Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is seen through Christmas lights as he speaks during a campaign event, Dec. 18, 2015, in Kennesaw, Ga.
Photo by David Goldman/AP

First Read: GOP outsiders flex muscles as 2015 comes to an end

Updated

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.

GOP outsiders continue to flex muscles as 2015 comes to an end

In a 2015 filled with fascinating political stories – Donald Trump’s rise and durability, Bernie-mania, Joe Biden’s Hamlet-on-the-Potomac act, John Boehner stepping down from Congress – maybe the most amazing one has been the strength and size of the Republican Party’s outsider/anti-establishment wing. Today’s new national Quinnipiac poll provides an exclamation point to that story: Donald Trump 28%, Ted Cruz 24%, Marco Rubio 12%, Ben Carson 10%, Chris Christie 6%, Jeb Bush 4%; no one else gets more than 2%. Add up the Trump/Cruz/Carson percentages, and you get 62%. Then add up the Rubio/Christie/Bush numbers, and you get 22%. Polls, of course, don’t determine the GOP nominee – the Dec. 2011 NBC/WSJ poll had Newt Gingrich leading Mitt Romney by 17 points, 40% to 23%. The New York Times’ Nate Cohn describes a perfectly reasonable scenario how Rubio, despite possibly losing both Iowa and New Hampshire, still grabs the Republican nomination. And we realize these insider-vs-outsider/establishment-vs.-anti-establishment labels are imperfect. Is Cruz, a U.S. sitting senator, really an outsider? Is Rubio, who was the Tea Party’s darling in 2010, really part of the GOP establishment?

Does that trend continue in 2016? Or does it stop?

But for our purposes here, insiders/establishment are the Republican politicians who have had experience governing and forging compromises with the opposition, and who would be acceptable to most of the party’s elected members, lobbyists, and political consultants. The outsiders/anti-establishment are the folks who have little to no experience in governing, who have no appetite for compromise, and who FREAK OUT the party’s elected officials, lobbyists, and consultants. And right now, those outsiders are getting more than 60% – combined – in national polls. Again, the 2016 Republican race could play like it did in 2008 and 2012, when the establishment candidate (despite significant hurdles) ends up winning the nomination. But if this is 1964, when establishment gets overthrown, those percentages above could end up foreshadowing that outsider-on-top outcome.

The Diploma Divide in the GOP race

Our friend David Wasserman at the Cook Political Report has a great story at FiveThirtyEight about how the college-degree divide – again – could be the CENTRAL story in how the Republican nominating contest plays out. “[T]he Republican Party’s ‘diploma divide’ isn’t new: It was central to the 2012 race, with roles reversed. That year, Mitt Romney’s nomination was attributable to GOP voters with college degrees, while voters without a college degree were split. Ultimately, the 2016 race may come down to which side of the diploma divide unites the fastest and most thoroughly once voting begins,” Wasserman writes. “Quelling an insurgency like Trump’s may require college-educated Republicans, who are currently fractured four ways, to unite behind a single candidate while non-degree-holders splinter. There’s still plenty of time for both to happen. Furthermore, as our 2016 Swing-O-Matic shows, white voters without college degrees — a core GOP group and the one most backing Trump — historically are much less likely to actually turn out and vote.”

Trump’s vulgar attack on Hillary Clinton

Turning to the activity on the campaign trail, here was the news from last night’s Trump rally in Michigan, per NBC’s Ali Vitali: “Donald Trump launched a vulgar attack on Hillary Clinton late Monday, including a sexually derogatory comment about her being ‘schlonged’ by President Barack Obama in 2008. ‘Even her race to Obama, she was gonna beat Obama,’ the GOP frontrunner told a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan. ‘I don’t know who would be worse, I don’t know. How does it get worse? But she was gonna beat — she was favored to win — and she got schlonged. She lost.’” More: “Trump also made crude references to Clinton’s bathroom break during Saturday’s Democratic debate, describing it as ‘disgusting.’ ‘What happened to her?’ Trump wondered. ‘I’m watching the debate, and she disappeared.’ He then solved his own riddle: ‘I know where she went. It’s disgusting. I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting. We want to be very straight up, OK?’”

Clinton camp: “Hell no” we’re not apologizing to Trump

Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign is refusing to apologize to Trump for Clinton claiming – incorrectly, according to the available evidence – that ISIS was using Trump’s rhetoric in ISIS recruitment videos. (Clinton would have been on much more solid ground at Saturday’s debate if she simply said that Trump was a walking/talking recruitment tool for ISIS, or a potential recruitment tool.) “Hell no. Hillary Clinton will not be apologizing to Donald Trump for correctly pointing out how his hateful rhetoric only helps ISIS recruit more terrorists,” Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said in a statement, per NBC’s Kristen Welker.

On the trail

Hillary Clinton holds a trio of campaign stops in Iowa… Marco Rubio remains in New Hampshire… Ted Cruz hits Tennessee and Arkansas… Ben Carson stumps in South Carolina… Jeb Bush is in New Hampshire… Ditto Chris Christie… And Mike Huckabee and Bernie Sanders campaign in Iowa.

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First Read: GOP outsiders flex muscles as 2015 comes to an end

Updated