Pro tip: If you’re a candidate for office and you’re complaining about not being given your due, make sure your target is the media or “the establishment.” Not the voters.
Never mind the fact here that Trump isn’t entirely self-funding. What does “not worth it” mean? This sounds like a man who’s one or two more disappointing finishes away from throwing in the towel. For good reason: One or two more disappointing finishes and Trump will effectively be done.
I think he’ll hang in there and take one more crack at a win in South Carolina even if Rubio (or Cruz) shocks the world and beats him in New Hampshire, but this is not a guy who’s built temperamentally to endure defeat after defeat, especially if his support in each state starts declining. Face will need to be saved at some point, sooner rather than later. If he’s 0 for 3 after SC, he’s out.
On the other hand, I think people are overstating the degree to which New Hampshire is now in play after Rubio’s strong finish last night. Rubio fans seem caught between giddy excitement that he could surprise again in NH and frantically insisting that even third place there is a win so long as he finishes ahead of Bush, Christie, and Kasich. Remember, Rubio’s own campaign has set the bar higher than that. Their plan is “3-2-1,” meaning third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina. He’s on track for that for the moment, but he’s about to face the most withering assault anyone in the field has dealt with so far. Trump will unload on him this week to protect his lead in NH; Cruz will unload on him because a disappointing Rubio finish in NH lets Cruz claim this is a two-man race in South Carolina; and Bush, Kasich, and Christie will unload on him because NH is their last chance for a long run and Rubio’s in their way. It’s a cinch that Rubio will do better in New Hampshire than the 10.2 percent he’s averaging there now, but even if half of Bush’s, Kasich’s, and Christie’s supporters abandon them for him, he’d would still be polling in the low 20s in a state where Trump’s averaging over 30 percent and currently leads by 22 points. To believe that Trump’s about to collapse because of one bad night in an inhospitable state, you need to believe that thousands upon thousands of undecideds all feel like this:
Success is always a self-perpetuating force in presidential campaigns — hence the endless pundit chatter about “momentum” — but for Trump, it is closer to the central rationale of his candidacy. And on Monday night, when the glittering sheen of invincibility was abruptly removed, many of his fans inside the Sheraton ballroom were left puzzled and slightly disoriented.
David Wehmas, from the nearby town of Ankeny, said he had been mesmerized by Trump ever since reading his 2007 book, Think Big and Kick Ass. Buying into the bluster about the billionaire’s supremacy in the race, Wehmas had enthusiastically caucused for him Monday. But now, through the prism of Trump’s surprise defeat, he viewed the candidate’s incessant polling talk as somewhat pathetic and beside the point.
“Every time he gives a speech, he starts out talking about his polls. It’s like, OK — but what else?”
We’ll call that the “Wizard of Oz” theory of Trump’s appeal: Once you’ve seen behind the curtain and the mystique of invincibility is gone, there’s no going back. Even a Trump critic like me thinks his support is made of sterner stuff than that. Reihan Salam looks at New Hampshire and remembers that the Trump-iest candidate the GOP produced in the previous 25 years won there once before and pulled 37 percent against a sitting president four years earlier:
New Hampshire, then, is likely to prove far more favorable ground for Trump than Iowa. For one thing, New Hampshire voters are far less religiously observant, and there is at least some reason to believe that Trump’s aggressive style doesn’t appeal to all God-fearing Christians. And though much has changed in New Hampshire since 1996, it is worth remembering that it’s the state where Pat Buchanan’s nationalist challenge to the GOP establishment enjoyed its greatest success. Unless something dramatic changes between now and next week, there is every reason to believe that Trump will defeat Cruz and Rubio in New Hampshire, where he enjoys a wide lead in the polls, and there is an excellent chance that he will do the same in South Carolina, where he fares almost as well.
Trump also benefits from the fact that Cruz and Rubio are not the only other Republicans left standing. Despite his abysmal performance in Iowa, Jeb Bush continues to have considerable resources at his disposal, and the super PAC allied with his campaign has already devoted vast sums of money to savage attacks on Rubio, Bush’s erstwhile mentee. John Kasich and Chris Christie are not nearly as well-situated financially, but they also have nothing to lose. What reason do they have not to join Bush in savaging Rubio in the days to come?
I’m curious to see how Trump handles Saturday night’s debate. He has to hit Rubio — everyone does — but I wonder if his tone might not be different than it’s been over the last few weeks of savaging Cruz. John Ziegler read this post and tweeted at me that I’ve got it all wrong: The result in Iowa wasn’t about evangelicals turning out or voters being mad at Trump for skipping the debate, it was about a “Stop Trump” movement coalescing. If Trump shares that belief then it’s time for him to lower the temperature and sound as (ahem) statesmanlike as he can these final few days in order to reassure New Hampshirites that he’s not some mortal threat to conservatism or American politics. It’s his race in NH to lose; a more measured tone this week, especially while Rubio’s crowing about electability, seems to me like the way to go. Besides, even if the “Stop Trump” movement materializes, where does that vote go in New Hampshire? In Iowa the choice was easy since it was expected to be a two-man race between Cruz and Trump, but Cruz and Rubio are each expecting a bounce in NH after their showings last night. Logically the “Stop Trump”-ers should go to Rubio since he has a better chance of surprising Trump, but Cruz will campaign doggedly this week to prevent that knowing that Rubio will be dangerous in SC if he does well in another race. Expect to see a return of the Trump/Cruz bromance for the next week, followed by all-out war of all against all among whoever’s left before South Carolina. Exit question: Before we declare this a three-man race, shouldn’t Rubio maybe lead in at least one early-state poll?
Update: A friend e-mails to ask whether the lesson of last night isn’t that the polls are overstating Trump’s support, in which case why should we trust that he’s currently 22 points ahead in New Hampshire. Could be — but how can we draw a firm conclusion about that after one election? Besides, even if all the polls are wrong, the question isn’t whether they’re overstating Trump’s support, it’s by how much. He underperformed his poll average in Iowa by about 4.3 points. That was critical in a close race. New Hampshire isn’t a close race — yet. The polls there could be off by 10 points and Trump would still be leading. Next Tuesday will tell us a lot about whether there’s a “Trump effect” distorting Republican primary polls generally.