In chess, a gambit is an opening in which a player makes a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of some compensating advantage. Similarly, in everyday language a gambit refers to a behavior or action that is calculated to gain some future benefit. For quite some time now, the Trump gambit has occupied the minds of Democratic strategists and pundits, and, albeit less publicly, also the minds of Republican strategists, but in case of the latter often in a reversed form. The simple formula for the Trump gambit is this: let Donald Trump win the Republican nomination, and any Democratic nominee, whether it’s Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or even Martin O’Malley, will convincingly beat him in the general election. Originally, when Trump had just announced his candidacy and was getting some traction, this was considered a form of frivolous daydreaming, something Democrats fantasized about when they were not dealing with the real problems of retaining the presidency, a way to relax and temporarily contemplate an easy road to victory, before focusing again on more likely opponents like Scott Walker or Jeb Bush.
Three weeks from the Iowa caucus and one month from the New Hampshire primary the Trump gambit is about to become a reality, with the obvious caveat that there is nothing Democrats can do about it. But they have to be aware of what they hope for, and so do affiliated pundits. Scott Walker is long gone, and Jeb! is spending an obscene amount of money trying to get out of the basement where his uninspired campaign has landed him. In their place, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie are now Trump’s main challengers, each at a respectable distance but Cruz in the most favorable position because he’ll probably win in Iowa. If, as is to be expected, Trump subsequently wins in New Hampshire but three or four other candidates score well enough to stay in the race, it’s hard to see how Trump doesn’t come into the GOP convention with the largest number of delegates, although possibly not enough for the outright nomination. Then the question for the Democrats becomes what to wish for: watching the gambit fully develop and see Trump nominated, or a brokered convention resulting in an establishment nominee.
In the second scenario Ted Cruz can be disregarded, because there is no way the Republican establishment would want him in the White House. So it’s between Rubio and Christie, unless Jeb! makes a miraculous comeback. In spite of his proven campaigning prowess Christie has too many skeletons in his closet to be electable, and Jeb Bush now has forcefully defended pretty much all of his brother’s failures, which makes him unelectable too. So in the end it will be Trump or Rubio.
This is where it gets complex, because there are two kinds of fear interacting in the Democratic thought process. On the one hand the fear that Trump can expand his base during the rest of the GOP campaign and draw some support from their own side, which would make him electable, and on the other the fear that a young, Hispanic candidate like Rubio will make Hillary or Bernie look old.
A gambit is always a risky play. It is unlikely that Trump will generate enough support to win the general election, and it is all but certain that Rubio will not get Trump’s voters if the GOP snubs the Donald. Either way, the Democrats are sitting pretty, but it’s hard to feel it yet.