As the dust settles from the New Hampshire primary, the future direction of the Republican presidential race is even more muddled than it was before. The GOP party establishment had hoped that someone–preferably Marco Rubio–would emerge as a strong contender from the field of alleged moderates and that the race would quickly become a three-man circus: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and the Great Establishment Hope.
Hope is not a strategy, however, as voters in New Hampshire proved. Rubio set fire to his presidential hopes, and perhaps his entire political career, by revealing himself last Saturday to be a cyborg. Instead of finishing a second or a strong third, he finished fifth. Instead, Trump came in first, nearly 20 percentage points ahead of Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Even though New Hampshire is hardly a hotbed of evangelical voters, Ted Cruz finished a respectable third, closely followed by Jeb (the Invisible Man) Bush and Rubio.
What the Republicans have now is the worst possible scenario. Kasich put all his hopes on New Hampshire, and he didn’t score as well as the 2012 moderate, Jon Huntsman, whose campaign quickly petered out. Jeb Bush tried to make an 11% showing seem like Lazarus arising from the tomb.
The problem is that the primary now shifts to territory that doesn’t favor Kasich, Bush or Rubio: the south and west. The next big vote is in South Carolina, where Trump has been leading in the polls since last summer and where the conservative Christian voting bloc loves Cruz.
The field is dwindling, but not enough. Chris Christie, who never had a chance to the be nominee, decided to call it quits, as did former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Yet Bush and Rubio in particular have enough money to keep campaigning for a while and every reason to hope that voters will think that maybe electability should be a consideration for choosing a candidate. But that would require a change in the structure of the race, and despite every prediction to the contrary, that has yet to happen.
The upshot is that Republicans may be heading into a two-man race with Trump and Cruz, the two candidates Republicans fear are least likely to win in November. It’s easy to see how either could win the nomination. For the rest of the field, the road to success is much less clear.
This dynamic is bad news. Cruz is a committed homophobe whose seems more interested in establishing a theocracy than winning the presidency. Trump’s ideology amounts to opportunism; he tailors his views to the moment. By his own admission, he’ll be a terrific president on gay rights, except that he would consider appointing judges who would overturn marriage equality.
If you think this is all good news for the Democrats, think again. The New Hampshire primary exposed a growing fault line in that party. It’s not just that Bernie Sanders won, which was expected. It’s that he won young voters and women by enormous margins. Hillary Clinton is still the odds-on favorite to win the nomination, but Democrats may be seeing the start of their own internal war pitting the establishment against revolutionaries.
What’s clear from this year’s presidential race is that the electorate is in a very different frame of mind this year. Conservatives and liberals are more open to populist messages about how the system isn’t working for them. How the candidates translate that fervor for principle into actual policy positions is going to be quite a spectacle–assuming they even try.