Can Any Candidate Bridge the Divide?

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On Thursday night, the divide between the various factions of the Republican electorate went beyond the musings of the pundits and crystallized into one of the most surprising moments of the election. The final GOP debate before Iowa, and the frontrunner was nowhere to be found. Instead, Donald Trump was blocks away, holding his own event in protest.

While Trump’s absence undoubtedly took a big chunk out of Fox News’s ratings and encouraged all the talking heads to declare this debate a bore, it actually lent a unique dynamic to the stage. Without Trump standing tall in the middle of the candidates, we saw surprisingly relatable moments from longshots like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. But even though these candidates had a moment to shine, it’s getting harder than ever to see how they’ll ever attract Trump supporters to their team.

Likewise, how many Marco Rubio supporters are going to rally behind Trump if and when he secures the nomination? Is there any candidate, on the stage or off, who can unite these factions under one umbrella? Or has the divide widened to the point where no reconciliation is possible?

Right now, it seems that only one ticket could do the impossible: some combination of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. That ticket seems less likely today than it would have seemed a month ago, but it’s not unimaginable that these men would put their feud behind them for the good of the election. It’s easier to see Cruz being Trump’s running mate than vice-versa, but then again, it’s easier to see Trump winning this thing than Cruz. Cruz may take Iowa, but his numbers in the rest of the country are not promising.

The barrier to unity here isn’t Trump or Bush or their respective fans. The barrier is a divergent viewpoint on where the United States needs to be headed. Those who support Trump (and Cruz) think that the problems facing the U.S. go beyond conservatism vs. liberalism. They go beyond Barack Obama. They go straight to the heart of Washington D.C., where politicians are growing increasingly isolated from their constituents. In many ways, the same thirst for change is driving Trump and his counterpoint on the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders. The form of that change is drastically different, but the hatred for bought-and-paid-for politicians is identical.

Just as the Clinton campaign worries that Sanders supporters will stay home in November if she is nominated, Republicans are doubtlessly concerned that Trump supporters will do the same if the nominee turns out to be Rubio or Christie.

Hopefully, it won’t come to that. The idea of running another establishment guy is a dismal one, but it’s not nearly as nightmarish as letting the Democrats have another four years in the White House.