If wishes were horses, beggars would ride to town on Saturday night, and if early polls determined presidents John McCain and Ross Perot would be playing poker with Harry Truman and Chester Alan Arthur in the ex-presidents club. But it’s a rare beggar who owns even a spavined horse and John McCain and Ross Perot never got a key to the Oval Office washroom.
The wise men who think they can wet a finger to the wind in April to determine the winners of November are not wise. Nothing is as fickle as politics, and nobody would tell you that quicker than an experienced politician with a reputable pollster. Polls come with fine print.
Ted Cruz and John Kasich signed a late version of the Hitler-Stalin Pact over the weekend, and set out one last time to stop Donald Trump by any means necessary. Maybe they will, but the hour is late.
Both men have the polling that demonstrates clearly that they’re “electable,” and the Donald isn’t. Mr. Kasich runs comfortably ahead of Hillary Clinton in some places, and tied with her even in New Jersey, a deep blue state. Mr. Cruz has evidence that he says shows that he can do what the Donald can’t.
But “electability,” as Jeff Greenfield observes in Politico, “is less potent than it might appear.” (In other words, bunk.) “Electability isn’t the message that galvanizes a party base, and for good reason.” When the conscientious voter pulls the curtain in the voting booth, he (or she) figures he might as well vote for the candidate he really likes.
The cool numbers of April invariably wilt in the heat of the summer and there’s usually nothing about October to revive them. History is sometimes a guide, and always interesting, and usually has something to tell. In the spring of 1980, everybody expected Jimmy Carter, “the king of malaise,” to be re-elected, anyway. Who else was there? Ronald Reagan was only the pipe dream of dreamy-eyed conservatives, running 18 to 23 points behind the peanut farmer from Plains. Mr. Jimmy was so on the run in the spring of 1980, locked in primary combat with Teddy Kennedy, that Jerry Ford, whom Mr. Carter had defeated so emphatically in 1976, was thinking about a comeback. “Ford,” reported Time magazine, “shares the fears of many Republicans that Reagan cannot win if the Democrats renominate Jimmy Carter.” The rest, as they say, is history.
In the year 2000, Al Gore — this was before he had his Damascus-road conversion from a fairly level-headed Democratic politician from Tennessee to global-warming fanatic who had stayed out in the sun longer than he should have — ran dead-even with George W. Bush in New Hampshire in late winter. John McCain ran 8 points ahead of both of them. History decreed it was not to be.
Eight years later Mr. McCain, an authentic war hero in Vietnam, despite the insults from the Donald who did not serve, left the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis as the nominee at last and a small but significant lead over Barack Obama. But history kept overruling the early polls, which are but fool’s gold, bright and promising, with a talent only to mislead.
John Anderson, offering himself as the self-righteous alternative to both the Gipper and Jimmy Carter in 1980, polled as high as 24 percent in the early going. George Wallace, in his first incarnation as the governor of Alabama who stood in the schoolhouse door to bar the way to black students, frightened Hubert Humphrey and the Democrats in 1968 when he polled above 20 percent in early September.
Donald Trump now makes the argument, credible in its particulars, that he can bring in new voters and sock it to Hillary Clinton as she has not yet been socked. He, like John Kasich and Ted Cruz, says he can win and nobody else can. That’s what they all say, of course, but he has the scalps of earlier sure things, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio and Chris Christie and Jeb Bush with his $100-million war chest, and the good wishes of the Republican establishment, to prove it.
What the Donald has been learning over the past fortnight or so is that political parties, with all their faults and failings, are more than organized searches for a nominee. A nominee has to be more than a winner. He (or she) has to be someone who expresses what the party believes in. The Donald wants to decide later what he believes in, besides himself. That’s the deal, he says, and so far he’s shown himself to be the master of the deal.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.