In January of 2017 someone will stand at the U.S. Capitol and deliver an Inaugural Address. This is roughly the place where Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan once stood.
I am going to spend every single day between now and then believing that neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz nor Bernie Sanders will be standing on that podium. One of them could win the election, take the oath, give the speech and be riding down Pennsylvania Avenue. I will still refuse to believe it.
Yes, I know what the polling evidence is telling us about Trump, Sanders and Cruz, but there are good reasons to cling to my disbelief.
First, these primary campaigns will not be settled in February. They won't be settled in March or April. Sometimes a candidate can sweep Iowa and New Hampshire and cruise to the nomination. But that candidate has to be broadly acceptable to all parts of the party. Trump, Cruz and Sanders are not.
As Jay Cost writes in The Weekly Standard, "This could mean a lengthy nomination battle that stretches all the way to the California primary in June." On the Republican side the early primaries and caucuses allocate delegates proportionally. Only 16.2 percent of the delegates overall come from winner-take-all states. That means the delegate-getting war will be a slog.
The first day when any candidate could rack up a big winner-take-all delegate harvest is March 15, an eternity from now. More than half the delegates will be allocated after that date.
Second, Cruz and Trump will go after each other with increasing ferocity over the next many weeks or months. There is a decent chance, given their personalities, that they will make each other maximally unattractive and go down in each other's death embrace.
Third, the Trump and Sanders turnout problems are real. Trump is doing very well among people who haven't voted in the past four elections. It's possible he has energized them so much they will actually caucus and vote, but you wouldn't want to bet your gold-plated faucets on it. People who don't vote generally don't vote.
Sanders is drawing support from nonvoters, too. Sanders is up in some polls overall, but he trails big time among people in Iowa who caucused in 2008 and among those who are definitely registered to vote.
It's quite possible that the big story post-Iowa will be how badly these two underperformed.
Fourth, establishment Republicans who are softening on Trump because they think he is more electable than Cruz are smoking something. According to a Pew Research survey, a majority of Americans think Trump would make a poor or terrible president.
Chuck Todd ran through Trump's favorable-unfavorable ratings on "Meet the Press" on Sunday: Among independents, Trump is negative 26 points; among women, negative 36; among suburban voters, negative 24. Is the Republican Party really going to nominate one of the most loathed men in American public life?
Fifth, America has never elected a candidate maximally extreme from the political center, the way Sanders and Cruz are. According to the FiveThirtyEight website, Cruz has the most conservative voting record in the entire Congress. That takes some doing.
Sixth, sooner or later the candidates from the governing wing of their parties will get their acts together. Marco Rubio has had a bad month, darkening his tone and trying to sound like a cut-rate version of Trump and Cruz.
Before too long Rubio will realize his first task is to rally the voters who detest or fear those men. That means running as an optimistic American nationalist with specific proposals to reform Washington and lift the working class.
If he can rally mainstream Republicans he'll be at least tied with Trump and Cruz in the polls. Then he can counter their American decline narrative, with one of his own: This country is failing because it got too narcissistic, became too much like a reality TV show. Americans lost the ability to work constructively to get things done.
Finally, eventually the electorate is going to realize that in an age of dysfunctional government, effective leadership capacity is the threshold issue. That means being able to listen to others, surround yourself with people smarter than you, gather a governing majority and above all have an actual implementation strategy. Not Trump, Cruz or Sanders has any remote chance of turning his ideas, such as they are, into actual laws.
In every recent presidential election U.S. voters have selected the candidate with the most secure pair of hands. They've elected the person who would be a stable presence and companion for the next four years. I believe they're going to do that again. And if they're not, please allow me a few more months of denial.