Jeb Bush finally managed to upstage Donald Trump. In a classy and dignified speech, he announced, following his poor finish in South Carolina, he would suspend his campaign. His wife, Columba, looked teary, but Jeb was optimistic and almost sunny. His failed race demonstrated that money is not everything, and that, sadly, in this election, solid, innovative policy is not a ticket to the nomination. Bush improved as a candidate as the months went on, but not quickly enough. Right-wingers declared him too liberal to win. Trump proved ideology irrelevant, but Bush remained a politician from another era — one when candidates did not use profanity, insult the pope or wade into the fever swamps of conspiracy theories.
Trump, with his win in South Carolina, consistently has captured about a third of the GOP electorate. In a 17-man race or even a six-man race, that is enough for first place. It should remain deeply disturbing to Republicans that there is a large segment of the electorate receptive to his xenophobic, misogynistic brand of know-nothing politics. Nevertheless, mainstream Republicans can breathe a sigh of relief. The best news for non-Trump Republicans is the gap between third place and fourth place in South Carolina, which forced Bush’s exit and will hasten the departures f the other two.
Trump appeared with his family, continuing his rant about “the wall” and bemoaning that America “does not win anymore.” He did not insult his opponents, but did spend much of his time talking about polls and his own prospects. His simplistic message — “Make America Great Again” — coupled with his braggadocio apparently is what sells to a very significant segment of the electorate. But a huge majority of Republicans do not support him, and from one of the alternative candidates, the party’s salvation will need to come.
With each contest, the field has shrunk and the gap between Trump and other candidates has closed. Heading for single-digit finishes, pressure will be intense on Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Ben Carson to join Bush and get out of the race. Carson, seemingly delusional about his prospects, vowed to go on. But his money and support will dwindle. Kasich’s selling power outside New Hampshire is highly questionable. Despite Kasich’s protestations that this is a four-man race, it is not. There are three viable candidates at this point who have money, organization and political skill to conduct a nationwide race.
As of this hour, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) seems to be pulling away for a second-place finish, a remarkable comeback from his New Hampshire stumble. The Rubio camp can breathe a sigh of relief for several reasons.
First, he defeated, likely once and for all, the attack that he is insufficiently prepared to be president. The exit polls show he won a plurality (36 percent) among those who said the best preparation for president was prior political experience. In putting his bobble in New Hampshire behind him, he can claim to have been “tested.” In truth, of the top three, he does have the most experience, the most concrete proposals and the best grasp of foreign policy.
Second, a very large share of Bush and Kasich voters find Trump and Cruz entirely unacceptable. Bush and Kasich supporters and donors will build on Rubio’s advantage with “moderate” and “somewhat conservative” voters, both of whom will make up a larger share of the electorate after Super Tuesday, when winner-take-all state contests with plenty of delegates begin. In exit polls, Rubio beats Cruz among moderates by a margin of 25 percent to 8 percent and among “somewhat conservative” voters by 26 percent to 19 percent margin. Cruz’s support rests on a thin slice of the electorate. He has not been able to lock up evangelicals. (Trump won them in South Carolina.) He is not enough of an outsider to outpace Trump, yet he is unable to break into the share of the electorate that is not “very conservative.”
Third, party insiders, including donors and elected officials, will soon rally to Rubio. Bush graciously freed them to do just that. The money and the sense of momentum their support will bring to Rubio will give him a lift going into Super Tuesday. If Rubio captures the lion’s share of Bush voters (and eventually the other marginal candidates’ voters), he should be able to pass Trump. At least, that is the theory.
Cruz nevertheless has shown a ground operation superior to any other candidate. He has devout followers and plenty of money ($13.6 million cash on hand). That will keep him in the race for many weeks to come.
Where are we heading after South Carolina? Most likely, we will see a very competitive three-person race. And yes, it is possible we will not see a winner before the Republican convention. At that point, candidates’ ties with the “establishment” may prove decisive.