If the results of the vote in New Hampshire’s Republican primary are not yet sending shudders down the spines of establishmentarian GOP voters and leaders, they are deluded.
The state of play in the GOP race for the presidential nomination has been reverted to the status quo ante Iowa. Donald Trump is back in the pole position. His commanding performance across almost all demographics and voting blocs in New Hampshire is staggering. Worse, Hillary Clinton’s disastrous performance among both swing and core Democratic voters in the Granite State suggests that the flamboyant, vulgar, intemperate businessman may be electable in November.
Still more terrifying for GOP partisans, New Hampshire failed to perform its traditional role of winnowing the field. The great hope of the party’s electability wing, Marco Rubio, came in an extremely disappointing fifth place behind even Jeb Bush. Following Rubio’s debate performance, I contended that it would only truly shake up the race in New Hampshire if it gave voters who were inclined to back Chris Christie, Bush, or John Kasich license to feel like they weren’t wasting their vote if they failed to back Rubio. Not only did that effect materialize, but an even more unlikely prospect – that new Rubio voters who were softly committed to him after his strong showing in Iowa would abandon him — also occurred.
That raises serious questions about Marco Rubio’s ability to perform as a presidential candidate. Now, the Florida senator has to engineer a comeback in South Carolina with Jeb Bush – himself a well-known figure that will be flanked by a longtime Palmetto State senator and his brother, a two-term president – nipping at his heels. Jeb Bush is an accomplished campaigner, and his organization remains a well-funded apparatus, but he is extremely unlikely to be the party’s nominee. Even as Bush and his PAC, Right to Rise, spent tens of millions in the effort to make Bush a sympathetic figure among Republicans, his favorability ratings were tanking. A year’s worth of Monmouth University surveys shows clearly that the trajectory of Bush’s favorability among self-identified Republicans has been on a steady downward trend since last summer.
Meanwhile, if establishment Republicans have disqualified Rubio based solely on his debate performance last Saturday, Bush’s execution on the debate stage is often worse, particularly vis-à-vis Trump. Bush has frequently sought to engage the celebrity candidate, and there are no exchanges in which you could say that the former Florida governor emerged the unambiguous victor. When Trump contended that the United States should impose a religious litmus test on all visitors to the United States in order to weed out Muslims – and appealed to the dubious precedent set by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to justify it – Bush called it “unhinged,” but proceeded to politely ask Trump to “reconsider.” As you might imagine, Trump flatly declined to entertain this supplication. It is a demonstration that has been repeated over and over; Bush tries to start a fight with Trump and is thoroughly humbled by the reality television star’s puffed-up caudillo act.
Jeb Bush will take his campaign and his millions to South Carolina, Nevada, and perhaps even into the delegate-heavy March primaries. He has demonstrated that he can deliver a deathblow to the vastly more popular Marco Rubio, but, barring some shenanigans on the convention floor, he cannot be the party’s presidential nominee.
Meanwhile, Texas Senator Ted Cruz is poised to emerge the most potent opposition to Trump. His surprise third-place showing in New Hampshire following an equally surprising victory in Iowa positions him perfectly for the March 1 “SEC primaries.” Cruz may emerge the delegate leader by mid-March, with Trump in command of his own substantial set of committed delegates ahead of the crucial winner-take-all contests in Ohio and Florida on March 15. If Bush, Rubio, and Kasich (who has little funding, no constituency, and no strategy but to survive until Ohio votes in order to play kingmaker in Cleveland) are all still in the race, it is highly unlikely that any of them can emerge the consensus establishmentarian alternative to either Trump or Cruz.
The GOP’s electability wing need not succumb to fatalism just yet. There is hope. In New Hampshire, the “establishment” vote that went to Bush, Kasich, Rubio, Christie, and Carly Fiorina totaled a commanding 49 percent. The pileup effect that has rendered each individual candidate less commanding is an entirely self-inflicted condition. What’s more, after the Iowa caucuses, national polls fast began to reflect the race’s changing dynamics, with Rubio’s support skyrocketing and Trump’s falling back to earth. The state of play is not predetermined. The early states matter and South Carolina’s vote will have a substantial impact on the race.
New Hampshire’s vote has, however, complicated the establishment wing’s prospects. Donors and endorsements will be harder to find for Rubio, and he’ll run out of money eventually. Cruz will not experience similar adversity, nor will Trump. Bush, Kasich, and Rubio have every reason to stay in the race as long as possible. There are no party elders or establishment figures of prohibitive stature that can impose some discipline on this motley lot. If their wing remains fractured into March, the prospect of a Trump nomination – and, unthinkably, a Trump presidency – grows exponentially.
It should, indeed, be time for the party’s moderate voters to panic. The candidates who are most acceptable to the party’s moderate wing, however, all seem disinclined to call a truce in their Mexican standoff for the good of their party. If that dynamic prevails for much longer and the Trump juggernaut persists, the worst possible scenario for the GOP could come within an ace of being played out.