Trump and Sanders both won as expected, and they won by large enough margins that the networks called it for both of them very early in the evening. Sanders is on track to win by a larger margin than expected. With 53% of the vote counted, Sanders leads by 20 points. The final result may be a little closer than that, but there’s no question that Clinton was badly defeated and embarrassed by a candidate that no one considered a serious threat to her when he started. Sanders may or may not be able to translate that into a competitive showing in later states, but his success shows the depth of distrust and reluctance to acquiesce in Clinton’s coronation among rank-and-file Democratic and independent voters. Trump’s edge over second-place Kasich is not as great, but it is still very substantial (34-16%). Two candidates that no one (including me) took seriously as contenders for their parties’ nominations won convincing victories tonight, and their wins are and should be the big stories of the night. Their party leaders clearly don’t want them as the nominees, but the voters have very different ideas, and in a refreshing change of pace the party leaders failed to get what they want. Leaders in both parties have been sternly rebuked, and they deserve to be. We’ll see if any of them understand what the voters are trying to tell them.
Kasich finished strongly, and he earned his position by putting in the time and effort that many other candidates did not. While it may be true that Kasich’s campaign doesn’t have an obvious way forward in later states, he nonetheless finished well ahead of all but one other candidate. He has more reason than his “establishment” rivals to continue. There will be much less pressure on him to drop out in the near term, and he should start to get more support from donors and party leaders as it becomes obvious that he is the leading “establishment” candidate in the race. On paper, he is also probably the most plausible general election candidate and the best qualified to be president of them all, so if Republicans don’t want to settle for Trump or Cruz they should look at Kasich as the best alternative they have left.
Relative to recent polls and even compared with my prediction, Rubio underperformed tonight. As of 9:30 Central he was trailing Kasich, Cruz, and Bush with a meager 10%. That’s significantly lower than his polling last week, but it is actually quite consistent with his limited support over the last several months. A weak fourth- or fifth-place finish was always a strong possibility, and it was made more likely by the fact that he didn’t put as much time campaigning in New Hampshire as his rivals, and he didn’t build as large of a campaign organization as competitive candidates usually do. Rubio had an early state problem all along, and it was only a better-than-expected Iowa finish and fawning media coverage that helped to mask it.
It’s worth remembering that the Rubio campaign planned on not winning in the first two contests. They believed he would be propelled to success through TV ads and debate performances, and that they are in it for the “long haul.” It didn’t work. When Rubio flopped in a debate, he had nothing to fall back on. A third-place finish would have been bad but bearable for him. A fourth- or fifth-place finish is extremely damaging. Unless he rallies later in the evening, Rubio appears to be headed for a very bad fifth-place finish. This was always the danger of his poor, bizarre campaign strategy, as I said last week:
Unless Rubio finishes ahead of Kasich, Cruz, and Bush in New Hampshire, it is he who will be wounded and suddenly in serious trouble. Instead of being propelled onward to success by his finish in Iowa, he is more likely to be hamstrung by a weak showing in New Hampshire.
Tonight’s results put the lie to the idea that he is one of the most viable competitors for the nomination. His bad result shows that he isn’t effective at winning over Republican voters in a larger presidential primary electorate, and it undermines his claim to be the best candidate for the general election. If the final results put him behind both Kasich and Bush, the question is not whether he can recover, but how long it will be before he drops out of the race all together. Instead of consolidating the “establishment” vote, Rubio will be left trying to spin his poor showing in Lieberman-like fashion. Rubio’s candidacy has never made much sense, and tonight’s results have shown that most Republicans don’t want him or what he’s selling. Until tonight many pundits and fans could indulge the Rubio fantasy, but starting tomorrow it will be difficult for them to pretend that he still has a chance of winning.
The four-way split among the “establishment” candidates has been fatal to the anti-Trump cause. Even though Trump ran a bit ahead of his polling, he was still at 34% around 9:30 Central (64% reporting), and the combined “establishment” vote was 45%. All of the “establishment” candidates contributed to Trump’s success by staying in the race this long. Now that at least three of them seem determined to continue their campaigns after New Hampshire, Trump’s advantage over the entire field will likely increase. It’s always possible that Trump could falter and collapse somewhere down the line, but that is much less likely to happen now that he has won a clear victory in the first primary. He and Cruz are the candidates most likely to be the nominee, and Trump has the edge heading into the later contests.