Giving The Donald His Due

In New Hampshire, Trump solidified his position as the Republican front-runner.

If the Republican presidential nomination process is like major league football (it’s not, but bear with me), then the Iowa caucuses increasingly resemble the preseason. This is when the candidates stretch their legs and experiment with strategies, comfortable in the knowledge that a loss won’t eliminate them from the greater competition—where Mike Huckabee can crush John McCain, Rick Santorum can edge out Mitt Romney and the Washington Redskins can bask in a fleeting moment of glory over the New England Patriots before the natural order of the universe cruelly reasserts itself.

New Hampshire is the start of the regular season and perhaps the most pivotal game of the year. Let me divert your attention to the data before this metaphor gets any more strained. In the last seven competitive Republican primaries, five eventual nominees have won New Hampshire and two have placed second. The last two Republican presidential nominees sealed their wins in the Granite State. There’s a reason Republicans spend weeks donning navy-blue sweaters, trudging through the snowdrifts and answering questions about “Obamacayah.” New Hampshire is independent, quirky and predictive.

That’s why it’s no longer possible to deny The Donald his due. Credentialed Republicans have spent months wishfully opining that the bombastic billionaire will fade away. Trump’s underperformance in Iowa prolonged those delusions, but his decisive win in New Hampshire should pop them for good. He raked in more than a third of the Republican vote yesterday, and maintains wide leads in the upcoming South Carolina and Nevada contests. Donald Trump is the Republican front-runner—no more posturing, no more pretending.

The other results utterly defied the electoral prognosticators. John Kasich written off as dead? He galvanized the moderate vote and took second. Jeb Bush getting trampled? He jumped to fourth place.

The question now is whether New Hampshire will remain a reliable weathervane or whether Trump’s victory will be remembered as a populist aberration a la Pat Buchanan in 1996. The answer to that question may lie with Jeb, still devoid of exclamation points after a fourth-place finish. But unlike with Kasich, who has little money and will probably end up a one-state wonder, the fact that Bush didn’t burst into flames last night will be regarded as a victory by his donors. They’ll keep him going long enough to compete in South Carolina, where he could do well with the establishment-friendly voter base there.

That matters because, as GOP strategist Curt Anderson told Politico earlier today, “The best scenario for Trump is a jumbled up pack of candidates in second place in New Hampshire.” This applies less to actual silver medal winner Kasich, and more to Rubio and Bush, who Trump hopes keep jostling each other, shoving each other, placing third and fourth, dividing the center-right anti-Trump vote until after Super Tuesday when it’s too late to dampen his momentum. If there’s a so-called “establishment lane” in this race, as media cliché dictates, then Trump wants it blocked by a collision of Florida license plates while he breezes by in his cherry-red Ferrari. (Now there’s a metaphor that works!)

Given that Bush and Rubio both have just enough momentum to keep going, and given the Bush campaign’s reported animus for Rubio, Trump might get his wish. Speaking of which: how about Marco Rubio? When Chris Christie assailed him for sounding too mechanical at last weekend’s debate, most of us didn’t think we were hearing a “you’re no Jack Kennedy” moment. Now, Rubio’s underwhelming fifth-place finish shows Christie drew blood. My Rare colleague Kevin Boyd noticed that Google searches for Rubio and Kasich together increased 160 percent in the day before the primary, suggesting Rubio voters had second thoughts. The Florida senator’s chipper “3-2-1 strategy”—third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, first in South Carolina—is now a shambles. “I did not do well Saturday night,” said Rubio in his concession speech, “and it will not happen again.” Whether voters give him that chance remains to be seen.

Finally, let’s not forget about Ted Cruz. The Texas senator placed third in New Hampshire—a triumph, given that he barely showed up—and is polling well in South Carolina and Nevada too. The race now has the look of a three-way thriller between Cruz’s tea partiers, Trump’s populists, and the establishment fleet, with the latter fading in the rear-view mirror. But who knows? This campaign has been wild and unpredictable. Maybe it’s Ben Carson’s turn for a comeback.

Matt Purple is the deputy editor of Rare Politics.