The Republicans: Trump Soars, Rubio Falters

Kasich has a strong night, but where does he go from here?


Six months ago, Donald Trump as New Hampshire primary winner was almost unimaginable. Yet here we are: He triumphed, and it wasn’t even close. So much for the Iowa narrative, which held that Trump had no ground game and would always fall short of his predicted margin in polls.

Not only did Trump sweep — 35% is in line with many past first-place showings in the Granite State — but the billionaire got an even bigger present. Except for Chris Christie, who dropped out after a disappointing campaign, all of the significant candidates appear to be staying put. This traffic jam among anti-Trump contenders means that Trump can continue to win primaries with a third of the vote, while all the others divvy up the other two-thirds (to little effect).

A couple of cautions are needed, however. Eventually — only God knows when — the field will dwindle to three or four top-rated candidates. At that point, it will be more difficult for Trump to glide to victory — assuming he can’t expand his coalition, and who’s to say at this point? Second, we strongly suspect that Trump will fairly consistently do worse in caucuses than primaries. As in Iowa, intense, expensive organizing is essential to come out on top. Other GOP hopefuls have a much better handle on this aspect of politics — and the interest groups to assist them. (There are 17 Republican caucus states; they will select 18% of the delegates to the Republican National Convention.)

From here, we can only speculate on the course this long and winding campaign will take. Does anybody think there won’t be more surprises that will upset the apple carts of candidates and pundits? And to mix our metaphors, let’s resist the urge to bring down the curtain on a play that isn’t even finished with the first act.

One of us was just in South Carolina, and the opinions of the political elite appeared to favor Trump, or at least think he’d win the primary. Nonetheless, Ted Cruz has been working hard, and evangelicals could make up close to two-thirds of the electorate in the Palmetto State — a giant boost to Cruz’s fortunes. Nobody was writing off Jeb Bush, though; his family has long ties, and impressive past wins, in the state. It was Marco Rubio who really had people buzzing because of the enthusiastic endorsements of Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy. But this was before Rubio’s debate disaster and poor finish in New Hampshire. (An aside: a Rubio endorser remarked in private, “He needs a second speech. The first one is good, but everybody’s heard it over and over.” Too bad this didn’t reach Rubio before the last debate.)

Absolutely no one mentioned John Kasich. Possibly his second-place showing in the Granite State will help, yet few think he matches this very conservative electorate. Kasich definitely deserves a tip of the cap for his second-place showing in New Hampshire. He spent more than half a year cultivating the state and building connections with some important players there, such as the Sununu family and former state Attorney General Tom Rath.

The downside for Kasich is that he did not even fare as well as Jon Huntsman did four years ago despite focusing nearly all of his attention and energy on the first-in-the-nation primary. Kasich’s support overlapped with Huntsman’s from 2012 — for instance, both performed well in Hanover, home to Dartmouth College. On the other hand, Kasich just about matched Huntsman in a slightly bigger field. Finishing ahead of everyone but Trump gave Kasich a good night.

Kasich clearly gets to move on, while Huntsman dropped out before South Carolina. The question for Kasich is, where does he go next? One stop might be Trenton to see his old friend Chris Christie. The two governors get along well, and it would be natural for Christie to endorse Kasich. Beyond that, Kasich can continue to try to cultivate the Northeast: While March 1 is dominated by Southern primaries with conservative, religious electorates — not Kasich’s crowd — states like Vermont and Massachusetts also vote on March 1, and he might be able to do well in those places, although if New Hampshire is any indication Trump may also do well in the Northeast. Kasich’s goal now is to remain viable through March 15, when Ohio holds its winner-take-all primary, and to see if he can outlast Bush and maybe Rubio, too.

One thing is clear to us. While Bush and Kasich are both unlikely eventual nominees, Kasich has the better chance. Bush has huge name ID and has spent loads and loads of money to finish weakly in both Iowa and New Hampshire. To us, Bush appears to have little room to grow. Kasich has much more potential, even though his sunny, kumbaya-style campaign is not a great fit for a very conservative, agitated Republican electorate.

Perhaps the key point about Bush’s weakness was made by Steve Peoples, an Associated Press reporter, who tweeted Tuesday night that even though they finished with about the same share of the vote in the Granite State, Bush and his team spent $35 million in New Hampshire while Ted Cruz’s team only spent $800,000. There’s no credible way to spin Bush’s performance as Lazarus-like so far.

Cruz was playing with house money in New Hampshire, and for him a third-place finish must have been a pleasant surprise. Even better, for him, was finishing ahead of Rubio. Cruz and Trump are headed for an epic showdown in South Carolina, a repeat of their battle in Iowa.

Can Rubio rebound to be a part of that showdown? He fizzled at the end in New Hampshire, but let’s also remember that despite some newfound support from Republicans on Capitol Hill, he is neither as establishment nor as close to the middle as his gubernatorial rivals. The Granite State might not have been a great fit for him. Rubio’s stock will plummet, and in so doing it may go from being overvalued to undervalued. One thing’s for sure, though: He needs to erase the bad memories of the last debate with a sterling, unscripted performance on Saturday.

While Ben Carson is still technically in the race, it appears that we’re down to five true Republican contenders: Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, and Bush. Our updated GOP rankings are below.

Table 1: Crystal Ball ranking of 2016 Republican presidential candidates

First Tier: Five for Fighting
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Donald Trump
Businessman and TV personality
•Benefits from fractured field
•Draws crowds & media; high name ID; riveting figure
•Billionaire, can self-fund if he wants
•Doesn’t just talk about winning: won NH, can compete in SC & elsewhere
•Has committed supporters, but may have low support ceiling in GOP primary
•Strongly opposed by a near-unanimous GOP leadership
Ted Cruz
Senator, TX
•Dynamic debater & canny, often underestimated politician
•As seen in IA win, base likes his anti-establishment & evangelical appeal
•Understands that race is marathon, not sprint
•Disliked on both sides of Senate aisle and has few friends in party; GOP establishment may prefer Trump to Cruz
•Can he unite the party, or is he just a factional candidate?
Marco Rubio
Senator, FL
•Dynamic speaker and politician
•Generational contrast with Jeb…& Hillary
•Starting to win support from party leaders, who may see him as their only plausible, winning nominee
•Went left on immigration, hurt him with base
•Disappointing NH showing puts a halt to post-IA momentum
•Needs to prove he’s not just a robotic soundbite candidate
John Kasich
Governor, OH
•Long moderate-conservative record plus two terms as swing-state Ohio governor
•2nd-place finish in NH earns him 2nd look from GOP voters
•Unscripted, combative style leads to unforced errors
•Short time to expand all-in-on NH campaign; must make inroads with somewhat conservative voters
Jeb Bush
Ex-Governor, FL
•National BushWorld money and organization
•Personifies establishment, which typically produces GOP nominees
•Father & brother both had success in SC primaries, has many friends there
•Bush fatigue is real and deep
•Campaign & allies have spent immense amounts to survive but not necessarily prosper
Second Tier: The Also-Rans
Ben Carson
Neurosurgeon and activist
•High favorability in party, well-liked by white evangelicals
•Political outsider, no baggage from office
•Running messy, error-prone campaign
•National security & foreign policy campaign focus weakens him
Jim Gilmore
Ex-Governor, VA
•Military record, intelligence officer during Cold War •Anonymous