So, this is real life now.
Plenty of pundits have promoted pet theories as to how Donald Trump's presidential candidacy would fail eventually. The latest batch, popularized over the last week, suggested that having come in a humbling second in the Iowa caucuses, the Trump spell would be broken. His "winning" persona would be ruined. As if to wish this theory into being after the caucuses, it seemed as if every second-rate Republican consultant and pundit began tweeting that Donald Trump was a "loser."
Who are the losers now?
Trump crushed the rest of the Republican field in New Hampshire. He received more than double the support of the second-place finisher, John Kasich. Exit polling showed that in fact there are multiple "lanes" in the Republican nominating contest. Moderates preferred Kasich to Ted Cruz. And very conservative voters preferred Cruz to Kasich. But both sets of voters preferred Trump to either of those men, and by significant margins. In other words, Donald Trump was ahead in every lane. There was no room left on the highway in New Hampshire.
Perhaps the most telling piece of journalism about Trump's campaign in New Hampshire was written by Byron York in January. York talked to the major Republicans in the state and… they didn't know any Trump supporters:
Most of the politicos in Nashua didn't deny that the polls are what they are. They just explained that they haven't personally encountered evidence that the Trump-dominated polls are accurate.
"I don't see it," said one very well-connected state Republican. "I don't feel it. I don't hear it, and I spend part of every day with Republican voters." [Washington Examiner]
The Republican Party has no idea who Trump supporters might be. That may be why the Trump rebellion exists in the first place. Like Pat Buchanan in 1996, Donald Trump's populist, blue-collar-focused campaign carried the Granite State.
What does it mean? The Republican National Committee did a post-2012 election analysis. Their recommendations for winning future general elections could not have been more congenial to the Republican donor class: Ditch any hint of immigration restrictionism, and play down social issues. Iowa and New Hampshire voters have rebuked this strategy.
Is Trump unstoppable? No. Of course not. He still has relatively high unfavorable ratings among Republicans, and many in the party still consider him a sure electoral disaster for November. But the strongest challenger to Trump is Ted Cruz.
In a three-man race, it is conceivable that another Republican could beat both Cruz and Trump. It would be the candidate of sensible conservatism and the party establishment against two candidates who draw their support from downwardly mobile Republican voters. But New Hampshire did not, as many hoped, provide any clarity on who that third candidate might be. Kasich invested almost all his time, energy, and campaign money for his second-place finish in New Hampshire. Marco Rubio, darling of the conservative movement, choked in Saturday's debate and then fatally underperformed in New Hampshire, meaning his 3-2-1 strategy is busted. Jeb Bush climbed back up from single digits, still has some of his campaign war chest, and members of his family have steadied their campaigns in South Carolina before.
But right now Donald Trump is leagues ahead of these challengers in many of the upcoming Southern-state primaries, and none of them have a reason to bow out now. They all have enough of a justification to play out the string a little longer. That leaves Kasich, Bush, and Christie continuing to splinter the establishment vote, and Cruz as Trump's natural and strongest antagonist.
Cruz also has a sizable campaign war chest, and has built the most sophisticated campaign of the bunch. Unfortunately for him, he is almost universally reviled by other elected Republicans, and his overt combative social conservatism, however genuine you think it may be, is considered a major turnoff to the Republican donor class.
In other words, the scenario where the party rallies around a non-controversial and electable alternative to Trump is harder to imagine today than it was before New Hampshire had its say.
Trump did not do the normal events bagging groceries in New London shops. He did not do little evening strolls at winter festivals, or barnstorm the state with townhall events. He did not raise money from the normal Republican donors, or get policy and speechmaking advice from its class of conservative intellectuals and courtiers. He only realized this week that well-worn campaign clichés about having a "ground game" in a state referred to actual things like a get-out-the-vote operation. He broke every rule in the game and won easily.
Right now, the only effective counter-move to his hostile takeover of the party is to give in to the other hostile takeover led by Ted Cruz.
Should be fun in South Carolina!