In 2016 race, voters still shopping for a candidate to love

Story highlights

  • Castellanos: Hillary Clinton losing support among general election voters, as she fights to lead a Democratic Party that's turning leftward
  • He says Republican voters aren't willing to commit to a candidate at this early stage

Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist, is the founder of Purple Strategies and NewRepublican.org. You can follow him on Twitter @alexcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Yes, it is time again to play that game, "What's Happening in The Campaign For Leadership Of The Free World?" A few observations, from the front lines:

1. Last week, a friend reported on an Iowa focus group. Of 31 Republican voters, only one was irrevocably committed to a candidate. The rest split their preferences among two candidates or more. Point: This race is remarkably fluid. Voters are still shopping.
2. There is no impetus for Republican voters to place their final bets soon. They fear their country is in decline, and this may be their last chance to save it. They will take all the time allowed because they believe their country is balancing on a razor blade and can't afford the wrong choice. Barring an unexpected, crystallizing event, this race will break late. Good drama for us all.
    Alex Castellanos
    3. When the choice matters that much, voters are inclined to think the best choice is the safest choice. Jeb Bush pays a heavy price for his last name, but the closer we get to Iowa and New Hampshire, the more the Bush brand will help. Rolling out George W. Bush on the campaign trail is going to look like an increasingly good idea. Nearly 60% of Iowa voters see the former President as an asset to his brother.
    4. Why isn't Chris Christie in the consideration set for this race? After all, there is no evidence yet that Christie had a direct role in the Bridgegate scandal. That, however, is Christie's problem: Christie didn't have to tell his staff to punish a political adversary's voters and, yet, they did exactly that -- because Christie's style became his administration's ruthless political culture. It's hard to imagine how he recovers, but at least until Christie takes responsibility for creating that culture and explains what he has learned from it, he can go nowhere.

    Kasich and the ghost of Huntsman?

    5. I love John Kasich. I wish he would run in the Republican primary instead of the Democratic one. The ghost of Jon Huntsman looms large over the Kasich campaign. You can be a different kind of Republican if, first, you run as a Republican. If your entire campaign is about being different from Republicans, you are a Democrat.
    6. One of the beauties of jazz is that you are allowed to wander from the foundational melody, but never so far you can't get back. Kasich has only a few more debates to remind us that, foundationally, he is a Republican.
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    7. There are few things funnier than hearing a fellow member of the Washington establishment confess, "I don't get why Ben Carson has 20% of the GOP vote!" That, however, says more about the political class than it does about Carson. Carson is a selfless and decent man and, believe it or not, that distinguishes him in today's politics. The secret of Ben Carson's campaign is that Carson has become the moral leader of the Republican Party. No wonder the Washington establishment doesn't understand Ben Carson at all.

    Hillary Clinton is losing general election voters

    8. Hillary Clinton has not only been deleting emails. She's been deleting general election voters. Yes, she is still strong with Democrats but has started to fall behind in general election matchups against an undeveloped Republican field. Clinton trails Carly Fiorina in Iowa by 14%! You may love your old hammer, regard it with great affection, and even rate it favorably, but when it can no longer drive nails, you'll get a new one. When it looks like Clinton can't win the general election, her support could spontaneously collapse among Democratic primary voters.
    9. The greatest under-covered story this election is the radicalization of the Democratic Party. A party that erases Thomas Jefferson from its history because he said "All men are created equal" is wandering into aluminum foil hat, fringe territory. Why doesn't it shock the journalistic community that a self-declared socialist is leading a mainstream American political party? Because, increasingly, the media's business today is Internet activism. Internet activism has pulled not only the Democratic Party to the extreme, but also the news media, much like talk radio marginalized Republicans.
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    10. What is the greatest value a campaign can give a supporter in exchange for their vote? It's this: a great purpose for that vote. Bernie Sanders has found the perfect purpose for the votes of self-regarding millennials, the most entitled generation in American history: They are entitled to the wealth, property and prosperity created by others. Parents, congratulations: This is what you get for giving them all participation trophies.
    11. It should be mandatory that Sen. Lindsey Graham be included in every debate. He keeps the rest of the field honest, and that's not only important, it's entertaining. These difficult days, if we can't find the perspective to laugh, we are doomed.
    12. Get the smelling salts, Bobby Jindal has risen to 6% in an Iowa poll, tied with Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, behind only Trump, Carson, Fiorina and Bush. Jindal was a child prodigy, graduating from Brown University at 20 with degrees in biology and public policy. He was accepted to both Harvard Med and Yale Law, studied at Oxford, and ran Louisiana's Department of Health and Human services when he was 24 years old. Jindal may be one of the smartest people ever to run for president, but we can't see it because he campaigns like a computer and won't let go of his talking points. This is his moment to make a run. We need to see Bobby Jindal "unplugged."

