PHILIP BUMP: Well, we know that Donald Trump can actually win an election. That was probably the biggest question mark, and it was still a question mark after his unexpectedly poor showing in Iowa. We know that Ted Cruz can win an election, too — at least in a conservative, religious state. And we know that we should dispel with the idea that Marco Rubio knows exactly what he’s doing. (I should say “unexpectedly poor” is a relative term, by the way. Guy still came in second!)
CILLIZZA: And we know who isn’t going to be president. Although we probably knew that Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum weren’t going to be president anyway.
BUMP: Right. And Huckabee. And, really, Christie. And Ben Carson, who everyone except Ben Carson knows will not be president.
CILLIZZA: One thing I will say: I thought Christie had a real chance in NH a few weeks ago. And he totally flamed out.
BUMP: Yeah, he had a surge in January that amounted to nothing.
CILLIZZA: Christie seemed like such a better fit for N.H. than Kasich or Cruz to me. Proving that, yes, I know nothing. Okay, on Trump: What surprised you more, him losing Iowa or the margin he won NH by? (I have an answer I will share after you tell me what you think.)
BUMP: Well, I expected him to lose Iowa, because I wasn’t confident that he had a strong ground game. And so I’m a bit more surprised that he beat expectations in New Hampshire, though at those margins of victory, ground game doesn’t really mean anything. You?
CILLIZZA: I was stunned that he won N.H. as big as he did. He doubled — actually more than doubled — Kasich’s second-place finish. I guess after Iowa I thought he would perennially underperform his polling numbers because of his lack of a top-tier organization. But, in N.H. at least, he matched and even exceeded his poll numbers going in to the vote.
BUMP: True. And it’s perfectly possible that, with a better turnout effort, he’d have tacked on another four points. But the scale of his win means that we can’t know that — unlike in Iowa. If South Carolina tightens, which one would have to expect it will, Trump’s ground game will get another test.
CILLIZZA: Right. Okay, moving on. Here’s a wacky theory: Ted Cruz is way undervalued when it comes to his chances of winning the nomination. He came in third in New Hampshire — amazing to me — doing absolutely no campaigning or spending any money in the state. He should do well in S.C. and in the "SEC Primary" on March 1. And, if Trump implodes — a phrase I have been writing for months now — Cruz should be the guy who most directly benefits.
BUMP: I don’t think it’s wacky — or even that uncommon a theory. I agree that he’s better positioned than many seem to think. I think it’s overly simple to say that they did no campaigning and spent no money in New Hampshire, too. They had a concerted presence on the ground, including the fill-a-dorm-with-volunteers strategy they used in Iowa. And in a primary, unlike a caucus, turnout efforts are pretty straightforward.
I’m not sure what a Trump implosion looks like at this point, and I’m not sure who benefits from it. But I think that we’re seeing a race that is narrowing into two sections: Trump and Cruz fitting loosely into one and Rubio, Bush, Kasich in the other. And Gilmore floating by on a raft.
CILLIZZA: The Gilmore Raft sells at LL Bean for $699.99. I know, because I have two. Expectations: Trump has met them, and I think we agree Cruz has exceeded his.
BUMP: I think so, yes.
CILLIZZA: Kasich is still in the race, so he has exceeded expectations.
BUMP: Haha. Ouch, but yes.
CILLIZZA: Most interesting to me: Rubio and Jeb.
BUMP: But wait, let’s back up.
BUMP: Let’s talk about Kasich for a second. I think Kasich did well in New Hampshire for two reasons. First, he put in a lot of work there and wasn’t as distracted as others. (Distracted by Iowa, that is.) Second, I think that he was a better candidate than Bush and Rubio, in the traditional sense. The space in which he’s vying is one that’s meant to reward traditional politicians. And unlike Rubio, who is a good politician but who stumbled terribly and unlike Bush who’s just simply bad at campaigning, Kasich comes off as capable and traditionally solid. I think it’s hard to overstate that — but I also think that it makes the period of scrutiny he’s just entering more risky.
CILLIZZA: I think Kasich is a better candidate than Jeb Bush — a low bar given how much Jeb (!) has struggled in this race. And I think Kasich is a more experienced politician than Rubio. But I don’t think he is a better natural politician than Rubio.
BUMP: Right, but he didn’t stumble, is my point.
CILLIZZA: My problem with Kasich is the problem for every candidate who runs a single state campaign: Once you overperform in that state, you have nowhere else to go. Hard for me to see Kasich’s message of bipartisan togetherness playing well in South Carolina or any of the Southern states that vote on March 1.
BUMP: Right. But if he can survive past those, things may change — especially if those contests knock Bush or Rubio out of the game. But in general, I agree. Rubio is stronger.
CILLIZZA: Yes. True. To me, S.C. is a battle to the death between Rubio and Jeb. Kasich probably gets a pass because of New Hampshire — and because they will downplay expectations like crazy in hopes they can keep him viable through March 15 when Ohio votes (along with a bunch of other states).
BUMP: Right. I also think it fits his brand. Like, Kasich is aiming to be the guy who is sensible and chill, not the guy who can woo South Carolina’s far right.
CILLIZZA: For Rubio and Jeb, I think that one of them is either out or severely diminished by Feb. 21 (the day after the South Carolina primary).
BUMP: The only thing is that Florida is looming in the not-too-distant future. And both Rubio and Jeb will want to be there for that.
CILLIZZA: Right. But I am not sure both can be.
BUMP: Of those two, Rubio has the better case. Bush’s “New Hampshire was a reset” line was laughable spin. And I think Rubio has a better shot in the more Iowa-like South Carolina contest than does Bush. Bush’s only hope, as his PACs know well, is that Rubio falls apart and he’s the only thing standing in the way of a convention that nominates Trump or Cruz. Well, that was his only hope before Kasich planted his flag.
CILLIZZA: Jeb is claiming momentum after a sixth in Iowa and a fourth in New Hampshire. Um, what? Rubio is still saying he is the establishment’s best choice after third in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire. I know the field is crowded — less so now — but can you imagine another cycle where that resume gets you all the way to Florida on March 1? Bush’s line on NH reminded me of Lieberman’s “three-way split decision for third place” line when he finished fifth in N.H. in 2000. "I came in sixth and then fifth -- I am the momentum candidate!" Like, no.
The top tier, I think, is Trump and Cruz with Rubio, Jeb and Kasich battling to claim a third spot that may or may not actually exist. And Jim Gilmore floating by on his raft.
BUMP: Right. There’s certainly precedent for a candidate to not win early and then rebound (Bill Clinton in 1992, for example). But Bush and Rubio very much need to actually show they can do something electorally. I think that ranking is right.
CILLIZZA: If finishing sixth was a sign of success, my high school track career would have been far more fruitful.
BUMP: You know who was good at high school track? There’s not much of a sample size here, but one tidbit cited by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker this week: No one has ever finished 1-2 in the first two contests and not won the Republican nomination.
CILLIZZA: Republican nominee Donald J. Trump. The “J” stands for “just better than you."