Last year, the talk of the Republican Party was its “lanes.” The constituencies of the GOP, it was said, were not geographic or ethnic or demographically sorted. Rather, they ran parallel to each other on an ideological band. Republican voters sorted themselves into “very conservative,” “religiously conservative,” “somewhat conservative,” and “moderate” lanes. Or the “Tea Party,” “religious,” “libertarian,” “moderate/Establishment.” Choose your terminology as you wish and use whatever Big Data you want to figure out the dividing lines between the four or five lanes—nonetheless there they were. And every campaign had a theory about how it would dominate one or two of these lanes and then, as the race narrowed, pick up the voters in adjacent lanes and the lanes would dissolve into one big lane and that lane would take their candidate to the presidency.
It’s impossible to overstate how much this thinking dominated the theory each campaign had about its chances. Donors were visited with charts and graphs and probabilistic projections and surveys of key precincts to demonstrate a candidacy’s viability. Strategists off the record in 2015 used the word “lane” or “lanes” the way an Orthodox Jew says “baruch ha-Shem” and with the frequency of healthy people who live around others with colds say “gesundheit.”
And it was all nonsense.
The candidate who came into the race with no structural theory of lane-age but with a hard, simple, resonant message—”you’ve been screwed”—got purchase months before anyone else. This was Trump’s great advantage, because to some extent the other campaigns never developed messages because they were so busy trying to tailor themselves to the “lanes” they believed they could first dominate and then grow outward from.
Even Ted Cruz, whose entire case was that he was the most committed conservative in the race, wandered around trying to figure out what issue to stress to prove his case—and spent months on “amnesty” and immigration because Trump was yelling about it and he could hit Marco Rubio with it. It wasn’t his issue by a long shot—his issue was that he was the defender and activist in favor of conservative principles in a Republican party that had forgotten them—but he hadn’t quite gotten his Tea Party “lane” in his camp enough that he could then move on to the “religiously conservative” lane and so on.
By default, Trump’s destruction of the lanes opened the race up. Cruz is now running as the conservative. Period. John Kasich is running as the moderate. Marco Rubio is running as the most presentable. These are basically classic categories, the ones that have dominated the party for decades. This isn’t narrowcasting. These candidates are presenting themselves before the entire GOP and saying, “Here I am in full.”
The “lanes” diversion may have been so successful precisely because of the sheer amount of money people knew they had to raise—and how they needed to have a good Power-Point, data-driven, expansive and interesting presentation for wealthy Republicans who use such information to run their funds and their banks and to make long-term investment decisions.
In the end, though, it will have been really simple. Did your candidate have something to say? The ones who were able to raise the money and did have something to say have lasted while Bush and Walker and Christie and Pataki and Gilmore and Carson and Fiorina and Paul (who did have something to say but not the right thing) and 82 other people I’ve already forgotten all fell by the wayside.
Same as it ever was.