    Trump: The boredom factor

    13. Perhaps the worst thing that could be said about Donald Trump is this: He has become boring. Trump has become the joke told for the 10th time. The first time, we laughed. The fourth, we smiled politely. The seventh, we rolled our eyes. Eventually, we won't want to be in the same room with Donald Trump.
    14. Trump is a brilliant marketer who understands he must advance his story. Desperate candidates do desperate things: To his credit, Trump has even resorted to policy. He has rolled out immigration and tax plans that are at least serious enough to be rejected on their merits. However, the more serious Trump becomes, the more he resembles what he is running against: other politicians. Dammed if he does, dammed if he doesn't, the front-runner has slipped in the polls. One-trick ponies don't do well with other tricks, once their best has bored us.
    15. Donald Trump's voters have enjoyed their intense, steamy affair with The Donald. Now they are emotionally fatigued and tiring of him but they have no wife to whom they can return. Trump's vote is a room without a door: His vote shrinks a bit, finds it has no home to which it can return -- and so Trump voters jump back in bed with The Donald. For the time being, Trump is protected from collapse because there is no credible candidate to receive his vote. You can't collapse when there is no place to which your vote can go.
    16. Trump's statement on "Meet the Press" that he is not a masochist who would remain in a campaign he could not win tells us more than what he will do if he falls in the polls. It tells us he has seen the end of his campaign. A recent poll between just Carson and Trump has Carson beating Trump by nearly 20 points. If Trump pulls out, Carson and Fiorina, not Ted Cruz, will inherit Trump's jet, his vote, and a golf course or two in Florida. Soon, Cruz, who has been a predictable lickspittle to Trump, will start wearing Fiorina's high heels and licking Carson's shoes.

    Jeb Bush plays long game

    17. Jeb Bush is playing the long game, not out of choice, but of necessity. He hopes that conservative craziness prevails in Iowa, and the GOP runs to New Hampshire with its hair on fire, to rally around a serious alternative to Carson, Trump, or God forbid, Cruz. His job is to be at the front of that line.
    18. Jeb Bush is no longer alone at the front of that line. Marco Rubio is standing toe-to-toe with him. In his race against Charlie Crist, Rubio displayed the charismatic ability to catch fire, expand an early lead, and hold it. As if he didn't have enough problems, Jeb Bush is going to wake up one of these days and find his campaign is being tested by a Marco Rubio boom.
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    19. The Beatles were wrong: Money can buy you love. Jeb Bush's huge war chest is putting lead on the target in New Hampshire. There are modest though early and inconclusive signs that pro-Bush advertising is moving numbers for him. By Halloween, we will begin to see if Jeb Bush's resource advantage has bought him either a trick or a treat in New Hampshire.
    20. Remember how Obama's campaign spent an entire summer, before the general election, attacking Mitt Romney for being a cold, cruel, businessman whose practice of capitalism caused cancer? The Obama campaign laid out a lot of kindling. One day, Mitt Romney attacked the 47%, the kindling caught fire, and turned the entire Romney campaign to smoke. Such kindling can fuel fires that drive a campaign, however, not just destroy it. Jeb Bush is spending millions of dollars to lay out a lot of kindling that he is an acceptable conservative reformer. At the right time, this kindling could fuel Bush's renewal. One survey question I'd like to see is this: Was Jeb Bush a conservative reformer as governor of Florida?

    Rubio steps up

    21. Campaigns compress time. They test candidates under stress and accelerate their aging process. In passing their tests, some candidates mature and become presidents. In 2008, a young, immature candidate named Barack Obama faced down a series of crises, from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to the pre-election economic meltdown, with a seriousness and calm that made him president. In much the same way, Marco Rubio is stepping up to meet today's foreign policy leadership vacuum.
    22. Rubio's presaging of Russia's actions in Syria was a pivotal moment in his campaign. He didn't just prove he had put in the hard work to command the issues, he demonstrated responsibility, wisdom and maturity. It's not just the White House, but also presidential campaigns that gray the hair of those who run.
    23. It's tougher for a woman to run for president than for a man. She has to be tough enough to stand toe-to-toe with the boys but soft enough to be authentic as a woman. The Warrior Queen must also be a healer and a mother. No doubt, it's a challenge Carly Fiorina has faced every day in her rise from secretary to CEO. She's demonstrated her intelligence, ability, and toughness but soon, voters will need to see her warmth. In 2012, voters judged that Mitt Romney didn't "care about people like me." I believe he lost that election.
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    24. Without warmth, toughness can become cruelty, especially when tied to firing 30,000 people at Hewlett-Packard. Carly Fiorina's next big test is not HP; it's empathy.
    25. Making predictions about an unpredictable field is a fool's game, which is why I enjoy playing, but perhaps "The Big Chair Test" can help. Of all the candidates on the GOP debate stage, whom could we best see sitting in the big chair in the Oval Office, in a moment of crisis for our nation? In the end, we will select a square peg to fit that square hole.
    26. Right now, the Big Chair Test tells us the GOP field is much smaller than it looks. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio remain at the top. They are followed by a tier of candidates whom we might allow to look at the Big Chair, but not yet sit in it: Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich.
    27. Shame on you for what you are thinking about Chris Christie and the Big Chair.