If present polling trends hold (a big “if”), then Donald Trump is poised to not just win the New Hampshire primary by double digits, he also stands to benefit greatly from a confused muddle of also-rans — a cohort of candidates who may not do well enough to challenge his lead but also likely won’t do poorly enough to leave the race. Thus, the race would move on to South Carolina with Ted Cruz wounded slightly by the New Hampshire results, Rubio wounded badly, and the trio of governors energized just enough to stay in and keep attacking Rubio in the quest to gain exclusive ownership of the so-called “establishment lane.”
Under this scenario, the loyal Trump plurality gives him disproportionate power not just in South Carolina but in the massive “SEC primary” that follows one week later. The longer the muddle lasts, the more powerful his plurality becomes. He can keep coasting as his rivals tear each other apart in their quest to create a true three-man race. Who will be the first to drop out when their polls are no better or worse than those of multiple competitors?
The primary calendar is front-loaded with states friendly to Trump and Cruz, and unless there is sufficient clarity following New Hampshire and South Carolina, the GOP establishment may just claw itself into irrelevance.