Trump stands proudly on top of what looks like a five-way car crash
The New Hampshire primary is over, and the contest for the Republican nomination remains tumultuous and muddled. The Granite State may have a reputation for winnowing the election field, but it seems likely that most candidates will go on to the next contest in South Carolina on February 20.
Donald Trump won comfortably enough. Iowa cacuses winner Ted Cruz slipped, but not fatally. Marco Rubio crashed, perhaps catastrophically, into fifth place. Two governors did respectably, while another was possibly counted out. So what next for the Republican contenders?
Trump’s hearty showing may do something to staunch a flow of skeptical stories about the efficacy of his threadbare organisation and freewheeling campaigning style. He tends to dismiss criticism of his ground game as irrelevant, since his success is fuelled principally by his money and personality: as he told CNN on the eve of the primary, “I’m the product”.
The muddle for second place and Rubio’s tumble certainly helped Trump. For now, his chances are next to impossible to predict, since there is precious little precedent for his campaign. What’s clear is that he benefits from the pile-up behind him: the more candidates in play for the consensus lane, the stronger his chances of clinching the nomination.
Ted Cruz, meanwhile, was always going to struggle in New Hampshire, since his Iowa win relied heavily on that state’s much larger evangelical population. And so his team spent the week-long New Hampshire campaign dampening expectations, already keen to get to South Carolina and begin what they hope is a successful swing through favourable states in March.
Cruz has a potentially plausible path to the nomination, and will hope to rack up delegates and build an unstoppable momentum over the next month. He has strong organisation in many Southern states, with support from Tea Party activists in many instances. But he’ll face severe challenges if he can’t broaden his appeal: only around 8% of Americans identify as “very conservative”, the core of his vote.
The most interesting performances were those of the race’s three governors. John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie all want to be the successful “consensus” candidate, appealing to moderate conservatives and receiving establishment support. As experienced executives with moderate records, they should have the best claims to the throne – but this logic seems not to apply in a year when voters are furious with the government and uninterested in experience claims. Bush, Kasich and Christie have duly found their resumés all but useless so far.
The governors needed results strong enough to allow them to make a plausible case for staying in the race: ultimately, two of them did.
Kasich exceeded expectations by coming second, which will easily propel him to South Carolina. He fought a positive campaign in New Hampshire, upbeat in style. He presented himself as the most moderate of the Republican candidates, preaching pragmatism and bipartisanship. But he has a long way to go to be the leading consensus candidate; so far, he has a paltry campaign organisation and limited national support.
Bush’s team, meanwhile, spent the run-up to the primary saying he only needed to do well enough to justify continuing to South Carolina, where his operation is well advanced. While some donors are apparently itching for him to withdraw, Bush has built a national infrastructure and still has a hard core of supporters. In particular, he’ll be looking forward to his home state of Florida’s winner-take-all primary on March 15 – but he has to make it there first.
Christie won admirers for his gutsy performance in the last debate, but it came too late to bump him up the rankings in New Hampshire. He may now have to consider withdrawing: he has little money and a weak organisation, and unless he can pull in more donors quickly it’s hard to see how he can plot a path to the nomination.
For now, the governors muddle on, but probably with little enthusiasm for the looming primaries. As long as they’re all chasing the same pool of centre-right votes and cannibalising each other’s support, Cruz and Trump will be free to take the initiative.
The boy in the bubble
The biggest disappointment was Florida Senator Marco Rubio. His team have long been pushing him as the candidate who can beat Hillary Clinton, and the only major Republican candidate who could win the national vote. After coming a surprisingly strong third in Iowa, he began picking up endorsements, and there were signs the media were ready to anoint him as the chosen establishment candidate.
He needed a strong showing in New Hampshire to maintain a sense of momentum, to stall critics and put the debate behind him, and to maybe knock Bush, Christie or Kasich completely out of the race. But then came the Republican debate on February 6, and the conservative commentariat and GOP donors soured on him after he robotically repeated a pre-prepared line four times. That humiliation’s now been borne out with a drubbing at the polls, and they’ll now be asking if he really has what it takes to win the presidency.
The result has done none of these things, and he now faces some big questions. Will the party establishment give up on him? How will he perform at the next debate on February 13? And will he end up remembered as a freshman senator who over-performed in Iowa, or in Christie’s words, as “the boy in the bubble”?
The Republican battle has a long way yet to run. To be sure, there are 28 states in play between now and mid-March, but they may not be enough to end the saga. Republican Party rules require states that vote before March 15 to award delegates proportionally (though each state interprets this in its own way), which makes it difficult for a candidate to pull far ahead of the rest.
As the campaigns swing south, the mainstream lane to the nomination is still congested. The Republican establishment has yet to anoint its candidate of choice – and as long as it waits to do so, its outsiders will keep running amok.