On Tuesday, the people of New Hampshire delivered Donald Trump a seismic victory, winning 100,000 votes and more than doubling anyone else in the field with 35% of the vote. After his disappointment in Iowa, this was the type of victory Trump needed to indisputably maintain the title of “frontrunner.” After that, John Kasich, who staked his campaign on New Hampshire, showed hard work (and 100+ town halls) pays off with a solid 2nd at 16% (Full disclosure: I’ve donated to the Kasich campaign). Ted Cruz came in 3rd with 11.7%, Jeb Bush in 4th at 11%, and Marco Rubio a disappointing 5th with 10.6%. After their poor showings, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina dropped out while Ben Carson will make a stand in South Carolina, if only to spite Cruz. Below are some takeaways from NH.
As an aside, my predictions were pretty mixed. While I was right 3rd-5th would be close, I did botch the order:
- This was a Trump mandate. He’s the frontrunner.
Trump won voters in every age group by double-digits, with every amount of education, winning even 33% of those with college degrees, every income bracket, and in every ideological bucket from very conservative to moderate. For all the talk of his limited appeal, Trump was the most acceptable candidate to every faction of the state. Yes, 35% is far short of 51%, but in a multi-candidate field like this, getting past 50% is a herculean if not downright impossible feat. Yes, the working and middle class are the backbone of Trump’s support, but clearly, Trumpism permeates beyond these precincts.
Plus, those people hoping Trump supporters wouldn’t vote look foolish. The caucus system undoubtedly hurt Trump disproportionately, but in a primary, he gets his people out. Trump likely has a double digit lead in South Carolina and poised for a “yuge” performance on March 1. The next two weeks will be brutal, and we will see if he can withstand an onslaught of attacks (as well as whether he will really loosen the purse strings to fight back on the airwaves). Trump has a built an impressive, broad coalition that leaves him with the best position in the race. If he can hold on in SC, he will be tough to beat. Some in the establishment will continue to downplay Trump; they are kidding themselves.
- Ted Cruz is also in an enviable position.
Cruz got a solid 3rd in NH by holding to his core of conservatives, and besting Bush and Rubio was a nice coup given how little time he spent in the Granite State. With its large number of evangelical voters, South Carolina should be hospitable to Cruz. March 1 is setting up to be a battle between Trump and Cruz, so winning SC will be a key test to build momentum into those contests. Cruz is behind today in SC, but with a strong debate performance on Saturday and massive volunteer network, he could consolidate the right pole of the party and make a real run at Trump. Expect the Cruz-Trump feud to be brutal, and Rubio will likely go after Cruz to try and gain some ground as well.
Cruz will also need to push down Carson whose voters would likely gravitate to Cruz as a second choice. Carson may play the role of Fred Thompson who in 2008 stayed in and peeled off enough voters to keep Mike Huckabee from surpassing John McCain. Cruz is this cycle’s Huckabee with Trump McCain. If Cruz can close the gap here, he is well positioned across the South on March 1, which he will need to propel himself into less hospitable Midwest and Northeast states. Apart from Trump, Cruz is in the best place.
- I’d still rather be Marco Rubio than Jeb Bush
Rubio was in a position to coalesce the center right with a 2nd place showing in NH; instead, that terrible debate sent him reeling down to 5th. That is a major setback, but this is not fatal for Rubio. Rubio is still flush with cash and is broadly acceptable to wide swaths of the party. Losing to Bush is a clear negative, but let’s keep perspective. Bush spent over $30 million and weeks in the state, both multiples of Rubio. For his efforts, he got 4th place and bested Rubio by about 0.5% or around 1,000 votes. This comes a week after Rubio beat Bush by nearly 20% in Iowa. The media got too excited after Rubio’s Iowa finish and is now too downbeat about New Hampshire. Bush, the former frontrunner with $100 million plus in donations, has managed 6th and 4th. That’s…not good.
Bush will make his stand in SC, hoping his brother’s presence on the trail can bail him out, but Bush fatigue is a real phenomenon, and Trump has totally emasculated the Florida Governor. Bush is also highly unlikely to do to Rubio at the debate what Christie did. Some Bush donors seemed ready to capitulate to Rubio a week ago, and now a few Rubio donors appear ready to capitulate to Bush. This is less the sign of a major realignment than a sign of how fickle and panicky members of the establishment and donor class are. Rubio and Bush is a battle of new and old both between them and the surrogates (Senator Scott vs. Graham). Rubio is more acceptable to more voters whereas Bush likely has a very real ceiling due to familial baggage. If Rubio delivers a great debate (and as Gingrich showed in 2012, debates matter in SC), the NH fiasco will be forgotten. 1,000 people in New Hampshire didn’t change a weeks-long dynamic. Rubio is far more likely to be the nominee than Bush; he’s just given Bush more cover to pursue this failed campaign for longer.
- John Kasich has a path, albeit a narrow one
With less money and a lower name ID, Kasich has a narrower path to the nomination. Despite his record of balancing budgets, his Medicaid decision has elicited skepticism among some on the right. Kasich will need to stick to his unique, optimistic message to set him apart in the race while pointing to his record at the Federal and State levels to improve numbers with conservatives. Either way, South Carolina and March 1 Southern states are unlikely to be a region of strength. He needs to find a way to stay relevant, raise money, and build an organization in Michigan, which votes on March 8 and should be more hospitable to him. A win there could catapult him to a huge night on March 15 when he should easily carry Ohio and its 66 delegates and hopefully do very well in Missouri and Illinois. Doing well could set him for a big April when Northeast and Midwest states continue to vote.
The challenge for Kasich is appearing viable on March 8, so that he can win or do extremely well in Michigan. That means winning somewhere before then, probably on March 1 when VT and MA vote in addition to the South. MN and VA could also be fertile territory. Some wins in these states, plus a surprising showing in a state like Alabama (where the governor has endorsed him) will make Kasich appear viable and give him a shot at running the table in the Midwest to make a late run for the nomination. Is this an easy path? No, it requires a lot going right on March 1, 8, and 15, but it isn’t impossible, especially if Rubio and Bush keep attacking each other, driving up their unfavorable while Kasich continues to stay above the fray.
- Contested convention odds have risen but remain remote
A contested convention is still unlikely in my opinion, but Trump is not going away and Rubio has failed to coalesce the center right. Add in all the proportional states, and no one could get to 1,236 delegates. This also positions someone like Kasich to be a potential kingmaker simply by having Ohio’s 66 delegates. Ultimately, I expect the field to narrow, most likely after the 15th to 2 or 3 viable candidates with one getting enough momentum to win. However, NH has prolonged the thinning of the field while giving Bush more reason to hang on. This leaves the potential for Trump to stay in the 30%’s, get a chunk of delegates, Cruz to win the core right, and Kasich/Rubio/Bush to split the rest. That would cause chaos, leave the party fractured, and the nominee weakened in the General. The odds are still well below 10% in my estimation but they are higher than 72 hours ago.
With that, here’s how I would peg the odds after New Hampshire. Trump a clear favorite with Rubio down but not out while Bush and Kasich are a ways behind. However, as NH showed, voters can do surprising thing. The fun has only just begun.
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