If you are a Republican who desperately wants to prevent Donald Trump or Ted Cruz from winning the party’s nomination, New Hampshire could hardly have gone worse.
And you’ve got 10 days to straighten things out.
That’s when the South Carolina primary takes place. At this moment, that looks like a two-way race between Trump and Cruz, with a host of others sniping at each other for small shares of the leftovers.
The Republican candidate who, a week earlier, looked like he was emerging as the alternative to Trump and Cruz, collapsed to an apparent fifth-place finish. Now, instead of clearing out the rest of the field, Marco Rubio is just somebody with third- and fifth-place finishes.
In doing so, Rubio breathed just enough life into Jeb Bush’s moribund campaign to justify going forward. But just barely. Bush has almost precisely matched the Iowa and New Hampshire showings of Rudy Giuliani in 2008, a campaign viewed as one of the worst failures of modern politics. (Giuliani finished 3rd with 3% and 4th with 9%; Bush was 3rd with 3% and appears to be 4th with 11%.)
Both finished below Ted Cruz in New Hampshire, pending the final votes to be tallied, an embarrassment that bodes ill for them heading toward Cruz’s natural home base in the South, which picks one-third of GOP delegates.
At least Rubio and Bush, conservatives from Florida with significant endorsements and financial backing, can theoretically compete in the South. It’s much harder to imagine John Kasich doing so.
Kasich put all his chips in New Hampshire, and desperately needed a clear second-place finish to move forward. He got it, albeit with just 16%, and that should get him enough attention and funding to push ahead.
But where to? The most recent South Carolina polls, in mid-January, had Kasich at a minute 2% in South Carolina. Then comes the so-called SEC primary, and other Southern states after that. Kasich’s campaign is already talking about winning Michigan’s March 8 primary coming after 18 states have weighed in.
What all this means, ultimately, is that those three will continue to fight each other for the right to be the so-called establishment candidate. Not only will they continue to divide the available vote among them, they will also continue to attack one another, rather than Trump or Cruz. (Evidence of this was already emerging while votes were still being tallied Tuesday night.)
Just one of the circular-firing-squad establishment lane candidates appears to have been weeded out. Chris Christie, who laid the brutal hit on Rubio in Saturday night’s debate, finished sixth in New Hampshire, in single digits, and will likely withdraw soon.
Meanwhile, Cruz continues to consolidate the conservative evangelical base of the GOP. He eliminated Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee in Iowa, and now Ben Carson, with a lowly 2% in New Hampshire, seems to be on the ropes.
And Trump has demonstrated that he can in fact turn his lofty polling numbers into actual primary victory.
If a solid contender against those two doesn’t emerge from South Carolina, Cruz and Trump will gain more and more momentum. Conservatives fearing a Trump nomination will increasingly feel the need to get behind Cruz as the only hope to stop him; and the Cruz-hating party regulars will feel the need to side with Trump. And Bush, Kasich, and Rubio could be stuck fighting each other for smaller and smaller crumbs.