Trying to Make Sense of the Post-New Hampshire Republican Race

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 10, 2016 · 2:20 PM EST

If there were any doubts that Donald Trump was a serious contender in the Republican presidential race after he arguably under-performed in Iowa, New Hampshire’s results should be a wake-up call.

While one victory in the Granite State certainly doesn’t guarantee Trump the nomination, his significant margin (nearly 20 percent) isn’t easily dismissed. It’s becoming clear that he has a fairly high floor of support, although he could also have a lower ceiling than many of the other candidates.

When it comes to Trump, there are two ways to look at the results and the polls. The first way is the Trump way, where the businessman is consistently leading and winning. The second way points out that between 65-70 percent, or more, of Republican voters know Trump and are voting against him or not choosing to support him in the polls; they just happened to be divided among seven other candidates.

The good news for Trump is that the New Hampshire result isn’t likely to narrow the list of candidates all that much and he could continue to benefit from a divided field.

I still don’t believe John Kasich will be the GOP nominee (I agree with a lot of Stu’s column, “It’s Official: Put a Fork in Kasich’s Candidacy”) but his campaign has been remarkably good and has caught a couple breaks along the way.

Kasich officially entered the race on July 21, later than the rest of the top contenders. But his allies pumped $3 million into television ads in New Hampshire, giving the Ohio governor enough of a surge in the polls to get him onto the stage for the first debate on Aug. 6. That debate happened to be in Cleveland and Kasich benefited from a home-field advantage.

The Kasich campaign focused on New Hampshire for months, caught a break with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s debate debacle and the governor finished second with 16 percent. Finishing behind Rubio would have likely been the end to his candidacy.

Now Kasich is still in the game and appears to have his sights set on Michigan on March 8 and Ohio (which will be winner-take-all) on March 15. But the next month could seem like an eternity for the governor if he goes without a win or significant showing in the 20 states awarding delegates over the next four weeks before he gets to Michigan.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz came into New Hampshire with low expectations and placed third. It’s an unexpected boost for a candidate who always planned to do well in South Carolina on Feb. 20 and the slate of Southern states on March 1. The senator continues to be a top contender for the nomination.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush finished slightly ahead of Rubio for fourth place. It would have been tough for him to justify staying in if he had finished behind the state’s junior senator after the beating Rubio has taken in the media.

The Bush campaign is claiming momentum, but former governor’s 11 percent showing after spending $36 million in the state doesn’t inspire confidence in his upward mobility. And nothing about the New Hampshire result changes the fact that Bush’s resume seems uniquely disqualifying to this year’s Republican primary voters.

But, if Rubio suffered a fatal wound in the last debate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie drops out, and Kasich can’t expand his appeal, then Bush could have some success as the alternative to Trump and Cruz.

Bush is going to make a strong push for South Carolina. The campaign is calling it “his strongest early state” and it helped his brother bounce back from a loss in New Hampshire to John McCain in 2000. But Jeb faces a far more formidable field than George W. Bush faced in the Palmetto State including Trump, Cruz, and even Rubio.

It’s amazing that Rubio finished about 1 percentage point from Cruz’s third place and less than one-half of 1 percent behind Bush’s fourth place, but the slotting creates an entirely different narrative.

The Florida senator needs to do well in South Carolina, where he will rely on help from Rep. Trey Gowdy and Sen. Tim Scott, and start to get some significant showings under his belt.

Rubio is still a top contender because of his ability to appeal to both the establishment and conservative wings of the party, but he also has to change the narrative about his candidacy. From his post-New Hampshire comments, he appears to know that anything similar to the debate mistake or repeat on the campaign trail will be the end of his run.

After attacking Rubio in the debate and finishing behind him by about 3 points, it’s not clear what Christie’s rationale is for staying in the race, except to finish the job he started on Rubio in New Hampshire. Christie will probably drop out soon and set himself up to be appointed attorney general or secretary of transportation in the Bush or Kasich administrations.

A contested convention certainly can’t be ruled out, but there is still five months to go in the campaign.

As quickly as the dynamic in the race changed with one debate, the dynamic could change again in any of the handful of debates still remaining. Multiple candidates would also need to raise enough money to sustain the long war. In order for that to happen, candidates would likely need to split the states fairly evenly or else losing candidates will see their fundraising and support dry up.

There is still 160 days for candidates to screw up or stumble before Cleveland. This has been a wild race so far, and there is no reason to believe it will suddenly become stable.