News flash: GOP establishment still freaking that Trump or Cruz may win

The panic stories are starting again.

Isn’t this the 20th or 30th time I’ve read a piece saying the GOP establishment is freaking out over Trump?

True, the story line has broadened a bit in recent weeks to say the party poohbahs are alarmed that Trump or Cruz could seize the nomination. But it’s still a tale of a bunch of party poohbahs that can’t quite believe their coveted nomination could be hijacked by interlopers.

I think the reason these stories still have traction is that many journalists can’t quite believe it, either. There is a slapping-the-forehead undertone to these pieces, as if to say: How the hell is this happening?

Keep in mind that many journalists, by their own admission, dismissed Donald Trump as a sideshow when he got into the race and continued to do so for months. Few thought that Ted Cruz would be seriously contending for the nomination (or that Jeb! would be mired in the low single digits).

But here is yesterday’s take in the New York Times:

“Republican leaders are growing alarmed by the ferocious ways the party’s mainstream candidates for president are attacking one another, and they fear that time is running out for any of them to emerge as a credible alternative to Donald J. Trump or Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.”

Nothing wrong with the well-reported story. It’s just that the Times, the Washington Post and just about everyone else has said this again and again. Perhaps it bears repeating with the Iowa voting less than a week away.

The Times goes on to say that “the party elders had hoped that one of their preferred candidates, such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, would be rising above the others by now and becoming a contender to rally around. Instead, they have a muddled field of battered mainstream candidates: Mr. Bush, Mr. Rubio, Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.”

True. But the muddled field remains muddled because Trump has sucked most of the oxygen out of the proverbial room and Cruz has emerged as the hardline conservative alternative.

Most unusual election of my lifetime, no question about it. But isn’t it time for everyone to stopped being shocked by this turn of events?

The op-ed side of the paper still hasn't capitulated. Right-leaning columnist David Brooks, in a piece headlined "Stay Sane, America," says: "I know what the polling evidence is telling us about Trump, Sanders and Cruz, but there are good reasons to cling to my disbelief."

Politico has a more upbeat tone:

“A sense of inevitability is growing around Donald Trump with just six days to go before the Iowa caucuses as new polls show the billionaire businessman extending his lead and perceived electability.

“An ABC News/Washington Post national poll out Tuesday laid out a stunning shift in conventional wisdom: 67 percent of Republicans and leaners now say they expect Trump to win the GOP nomination, marking a 25 percentage-point increase since November. And 56 percent see Trump as the most "electable" nominee in a general-election matchup with Democrats.”

That first figure is more important than many prognosticators realize, because expecting someone to win means voters can visualize that person as a nominee or as a president—a psychological threshold that is not always easy to clear.

One of those who has been leading the Trump-will-fade bandwagon is Nate Silver, the data guru who migrated from the New York Times to launch 538. Silver has an almost legendary reputation from correctly forecasting the 2012 election, but he has been way out on a limb this time, as Slate reports:

“In September, he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Trump had a roughly 5-percent chance of beating his GOP rivals. In November, he explained that Trump’s national following was about as negligible as the share of Americans who believe the Apollo moon landing was faked. On Twitter, he compared Trump to the band Nickelback, which he described as being “[d]isliked by most, super popular with a few.” In a post titled “Why Donald Trump Isn’t A Real Candidate, In One Chart,” Silver’s colleague Harry Enten wrote that Trump had a better chance of “playing in the NBA Finals” than winning the Republican nomination.

“Multiple times over the past six months, Silver has reminded his readers that four years ago, daffy fly-by-nighters like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann led the GOP field at various points. Trump’s poll numbers, he wrote, would drop just like theirs had. In one August post, 'Donald Trump’s Six Stages of Doom,' Silver actually laid out a schedule for the candidate’s inevitable collapse.”

How’s that collapse workin’ out for ya, Nate?

In a sort-of mea culpa, Silver writes:

“I was skeptical because I assumed that influential Republicans would do almost anything they could to prevent him from being nominated.”

What Silver missed, and what the media seem to keep rediscovering, is that “influential Republicans” don’t have much power to do anything in a self-funding,

Super PAC era where candidates can blow off the party and go straight to the voters. In another week or two, that fact may no longer be news.