It feels strange to celebrate the consolidation of the anti-Trump Republican field at a moment when a three-candidate race in Iowa has never seemed more certain.
After all, the point of consolidating the field is to produce a two-candidate race. Trump vs. Not Trump, right? When the frontrunner is polling at 46 percent in the early states, the only way to beat him is for a single challenger to win the other 55. When there are two challengers, each of them credible, the math is insuperable.
A prisoner’s dilemma among conservatives made consolidation impossible in 2016. On this date eight years ago, three Trump alternatives were polling north of 12 percent; the second-place candidate, Ben Carson, was just 9 points behind the frontrunner. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were each gaining ground in national surveys, and even prominent also-rans like Jeb Bush and John Kasich could argue, vaguely plausibly, that their numbers would rise as Iowa approached and Republican primary voters started getting serious about the race.
Everyone involved had reason to believe they might emerge as the One True Challenger to Trump, so no one had a reason to drop out early. And no one ever considered a serious contender, save poor Scott Walker, did. You know how that primary turned out.