The field has narrowed on the GOP side, and as of the post-New Hampshire fallout there are only seven candidates still running (six if you ignore Jim Gilmore, as most do). It’s a testament to the irregularity of the GOP field that there are still this many candidates left.
What are their chances?
Trump may be the frontrunner, but that’s largely due to the size of the field. His win in New Hampshire depended entirely on the fact that the establishment is splintered. What’s more, his political future may depend on whether the field stays spread out. So long as the establishment is not consolidated, Trump stands a chance to run up the delegate count. He might still not win the nomination, even in his best case, but he could manage a brokered convention.
The establishment candidates, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio, all look to be sticking it out for the time being. So long as they do, and so long as the voters still don’t think one is best, Trump doesn’t have to beat the establishment. He just has to beat the average appeal of the establishment.
I included Cruz in the establishment, even though the old guard hates him. He represents a faction of the establishment, and that’s a big hunk of the GOP’s problem. In 2008, in 2012, there were retrospectives about how the party needed to change. They failed to even look in the direction of change, and the result was that folks like Cruz have tried to force the issue.
Of course, the course Cruz wants to march the GOP toward is different than their analyses suggested would be useful, but that doesn’t matter for his supporters or the rest of the GOP. Cruz is the GOP’s standard reaction without preceding action scenario. They reacted to a pretty moderate health care law in Obamacare. They reacted to a non-change by the GOP establishment with folks like Cruz.
The path forward for Cruz is as the establishment’s Trump. The inside outsider, as it were. His orbit holds some that would go to Trump, others that would go to the more moderate establishment candidates. Unless he implodes, he is a key part of the reason the field will stay spread out and churning, like a perfect storm.
Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush
Self-branded as the Pepsi® establishment candidate, Rubio has not shown overwhelming strength as a candidate, but he was favored over Bush until New Hampshire. Whether it was his infamous robotic debate performance or something else remains to be seen, but he came in behind Bush in NH.
Bush hasn’t shown any real strength either. But these two, looked at by the establishment as their meal tickets, form a sort of binary star. Nobody has decided that one should stay and the other should go, and both are too weak and too strong, so they continue to keep the voters spread out and avoid consolidation.
Likely the most moderate of the bunch, his second-place finish in New Hampshire may give him the support to stick around awhile. He hasn’t had any real falls so far, but he hasn’t had too much attention either. He’s the final piece of the establishment pie, and if he shows any strength going forward, he may begin to erode the others. Or he might just be another in the spread that keeps the voters from getting behind fewer candidates.
Carson was up in the polls a few months back, but he is now on life support. He’s the most likely to drop out, barring any change in fortune.
Assuming Carson drops out, it will be a five-way race with four establishment candidates and Donald Trump. Assuming that the four keep leapfrogging and not having any decisive victories, Trump will keep picking up delegates. The establishment candidates will be too strong to justify dropping out, and they will be too weak to take Trump down.
Maybe they can pull one of those Voltron or Mighty Morphine Power Ranger or Captain Planet chimeras, where they combine their powers. But they probably won’t.
The best case for the GOP is that Rubio keeps faltering, or some combination of the other three falter, to the point where only one or two remain viable. But that’s risky, too. If it becomes a pile-up, all of the mainstream could be sidelined, heading for the pits.