Fleeting hopes for clarity and consolidation after New Hampshire’s first-in-the nation primary turned into an anti-climactic nightmare for Republicans on Tuesday night, as Granite Staters scrambled the race and delivered the worst possible result for an orderly contest.
First, unprecedented parity in the middle of the field allowed Donald Trump to romp, with just over a third of the vote, carrying every demographic group along the way. The vote share wasn’t enough to inspire sufficient fear in the rest of the candidates that they’d consider putting aside their egos, or even train their fire on the polling leader. But it demonstrates that Iowa — with its organization-dependent caucus system — was probably an outlier, and that Trump’s Field of Dreams turnout strategy (“If you build it, they will come”) might actually work. Moreover, the polls are doing a reasonable job of capturing Trump’s level of support, if slightly understating it. And with 65 percent of the vote divided among the non-Trump field, the candidates’ dilemma continues.
The second big blow delivered by Granite State voters was the elevation of an unviable contender in John Kasich. Whatever his merits, Kasich’s is the sort of candidacy that has no shelf life outside of New Hampshire, where his performance was aided by explicit appeals to independent voters in the state’s hybrid primary system, in which undeclared voters can vote in either party. And, at least anecdotally, some Sanders fans were comfortable enough with a Bernie victory that they voted for Kasich in an effort to to stop Trump. Don’t be fooled by the media adulation of Kasich and the strange new respect from Democratic operatives. (Jon Favreau tweeted “Great speech from Kasich. Just seems like a good guy.” Dan Pfeiffer tweeted: “Kasich is quickly becoming the candidate that Dem operatives least want to run against.”) Kasich has no path. What he does have, for the time being, is a rationale to continue on. Perhaps he can enjoy a brief cash infusion and polling honeymoon and peel off a few points from the “establishment” lane in the upcoming states. More troubling is that his aim is simply to tread water until mid March, when he hopes to win Ohio’s 99 delegates, putting himself in the position to play kingmaker. At this rate, the only kingmaking this approach will facilitate involves Trump, and a paralytic mix of establishment ego and “strategery” might very well allow this to happen.
#share#Moving down the scale, the picture gets even bleaker. While Ted Cruz, boosted by the exit of Rand Paul, can claim a victory in eking out a bronze on a shoestring budget, the tight cluster of mediocrity from third to fifth place makes it difficult for anyone to sell his performance as an unmitigated success. Jeb Bush, who in his remarks deemed it necessary to deny that his campaign was dead, finished the night in fourth place, winning two delegates, after having spent more than $35 million in the state. His super PAC’s much-maligned strategy of carpet-bombing rival Marco Rubio might not have borne direct fruit, but in holding Marco down for bash brother Chris Christie to pounce on the debate stage, the approach seems to have been validated. The odds-on favorite to consolidate the field just a few short days ago, Rubio slipped into fifth place after an ill-timed debate flop, although he’s within a point of Bush and Cruz. Jeb will take this as a win, because his path has long been predicated less on his own performance than on the elimination of all others. With his very own $40 million Death Star and a new lease on life (and perhaps hard dollars), Jeb might be the only candidate built to survive a political nuclear winter, which seems to be where this is headed.
Jeb, and the party establishment he stands for, is perhaps the biggest reason Trump has resonated.
The problem is that even if Jeb somehow consolidates his lane, the odds of him winning a race against Trump and Cruz seem minimal, particularly if Rubio supporters look to Cruz. The only way for Jeb to have a real shot is to isolate Trump himself, which itself is a long shot. Indeed Jeb, and the party establishment he stands for, is perhaps the biggest reason Trump has resonated. The two men and their candidacies have become perversely and inexorably symbiotic. It might be couched in terms of immigration or trade or campaign finance, but at its most basic level, support for Trump signals a rejection of Jeb and the mantle of Bushism. Without Jeb as his bête noire, there is no Trump. And now Jeb’s pitch amounts to being the only one who can take him on. But whatever Trump’s ceiling against an otherwise unobjectionable alternative, ask a disgruntled GOP primary electorate to choose between the Donald and another Bush, and I suspect D.C. won’t like the answer.
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So on we go to South Carolina, with the GOP Hunger Games poised to escalate as Trump plows ahead unchecked. While the state has a significant “establishment” contingent — they did elect Lindsey Graham after all — splitting this vote multiple ways could very well give us the same result as New Hampshire’s, with Trump pulling 30 percent and a bitter fight for a distant third happening in the low teens. Three days later comes a caucus state in Nevada, where Bush and Rubio are both well-organized. And given that both camps have enough cash (and external muscle) to keep them solvent indefinitely, they have little incentive to pull the plug absent a KO.
But a war of attrition can only be won if the combatants will actually attrite. And with two tickets through to March punched for Trump and Cruz, the window for a third and final contender is slowly closing. Because if the GOP race is still a four-way race (or worse) by the time winner-takes-all kicks in on March 15, it is effectively already a two-man race. That alone should be enough to spook the “establishment.”
— Liam Donovan is a former GOP staffer who works in government relations in Washington, D.C.