If someone asked me to come up with the most diabolical scenario for the Republican establishment, the one sure to wreak the greatest havoc and do the most possible damage, I could not come up with anything worse than what happened Tuesday night in the New Hampshire primary.
This wasn’t a disaster; this was Hindenburg-esque.
Let’s review. First Donald Trump didn’t just win; he crushed his opponents. A nearly 20-point, 50,000-vote victory a week after he finished second in Iowa provides compelling evidence that Trump has the most broad-based appeal of any Republican candidate. These are two very different electorates. In Iowa, the Republican Party is dominated by social conservatives; in New Hampshire, it’s more moderate and secular — and Trump has now demonstrated the ability to compete effectively among both groups. As the candidate who does best among moderate voters, who polls strongly among Tea Partiers, who wins with those who lack a college degree and those who have one, and who holds his own among conservatives, Trump showed in New Hampshire what has been clear for several weeks: This is his race to lose.
But as good a night as it was for Trump, it was that much better when you consider what happened to the rest of the Republican field.
The second-place finisher — and the top dog among GOP moderates — is John Kasich. Now Kasich seems like a nice enough man (unless you’re a woman who seeks to exercise her reproductive rights), but that’s his problem. He’s a uniter, not a divider, in a party that isn’t much interested in having a kumbaya moment. Kasich’s strength in the primary was the result of strong support among Independent voters rather than registered Republicans. (He won an estimated nearly one in five independent votes). And the technocratic, middle-of-the road profile that helped him finish second in New Hampshire will simply doom him when the race moves south and west. He’s practically unelectable in this Republican Party. But as the second-place finisher, Kasich will suck up oxygen and perhaps some donor support and make it that much harder for a less reactionary, more electable candidate to emerge.
Third place went narrowly to Ted Cruz, which keeps his prospects alive, especially since he did well in a state where the electorate didn’t favor him and where he didn’t invest a ton of resources. By finishing in the top three he maintains his viability and ensures that any hope of winnowing the field will have to wait until later.
Speaking of people who are going to stick around after New Hampshire, we have fourth-place finisher Jeb Bush. By one estimate, Bush and his super PAC spent $36 million in New Hampshire — for less than 30,000 votes. But considering how far Bush had fallen, getting 11 percent of the vote is a big win in Jeb land, even if the campaign to date has exposed him as a terrible candidate. His performance also ensures that he and his deep-pocketed super PAC will continue the fight — and most likely will spend their time attacking Kasich and Marco Rubio in the outside hope that Jeb can emerge as the establishment candidate. It’s a prospect that surely will make Trump salivate.
That brings us to Rubio. It appears that his takeoff to the nomination that so many had predicted — and so many members of the GOP establishment had pined for — crashed and burned before it ever got airborne. It feels like only yesterday that Rubio finished third in Iowa, well on his way to second in New Hampshire, and maybe — if everything went his way and the stars were aligned — first in South Carolina. But then came one of the most untimely own net goals in the history of modern American politics: his now infamous debate performance on Saturday when he repeated the same criticism of Barack Obama, not once, not twice, but three times in the space of a few minutes. Only three days before the New Hampshire primary, Rubio gave sustenance to the key criticisms made of him — that he’s callow, programmed, and robotic, and lacks the experience and seasoning to be president. Without that epic fail we’d probably be talking about Rubio finishing in the top three in New Hampshire. Now his candidacy looks like it’s on its last legs.
But Rubio is likely to stay in the race, as is every candidate not named Chris Christie or Carly Fiorina. That’s yet another disaster for the GOP establishment; rather than narrow the field to find a candidate who can possibly stop Trump or Cruz, the race will continue with no clear “electable” candidate emerging. And since the establishment so despises Cruz it might only be a matter of time before they swallow their pride and put their support behind Trump.
A couple of months ago I had a hard time imagining a scenario where Donald Trump could win the GOP nomination; now I can’t imagine a scenario where he doesn’t.
All of this is perhaps, above all, good news for Hillary Clinton. Sure, she had a terrible night, losing by 20-plus points to Bernie Sanders. She also looks increasingly out of touch in her own party (though her fiery concession speech in New Hampshire was one of the best she’s ever given, especially in contrast to Bernie Sanders’ 27-minute snoozefest, victory speech). Nonetheless, she remains the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Sanders, like Kasich, was also deeply reliant on independent voters, who represented his entire margin of victory over Clinton Tuesday night. When the race moves to states with cloded primaries, in more diverse locales, the challenge for Sanders will be that much greater. The disarray on the GOP side — and the increasing likelihood that Republicans will nominate a candidate who has stratospherically high unfavorables among Democrats and independents — is the best possible news for Democrats and in turn, Clinton.
So, not only has the GOP establishment lost control of its own party, the Republicans have put them on track to electoral disaster come November.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.