There may be a simple reason why Bush, Christie, and Kasich are doing so poorly and Carson and Trump so well, at least by comparison–mainstream Reagan Republicanism is exhausted and bankrupt.
There is a terrific piece recently in Politico by Michael Lind that makes that point. The mainstream Republicanism that Bush and Christie are part of is indebted to Reagan. He makes a good point but I argued the same point five years ago. The battle to build the Reagan brand of Republicanism had its roots in Goldwater’s victory over Rockefeller. As I stated then:
The contemporary battle for the Republican orthodoxy begins in 1964 when Barry Goldwater challenged the Rockefeller wing of the GOP for dominance. Goldwater’s “Extremism in defense of liberty” speech was a repudiation of the accommodation with the New Deal that Eisenhower, Javits, and the Rockefeller wing had reached. Goldwater may have lost the election but he propelled the GOP in a direction that first triumphed with Reagan’s victory in 1980 and his inaugural speech declaration that government is the problem, not the solution.
The Reagan coalition blended together often contradictory movements of economic liberty and social conservatism. The former requires a minimalist state protecting individual choice, the later requires an activist one second-guessing freedom. While ideological, it was still willing to compromise within its party and with Democrats, producing notable and important legislation such as the 1986 tax reform and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. From 1980 to 2008 the Reagan brand is what defined the party. But beginning with the presidency of George Bush in 2001, and clearly by its end the Reagan brand had worn thin and when McCain ran and lost in 2008 it was clear that Reaganism was dead. Obama’s victory, along with Democratic gains in 06-08, signaled that change. For whatever it meant, it was preferred to Reaganism.
Reaganism was a brand–anti government, anti-taxes, and in so many ways, really anti working class, even though ostensibly its rhetoric was populist. It won over the white working class, the Reagan Democrats, the then Archie Bunkers of the world, mostly because of either the perception or reality that the Democrats were no longer on their side. Reaganism was successful because of its powerful narrative and because of the weak one Democrats had.
I also argued back in 2010 that the Reagan brand was exhausted, dead by 2008 with the Palin-Bachman remaking of the party. That remaking is essentially complete, leaving Bush and Christie out.
But the remaking failed to win in 2008 and 2012. It is still failing yet the mainstream Republicans have yet to figure this out. Neither the Reagan version nor the one that emerged should be able to hold white working class America, the group that has seen its economic position gradually erode more and more. Trump’s success speaks to the failure of both the Reagan and Palin-Bachmann brands of Republicanism. Trump may not have a plan to help white working class America, but he taps into a sentiment and angst that so far neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have addressed.
There is no good reason why either verison of Republicanism (Reagan or Palin-Bachmann) should be able to hold on to white middle America except for the fact that the Democrats have yet to articulate a plan and narrative that speaks to them. Enter Sanders. The Sanders-Clinton split in the party in part is about the failure of the Democrats to speak to white working class America, suggesting that the Bill Clinton-Obama party brand too may be exhausted. That is the story for another blog another day.