, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I have no idea who’s going to win tonight’s Iowa presidential caucuses in either party, but I feel confident in making one prediction: If and when Republican front runner Donald Trump either drops out at some point on the primary trail, or gets denied the delegate count needed to win the nomination either before or during the convention, most serious talk in the Republican race about the economy’s biggest problems will come to an abrupt halt.

Right now, given Trump’s strong showings in the latest Iowa polls, and even better performances in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and other surveys, such speculation seems besides the point. But I can’t dismiss out of hand one possible result unfolding tonight: A Trump defeat, or relatively poor second-place showing, could – as many commentators have suggested – puncture the aura of invincibility that’s been created by a combination of his unexpectedly broad appeal and his brash personality. In other words, a disappointing showing tonight could turn this “winner” into a hype-dependent “loser” in the public eye.

And as I’ve written, even – or especially – if Trump survives Iowa in good shape, the Republican establishment he’s run against could start consolidating behind a single champion as the more “conventional” hopefuls drop out. This candidate might start winning near-majorities in the polls while Trump remains stuck in the 30s or at best low 40s.

If and when the campaign becomes Trump-less, most signs indicate that the Republican campaign will give the shortest possible shrift to the pocketbook issues that matter most to the public. The most compelling evidence so far? The last Republican debate, on October 28 in Iowa, was Trump-less (by his choice). And judging from the proceedings, you’d never know that the United States has spent more than six years crawling out of an historically deep recession at an historically slow rate, and that living standards for the typical family have been stagnating literally for decades.

Economic subjects weren’t completely ignored. But throughout the two-hour event, they were a clear afterthought. There were zero questions on jobs and wages, and when the Fox News panelists did touch on the economy, it was for two main purposes. They either wanted to draw the candidates out on philosophical questions, like the ideal size and role of government, that Trump’s rise in particular suggest have become marginal even to committed “movement” conservatives. Or they sought to plumb the candidates’ views on the Iowa-specific issue of ethanol subsidies.

Of course, immigration figured prominently that evening. But the candidates almost exclusively focused on its national security aspects, not its potential to either strengthen or weaken American growth or employment.

Exceptions to these patterns did pop up. Though the topics were completely ignored by the Fox interrogators, Governors Chris Christie and John Kasich touted their job growth records in New Jersey and Ohio, respectively, as did Jeb Bush for his years in the statehouse in Florida. Texas Senator Ted Cruz did promise to end welfare payments to illegal immigrants, while Florida Senator Marco Rubio mentioned the need to ensure that immigrant flows contain more skilled and educated newcomers ready to contribute economically upon their arrival, and fewer immigrants whose only entry qualifications were family connections to existing legal residents. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul used his closing statement to warn of the dangers of the national debt. And Cruz answered the single question about Obamacare in impressive detail – in the process calling it the nation’s “biggest job-killer.”

But that paragraph pretty well sums it up.

It’s entirely possible that the Fox panel neglected the economy because its members thought Iowa is prospering, and that therefore the issue hasn’t resonated. (Here’s why they’re wrong.) So maybe when the primaries move into states with more obvious troubles, this focus will shift – for all the networks. In principle, Fox might also have concluded that the Fox Business debate in Milwaukee in November covered the economy adequately (along with the October CNBC debate in Colorado, which wildly veered into numerous other areas as well).

It’s also revealing, however, that unlike Trump, few of the other Republican contenders consistently take the opportunity to pivot to economic issues when asked other questions. Perhaps they believe the economy has been superseded by terrorism and related national security issues? Could they be holding their economic fire for the general election? Are they convinced that the economy simply is no longer bad enough to harp on? That last possibility has me particularly intrigued, since it strikes me as so stunningly wrong. But by the same token, it could be just the latest evidence that the Republican party’s mainstream power brokers really are out of touch with the national mood.