Right-wing voters in New Hampshire did little to winnow the field of Republican presidential candidates on Tuesday.
New York businessman Donald Trump, who many in the party believe would stand little chance of defeating Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in the fall, came in first with 35 percent support and ten delegates.
John Kasich, the most centrist Republican candidate to succeed Barack Obama, came in second with nearly 16 percent support. He probably benefited from the fact that voters registered as independents rather than Republicans could participate in New Hampshire’s primary as well.
But the Ohio governor is unlikely to do well in South Carolina next week or in any of the Southern states that vote in March.
Texas senator Ted Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses last week, got under 12 percent support in New Hampshire, but he can expect to do better in the contests ahead where evangelical voters should turn out in greater numbers.
Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, who are all vying with Kasich for the slot of consensus candidate to take down Cruz and Trump, each got little more than 10 percent support on Tuesday.
Christie and Rubio didn’t even win any delegates for the nominating convention in the summer, meaning they leave New Hampshire without anything tangible to show for the many months they campaigned there.
Politico reports that the picture “just keeps getting bleaker” for the establishment wing of the party.
“This is the perfect storm for Trump,” said Matt Dowd, who served as chief strategist on the reelection campaign of Jeb’s brother, George W. Bush, in 2004. “He got his poll numbers, won by double digits, recovered from a loss and has multiple opponents. You couldn’t design a better scenario for him.”
David Wasserman agrees, writing at FiveThirtyEight that this is the worst possible outcome for the anti-Trump establishment.
Unlike in Iowa, Trump appears to be exceeding his polling average and expectations. Furthermore, the only “breakout” candidate in the next tier appears to be John Kasich, who looks likely to win a clear second place finish thanks to strong showings in liberal enclaves. But Kasich holds little appeal outside of New Hampshire. Bush looks likely to finish slightly ahead of Rubio, setting up an establishment muddle in South Carolina.
Don’t panic yet
Jonathan Bernstein is not so despondent. He argues at Bloomberg View that it is too early to assume a Trump victory everywhere or a contested convention in the event no candidate wins a majority of the delegates.
In four of the last five contest Republican contests, four candidates received at least 10 percent of the South Carolina vote, but eventually the logic of place-order finishes continued to knock out losers until a winner emerged.
Those elections did not have Trump, he admits. But Bush, Cruz, Kasich and Rubio (Bernstein thinks Christie will drop out soon) could each defeat the property tycoon one-on-one. Nothing that happened in Iowa or New Hampshire “changed the way this works,” he writes.
South Carolina firewall
Bush in particular needs a strong showing in South Carolina to stay relevant. The state has been friendly to his family in the past and had, up to 2012, a perfect record of picking Republican winners. That year, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a native of neighboring Georgia, surprisingly beat Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, with 40 percent of the votes.
As we reported last month, the party establishment will be hoping South Carolina returns to form this year and acts as a “firewall” to block insurgent candidates like Cruz and Trump.
The state is more representative of the Republican electorate nationwide than either Iowa or New Hampshire. It has rural conservatives upstate with reactionary views on social issues and a deep mistrust of big-government Democrats; fiscal conservatives in the retail- and tourism-dominated south who align with the party’s pro-business wing; and a large military and ex-military community with robust views on defense.
The RealClearPolitics average of polls currently puts Trump ahead in South Carolina with 36 percent support, followed by Cruz at 20 percent and Bush and Rubio around 10 percent each. But those numbers could change quickly if voters in the Palmetto State are influenced by the New Hampshire result.