 38 percent lead over Clinton.

I certainly am not arguing that these early polls are predictive of the final result. But at the least they suggest — as does an early January national Fox News poll showing Cruz leading Clinton by 3 points — the fundamental weakness and vulnerability of a candidate who is viewed by almost all of the national media as the single most likely person to be elected the next president.

Given the general election flaws of the top two candidates in each party, it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder whether a serious mainstream Republican might enter the general election race as an independent, or even whether a wealthy pragmatic liberal might consider a center-left candidacy to save the country.

Of course, these are nutty, crackpot ideas that shouldn’t even be entertained by someone who knows anything about politics. But are they any nuttier than Donald Trump performing like a serious contender for the presidency or socialist Bernard Sanders threatening Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire?