It’s South Carolina’s turn to sort out the GOP field

(Left to right) Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich.
(Left to right) Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich.

If you asked top Republicans in the last couple months, New Hampshire had one job to do in this presidential race: Pick which of the four establishment GOP candidates should move on to the next primary contests.

But based on Tuesday’s results, Granite State Republicans punted on the question. And now New Hampshire’s job has been passed along to the next state on the calendar: South Carolina.

In the 2016 presidential race, there were so many Republican candidates that debate hosts needed two stages to fit them all. Political operatives and the media developed the concept of ideological lanes to help determine how the race could play out. First, a candidate had to win his or her so-called lane, and then the winners of each lane would compete for the nomination in the spring.


By September, these lanes were defined — as were the front-runners driving in them. Businessman Donald Trump led the outsider line. US Senator Ted Cruz led the conservatives lane and secured that spot after he won the Iowa caucuses. And then there was the establishment lane, which featured four candidates: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Ohio Governor John Kasich, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. And the GOP base had a reason for disliking every one of them.

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Of that group, only Rubio seriously competed in Iowa, where he placed third in the caucuses. All four of these candidates campaigned in the New Hampshire primary. As a result, Tuesday night’s results should have mattered a lot — if only based on simple math. If the support for all four candidates was consolidated behind one of them, that candidate could have topped Trump as the race’s front-runner.

At first, it appeared as if Iowa had pointed the way. While the drivers in the other two lanes, Cruz and Trump, finished first and second in the Hawkeye State, Rubio was in a solid third place, far ahead of the rest of the field. He just needed to do well in New Hampshire to claim his establishment-sanctioned crown. But then his poor debate performance during the New Hampshire campaign knocked him off his perch. He eventually placed fifth in the primary.

So instead of giving national Republicans and political donors a clear establishment candidate, New Hampshire Republicans gave them these results: Kasich with 16 percent, Bush with 11 percent, Rubio with 11 percent, and Christie with 7 percent. Again, the sum of their support would have crushed Trump, who won the primary with 35 percent.

New Hampshire did accomplish something in terms of winnowing the field. The day after the New Hampshire primary, Christie and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina dropped out of the race, and their combined 11 percent support is now up for grabs.


But also in South Carolina, the establishment lane is complicated. One Republican US senator, Lindsey Graham, is backing Bush, and the other, Tim Scott, is supporting Rubio. Kasich heads to the state with some momentum with his second-place showing in New Hampshire, but it is unclear if he will immediately have the financial resources to play in a contest just a week away.

There are also no guideposts. There has not been any public polling on the Republican race in South Carolina since before the Iowa caucuses. That poll from NBC News and Marist College showed Trump leading the field by 16 points, then Cruz in second place, and Bush and Rubio scrapping it out in the establishment lane for third place.

Establishment Republicans are hoping that South Carolina won’t punt like New Hampshire did, but they’re also confronting an even scarier reality. With Kasich on the rise, the establishment vote could be again split three ways. This could mean the gap between front-runners and everyone else will be so large that eventually only two candidates move on to future primaries: Trump and Cruz.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign at www.bostonglobe.com/groundgame.