Want to know how absurd this 2016 Republican nomination contest has become? Here’s the spokesman for the fourth-place finisher in New Hampshire, whose campaign has spent way more money than any of the other candidates’ campaigns, arguing that the second-place New Hampshire finisher has no viable path to the nomination. That’s right, Jeb Bush’s campaign is trying to stake out ground as establishment frontrunner even as it departs New Hampshire having placed behind John Kasich and Ted Cruz and just barely in front of Marco Rubio. And of course, I’m burying the lede here: Donald Trump placed first in New Hampshire, has outperformed the polls in doing so, and his potentially damaging second-place finish in Iowa is now a distant memory.
Just one week ago, the Republican establishment seemed poised to rally around Rubio and his strong third-place finish in Iowa. One humiliating debate performance and a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire later, and Rubio appears to be dead in the water. It’s not a strong look when your state campaign chairman is caught on camera physically assaulting a “Robot Rubio” protestor. The Rubiobot has indeed malfunctioned.
What do the New Hampshire results mean for the Republican race? Ben Carson (dead last) and Carly Fiorina (second to last) should drop out. Chris Christie’s sixth-place finish and return to New Jersey would indicate that he’s dropping out. He shook up the race by badly exposing Rubio during last Saturday’s debate, but Rubio’s poor performance in New Hampshire did not benefit Christie. The Granite State was everything for Christie’s campaign, but it turns out he is about as well-liked there as he is in New Jersey.
Moving on, the field will effectively consist of five candidates. Here are the five in order of their support in an average of national polls: Trump (29.5%), Cruz (21.0%), Rubio (17.8%), Bush (4.3%) and Kasich (4.0%). Carson has been running fourth nationally at 7.8%, and Christie and Fiorina are tied at 2.5% each. That’s almost 13% of the electorate that needs to find a new candidate.
Now the circus moves to South Carolina, which holds its contests on February 20th. South Carolina polling is badly outdated; we don’t even know the effects of the Iowa contest there and now we have New Hampshire’s results to consider as well. Trump has been running strong in South Carolina, so that probably won’t change. If Trump can break 40% in South Carolina, that would indicate he’s on his way to securing a majority among some voting populations, even in a still crowded field.
Nobody in South Carolina knows who Kasich is, so how does he capitalize on his second-place finish in New Hampshire? For some perspective, let’s remember that Kasich won second place in New Hampshire with about 16% of the vote; it’s a crowded field, sure, but when 84 out of 100 voters are choosing someone else, you’re not exactly crushing it. But this “success” in New Hampshire means Kasich will move on and try to compete in at least one more contest. That leaves him, Bush, and Rubio vying for establishment support. In the wake of Rubio’s face plant last Saturday and disappointing New Hampshire result, maybe Bush, who has been close to Rubio in South Carolina, actually has an opening. I can’t believe I’m writing that.
New Hampshire was a bad result for the Republican establishment. Support for its preferred candidates is extremely fractured. Trump and Cruz go into South Carolina competing for first and second, while the establishment candidates will likely continue to fight among themselves. As long as nobody emerges to lead the establishment, Trump and Cruz will keep this a two-man contest and will rack up valuable delegates in these early states.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has to be disappointed with receiving under 40% of the vote and losing by a bit more than 20%. Bernie Sanders outperformed the polls and received about 60% of the vote. Nevada is going to offer Democrats their first venue that doesn’t skew so white and liberal, so Clinton has reason for optimism. The theory of the race that the Clinton campaign has embraced so far is that Clinton will do well in more diverse states where Democrats are not so liberal. Past polls have backed up this theory. I’m looking forward to seeing new polls out of Nevada and South Carolina to find out if the ground has really started to shift or not in this race.
It’s just hard to say what’s going to happen. Sanders couldn’t have asked for two friendlier states to start the nomination contest, yet he only won one of them. However, if you had told the Sanders campaign seven months ago that they would practically tie in Iowa and dominate in New Hampshire, they would have taken that in a heartbeat. Clinton came out of the first two contests bruised but certainly not broken. She has contests in much friendlier states coming up. However, she got crushed again by younger voters. Is it time for the Democratic establishment to start panicking?