Coming out of New Hampshire, the Republican Party faces two possible scenarios: chaos or catastrophe.
Right now, either looks equally possible.
Let's start with the chaos.
Perhaps the biggest question going into the New Hampshire primary was whether Donald Trump would match, fall short of, or surpass his polling numbers. He fell several points short in Iowa, leading many analysts to conclude that his support could be soft, with voters willing to express enthusiasm for Trump to pollsters, but balking at the prospect of actually voting for him.
New Hampshire failed to make it a trend. Trump finished with about 35 percent of the vote — which is pretty much at or slightly above where he'd been polling over the past week. And that might indicate that his considerable support in upcoming states is solid. If so, Tuesday's victory will be followed by several more over the coming weeks.
But that's exactly what most analysts and pundits have been predicting for quite a while — even many of those who have remained broadly bearish on Trump's chances. So what else is new?
This: complete disarray among the other candidates. Had Cruz come in a strong second — say, around 30 percent to Trump's 35 — that would have combined with his victory in Iowa to make him the clear alternative to Trump. Likewise, had Rubio given Trump a run for his money, that would have built on his surprisingly strong third-place showing in Iowa to make him, if not the definitive non-Trump option, then at least a strong contender to battle Cruz for that distinction in the upcoming Nevada caucus, South Carolina primary, and beyond.
Instead, the GOP ended up with a perfect storm of indecisiveness. Besides Trump, no candidate inspires as much derision among rock-ribbed conservatives as John Kasich, who came in a wan second place with 16 percent, fewer than half as many votes as Trump. Then came last week's wunderkind, Ted Cruz, who barely managed to come in ahead of Jeb "Please Clap" Bush and everyone's favorite robot, Marco Rubio.
It already looks like Chris Christie's sixth-place showing is going to drive him from the race. The same will soon likely be true of Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, who brought up the rear. But the top five finishers? It's hard to see why any of them would quit on the basis of their performances so far.
Cruz can pin his hopes on the South, and especially his delegate-rich home state of Texas, which votes on March 1. Rubio can continue to believe that despite the scorching humiliations of the last week, he's the frontrunner-in-waiting that so many establishment Republicans desperately want him to be and thought they saw emerging on the night of the Iowa caucuses.
Kasich, meanwhile, certainly won't quit after ending up the runner-up. And that leaves Bush, who won't quit either — not after besting Rubio, his one-time protégé and present-moment bête noir. Bush still has money and a flush super PAC on his side. Had he finished in the basement in New Hampshire, he would have quit in abject embarrassment. But now he'll have a chance, if not to win, then at least to bow out later on with a smidgen of his honor intact.
And that, my friends, is a perfect storm of chaos: Trump riding high, but not high enough to best the non-Trump vote, while the non-Trump vote remains badly splintered, with no movement at all toward clarifying which single candidate might emerge to challenge him, and the various options training their fire (and tidal waves of negative ads) on each other.
For the past several months, the smartest of the Trump doubters have based their case on Trump's relatively low ceiling of support. Yes, he's leading the polls in a very crowded field, but that ceiling (never higher than the mid-30s) is unlikely to go much higher, and certainly not past a majority in any state. As soon as the non-Trump vote falls in behind an establishment candidate, he'll be beaten.
But what if that doesn't happen before the GOP primaries become winner-take-all in mid-March? In that case, Trump is going to start piling up an awful lot of delegates, even if his share of the popular vote never rises above 40 percent. That might not be enough to clinch the nomination, but it would be enough to give us the most riveting political convention in a very long time.
Who would emerge from the chaos in Cleveland? Trump? Cruz? Rubio? Bush? Paul Ryan? Mitt Romney? It could be any of them. Or someone else not currently on anyone's radar screen.
But there is, of course, another possibility: the catastrophe of Donald Trump winning the nomination outright and competing head-to-head with the Democratic nominee to become president of the United States.
For that to happen, he'd probably need several of the non-Trump options to remain in the race through March, a significant number of their supporters to pull the lever for him when their first choice does drop out, and (most ominously) substantial numbers of Democrats to vote for him in those states that have open primaries (including South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Indiana).
The first scenario looks likely. The second and third somewhat less so. But we just don't know.
Just as we don't know the outcome of a general election contest that pitted a demagogic megalomaniac against Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
Or what he would do once elected to the most powerful job in the world.