Donald Trump’s resounding victory in New Hampshire not only cemented the businessman’s standing as a front-running GOP candidate. The crowded undercard battle for second place was as consequential, ensuring a long, protracted fight for the Republican nomination that could well be decided at the Cleveland convention.
Trump exceeded the already high expectations he faced in the state, winning with 34 percent of the vote. He will recover some of the momentum he lost after finishing a disappointing second in Iowa. Despite a lighter schedule in New Hampshire and vulgar closing rally Monday night, he’ll again have proven that the normal rules of politics don’t apply in such an antiestablishment year. He won nearly 30 percent of women voters, 30 percent of college graduates, and 29 percent of voters whose families made over $100,000 a year. He broadened support past his base and, if that holds past New Hampshire, he’ll be a formidable candidate to the end.
“We are going to make America great again!” Trump said as he began his victory speech. “New Hampshire, we’re not going to forget you. You started it.”
The equally significant takeaway is that, contrary to the indications from Iowa, the so-called establishment lane will be crowded until South Carolina—and potentially even longer. That’s a nightmare scenario for party leaders looking for the most electable nominee to emerge from the scrum.
Marco Rubio looked as if he had secured that role with an impressive third-place finish in Iowa, but his debate stumble knocked him all the way down to an embarrassing fifth place in New Hampshire. He’s barely above the 10 percent threshold necessary to win a delegate out of the Granite State. His campaign was so focused on message discipline even after his debate repetitions that it underestimated New Hampshire voters’ appreciation for unvarnished authenticity. Instead of joking about his gaffe, he doubled down on his message. That cost him badly in the final stretch of the primary.
Rubio is also canceling a scheduled appearance in South Carolina Wednesday to vote on North Korea sanctions legislation. It’s a sign that his own campaign recognized that missing Senate votes only played into his biggest vulnerability—the idea that he doesn’t have the experience to be president.
The results also ensure that Jeb Bush and John Kasich will remain in the race for the long haul. With a strong second-place finish, Kasich will now be motivated to stick around until (at least) Ohio’s winner-take-all primary on March 15. Because the race is heading south, the underfunded, out-organized underdog doesn’t expect many opportunities to win delegates before then. But mark the March 8 Michigan primary as a test of his staying power.
Bush didn’t have nearly as good a showing as Kasich, finishing with just 11 percent of the vote—despite his campaign and allied super PAC spending about $35 million in the state. But by finishing ahead of his protégé-turned-nemesis Rubio, Bush is likely to soldier onto South Carolina, where he’s backed by Sen. Lindsey Graham and where his brother, George W. Bush, is expected to campaign on his behalf. Between his campaign and super PAC, he will also have the financial resources to continue attacking his establishment-lane rivals, preventing them from getting too much momentum.
It’s the emerging Rubio-Bush clash that promises to be a massive headache for pragmatic-minded party leaders. Bush barely stayed in the top rung. If not for Rubio’s costly gaffe, his showing would have been seen as disappointing. Now the enmity between the two campaigns is even more pitched.
Ted Cruz is in the best shape going forward of all the Republican candidates. He finished in third place even though he barely spent any money in New Hampshire. He’s well organized and well funded heading into South Carolina, where he will be engaged in a brutal battle with Trump. If he can beat Trump, he’ll be very well-positioned in the Deep South states that predominate on Super Tuesday. “Washington liberals may find South Carolina far less hospitable environs,” Cruz said in his postelection speech, in a jibe at his more-moderate rivals.
Chris Christie, meanwhile, announced he was returning home to New Jersey instead of heading to campaign in South Carolina—a clear sign that the end of his campaign is near. If he drops out, it will be the ultimate insult to Rubio, whose campaign was wounded by a challenger who did nothing for his own candidacy in the process. It was the ultimate murder-suicide.
The overall post-New Hampshire winner is chaos. If the anti-Trump, anti-Cruz forces in the party can’t rally behind a favored alternative before Super Tuesday, it’s increasingly likely that no one will be able to secure a majority of delegates at the end of the process.
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