The GOP establishment is still alive

Barring some coordinated trolling effort from New Hampshire voters who like to mess with narratives—and they are capable of it—Rubio’s better-than-expected placement opens the exit door for Jeb Bush, Gov. Chris Christie, and Gov. John Kasich immediately after New Hampshire, and it pulls what should be a frightening amount of funds and official party support in Rubio’s direction. The longer the crowded “establishment lane” battle went on, the easier it would be for either Cruz or Trump to prevail. It now doesn’t look like that battle will extend South of the Mason-Dixon line, although Bush—whose super PAC spent tens of millions of dollars in Iowa just to prevent Rubio from having the exact finish he had tonight—may choose to play stubborn for a while.

And yet. How much space is there in the establishment lane, still? And how many people are willing to follow behind party leaders when they still have Cruz or Trump to line up behind?

We’ll have to wait for new polls to come in to show how fully Rubio shattered the world following his bronze-medal finish—sorry, strong bronze-medal finish—in the Iowa caucuses. These things can shake up quickly. But consider how much space South Carolina has for the top establishment candidates according to the RealClearPolitics polling average: Rubio, Bush, Kasich, and Christie earn a combined 27 percent. That ain’t much, and it’s not going to be much better throughout the Southern sweep that follows on March 1. If Rubio is going to win the nomination, his path would still rely heavily on the back-end of the primary schedule and its moderate, winner-take-all states.