The night could have gone worse for the GOP establishment—but I’m not really sure how. Not only did Donald Trump win an overwhelming victory in New Hampshire, but the establishment lane of viable candidates got more crowded than it had been going in. And remember that since the current primary calendar was inaugurated in 1976, no GOP nominee has ever emerged without winning Iowa or New Hampshire.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, that means that, if history is a guide, the GOP is likely going to be choosing between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz as a nominee, which is enough to have Beltway insiders waking up in cold sweats.
The other big winner from tonight was less obvious (except to the betting markets, where his odds of winning the nomination soared once the results became clear) and that was Ted Cruz, who finished a relatively distant third behind Trump and John Kasich (more on Kasich later). The reasons it was a great night for Cruz are not immediately obvious from the raw results (although obviously a third-place finish in New Hampshire against a tough field after winning Iowa is a solid showing). But a deeper dive shows why New Hampshire was in fact a great win for Cruz. First, Cruz spent just 27 days in New Hampshire, about half the number of Bush and Fiorina. Kasich and Christie both spent more than 70 days, and even Rubio was in New Hampshire more than Cruz.
Even more important, Cruz spent very few resources on New Hampshire: less than $1 million combined between the campaign and super PACs. Compare that to Bush, whose combined efforts spent $35 million in New Hampshire, while Christie spent $18 million, Rubio $15 milllion, and Kasich $12 million. All of them save Kasich were beaten by Cruz in a state that was supposed to be a bad fit for him. Cruz enters the South Carolina primary with by far the largest war chest of any GOP candidate in hard campaign dollars, and he also has by far the most extensive grassroots fundraising network to add to that total. Furthermore, he’s the best organized candidate in the coming states in the “SEC Primary” on March 1, and is the only candidate in the field right now who definitely has the resources and organization to compete throughout the primary season. A Southern supporter of Trump’s recently lamented that “Cruz is actually running the perfect [expletive] campaign” and while there are still many roadblocks in his way Cruz’s pathway to the nomination has never looked clearer.
Carson and Fiorina both cratered to dismal performances that effectively eliminated them from serious contention—Fiorina has withdrawn, but Carson says he plans to go on to SC. Furthermore the establishment lane was thrown into upheaval with the surprising second-place finish of John Kasich and the dismal showing of Marco Rubio, whose fifth-place showing, combined with his placing third in Iowa, suddenly has him on the outside looking in.
I expect the Kasich boomlet to be short-lived. He has no money and no organization beyond New Hampshire, where he spent all of his time and campaign funds. Nonetheless, his performance trailed Jon Huntsman’s 17 percent in 2012, though Kasich’s came against a much more impressive field. Kasich’s candidacy was tailor-made for New Hampshire with its huge numbers of moderates and independents — and not at all made for the upcoming primary season in the South. Unless he can somehow make himself relevant for the next month until the more friendly Midwestern primaries, it is hard to see a path to the nomination for him. Nonetheless, he’ll go to SC with a lot of momentum, and he’ll certainly compete in the next several primaries at least, making it difficult for establishment endorsements and money to concentrate around one of his opponents.
Bush, who finished a close fourth place to Cruz despite outspending him more than 30 to 1 would seem to be, in theory, damaged by New Hampshire, but more realistically, his campaign actually picked up the one thing it needed there—and that was a victory over Marco Rubio. With the Bush family’s nationwide network of supporters, he will have the resources to compete if he can perform respectably at the polls. Kasich is not realistically a long-term threat, and, with Christie likely exiting the race, Bush is newly relevant as a contender to win the “establishment primary,” and with it to become a leading contender for the nomination. He’ll still need to draw to an inside straight to overcome Trump and Cruz and this point, but at least he is in the game.
Which brings us to Rubio, who was most certainly the biggest loser in N.H. With an election strategy that was predicated on a second-place finish to give momentum to pick up a win in S.C., and having engaged in an expensive ad war over New Hampshire airwaves, Rubio finds himself limping into S.C. coming off of a distant fifth-place finish. Moreover, his performance in the final N.H. debate, and the follow-on waves of negative publicity it engendered, may have permanently tarnished his image. Nonetheless, a candidate with Rubio’s political skills simply can’t be counted out, and if he surprises in South Carolina, which he is certainly capable of doing, he could still write his 2016 story with a happier ending. But to put himself in a position to do this, he is going to need to decisively vanquish his establishment foes in S.C., and he’ll have to do it with a depleted war chest and a large group of competitors. New Hampshire represented by far his best chance to clear the field, and unfortunately for Rubio, he came up short.
So to summarize where we are today: Trump has his mojo back, Cruz is positioned far better than any of his non-Trump foes, and the establishment lane of the primary is a multi-car pile-up.
It’s enough to have the RNC and the denizens of K Street reaching for their Alka Seltzer.