The early presidential primary contests are of course about who finishes where. Yet in addition to competing against each other, candidates are importantly running against expectations. The numerical winners were Donald Trump (good lord) and Bernie Sanders. The candidate who exceeded expectation more than any other is John Kasich.
There will be much talk about how many “tickets out of New Hampshire” there are (that is still to be determined). But with his strong second place finish, Kasich is surely leading the anybody-but-Trump campaign—and that’s an important contest. One can read the results as Trump winning big (or pretty much tying expectations). The explicative-spewing, bigot-drawing, fear-mongering billionaire got 35 percent of the vote. My favorite little 8-year old can quickly tell you 65 percent of New Hampshire Republicans did not choose Trump. That’s critical going forward.
Kasich—despite a heavy dose of negative TV ads against him in the final week—stood out as the adult in the room both in the debates and in the closing weeks of the campaign.
Watching social media after the results were announced last night, I noticed blinders-on Democrats starting in on Kasich already. He was alternately described as an enemy of labor, a radical anti-women’s rights and an obstacle to health care. Kasich supporters better get used to it.
In this year of on-its-head American politics, we may be seeing something more subtle: a candidate who is best suited to run in a general election actually having a shot in the primaries. Not since Bill Clinton’s triangulation has a solid general election candidate won the primaries (of course, Clinton’s was in reverse).
This is by no means to suggest Kasich is a favorite. The fact that a new poll shows 64 percent of Republicans agree with Trump’s idea of banning all Muslims from entering the country is telling. Trump still has a monopoly on drawing out the worst fears in people. It’s unclear whether that will change.
As far as the other Republican candidates, Chris Christie was the big loser, finishing sixth. His debate evisceration of Marco Rubio may have brought Rubio down to earth as not-ready but it didn’t help him. Christie had the endorsements of the famously influential (or at least it used to be) Union Leader newspaper and the insanely popular Republican governor of Massachusetts Charlie Baker. With no advantage to be had in Nevada or South Carolina, Christie is done.
Jeb Bush appeared on “Morning Joe” this morning and struggled to put a positive face on his performance, bunched in with the incredibly unlikable Ted Cruz and the aforementioned Rubio. Bush still has a boatload of money both in his campaign coffers and in his super PAC.
Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina can also say good-by.
It’s Kasich who is now a threat to Trump as “establishment” voters (and I struggle like everyone else to define that group) coalesce around Kasich. He is likely to pick up supporters of Christie, Carson, Fiorina and anyone else who drops out. Conventional wisdom says supporters of these candidate will not jump to Trump. Of course, in this year’s crazy political scene, there is no conventional wisdom.