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“The Momentum Premise”: The GOP Race Is As Crazy And Wide Open As It’s Ever Been

After the results in Iowa, I crowed about how I called it. Now that the New Hampshire results are in, I have to own the fact that I faceplanted. I predicted that Donald Trump would underperform and that Marco Rubio would overperform (and win, even!). After Trump’s dominating victory, and Rubio’s meek fifth-place finish, I must admit that I was totally wrong. Fair is fair.

Where did I go wrong? By putting my faith in momentum.

The idea that candidates accumulate or lose this thing called momentum based on how they perform relative to expectations in a primary, while sometimes true (remember Bill Clinton in 1992?) is also not an iron law of politics, and perhaps less so now than at any time, when the media world is so fragmented. Back when there were only three networks, and all three were saying that So-and-So is outperforming expectations and gaining momentum, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Voters only had so many places to turn for information and analysis, and whatever the media Powers That Be declared as truth often came to be. But today, with hundreds of news organizations covering the election in their own way, neither the fragmented media nor voters themselves need to buy the momentum premise and feed it.

And in hindsight, is it really so hard to see how even after losing his momentum in Iowa, Trump’s message would still appeal to New Hampshire voters? After all, this is a state that rewarded the working-class populism of Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996. The state has lost more manufacturing jobs to trade than any other state, and its now infamous heroin epidemic must reinforce the general impression of a societal malaise and decline that calls for a strongman who can, well, Make America Great Again.

As for Rubio, well… that debate failure really, really mattered. I have high regard for Rubio, who I think understands the political challenges facing the GOP better than any other candidate in the race, who has actually shown depth on the issues, and with whom I agree on most issues (though certainly not all). After his faceplant, I downplayed it. People only tuned in during the second half of the debate! They’re not going to pay attention to the debate replays because of the Super Bowl! Actual voters didn’t see it the way the chattering class did!

In hindsight, I must concede that it’s not that I thought it wouldn’t have an impact, it’s that I didn’t want it to have an impact.

So, what to make of the results now? My support for Rubio notwithstanding, it’s pretty much the worst possible outcome for the GOP. As a card-carrying member of the anybody-but-Trump, anybody-but-Cruz crowd, the hope for the New Hampshire primary was to solidify the non-Trump, non-Cruz vote (which happens to be the biggest slice of the vote) by kicking out most of the half dozen candidates running for that vote. Instead, it did exactly the opposite.

New Hampshire elevated John Kasich and Jeb Bush. Kasich seems like an honorable man and a talented administrator, but he’s almost certainly too moderate to win in the primary and too uncharismatic to win in the general. His second-place finish, by boosting his campaign, only hurts the GOP by encouraging him to stick around and take votes from the others.

And as for Bush, his heart just isn’t in it, which means he’s likely not going to win anything. And he’s a Bush, which means putting him as the face of the party in a change election, at a time when the GOP needs to change, would be a disaster. Like Kasich, the only thing he can do with his new lease on life is to hurt the party.

And yet… the race is as wide open as it’s ever been. Cruz is doing very well and has a plausible path to the nomination. Bush has a plausible path to the nomination if Rubio keeps foundering and Bush can consolidate the establishment vote. Rubio has a plausible path to the nomination if he bounces back. Even Trump has a plausible path to the nomination, now that he’s shown he can win primaries and has scattered his opponents who, inexplicably, still fail to attack him in any meaningful way.

Iowa and New Hampshire are supposed to winnow the field. Instead, they have blown it wide open. The 2016 Republican presidential nomination is as up for grabs as it’s ever been.

 

By: Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, The Week, February 10, 2016

February 11, 2016 - Posted by | Donald Trump, GOP Primary Debates, Marco Rubio | , , , , , , , ,

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