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Republicans Need To Treat Donald Trump As The Front-Runner

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Donald Trump became the latest Republican presidential candidate1 to win at least 20 percent of the vote in both Iowa and New Hampshire after an overwhelming victory here on Tuesday; he beat his nearest rival, John Kasich, 35 percent to 16 percent. If Trump’s underwhelming performance in the Iowa caucuses last week was reminiscent of Pat Buchanan, his New Hampshire result put him more on par with Mitt Romney, who also finished second in Iowa four years ago before winning easily here.

No nonincumbent Republican has won both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. But between 1980 and 2012, nine Republican candidates received at least 20 percent of the vote in each state. Four of them eventually received their party’s nomination and three others came reasonably close; the final two (Buchanan in 1996 and Ron Paul in 2012) were factional candidates who probably never had much of a shot.

1980 George H. W. Bush 31.6 22.7 No
1980 Ronald Reagan 29.5 49.6 Yes
1988 Bob Dole 37.4 28.4 No
1996 Pat Buchanan 23.0 27.3 No
1996 Bob Dole 26.0 26.2 Yes
2000 George W. Bush 41.0 30.4 Yes
2008 Mitt Romney 25.2 31.6 No
2012 Ron Paul 21.4 22.9 No
2012 Mitt Romney 24.5 39.3 Yes
2016 Donald Trump 24.3 35.1
The Republican 20/20 club

So is Trump a genuine front-runner like Romney or more of a turbocharged Buchanan? The answer is probably a little bit of both. At the very least, Republicans can no longer afford to hope Trump fades out on his own — unless they’re ready for him to be their nominee.

It might seem hard to find fault with Trump’s campaign after he more than doubled his nearest rival’s vote total in New Hampshire, but allow me to nitpick a bit. Despite receiving 35 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, 50 percent of Republicans here said they’d be satisfied with Trump as their nominee, according to the exit poll.2 Trump has converted an incredibly high percentage of his potential supporters into actual supporters, but these results (along with Trump’s mediocre favorability ratings) suggest that he has a lower ceiling on his support than a front-runner normally does.

Trump also lacks support from GOP “party elites,” with no endorsements so far from current Republican governors or members of Congress. That’s also highly uncharacteristic of a traditional front-runner.

But Trump’s political skills are considerably better than either Buchanan’s or Paul’s. He has the ability to command the national media’s attention pretty much whenever he wants to, and he has improved as a debater and speaker. Furthermore, Trump’s lack of allegiance to traditional Republican policy positions allows him to adapt himself as he sees fit — a characteristic more associated with shape-shifting, coalition-building candidates like Romney than agenda-driven ones like Paul. Trump’s support also cuts relatively evenly across different demographic groups, another front-runner characteristic.

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All of this might not be that much of a problem for Republicans who don’t want to see Trump as the nominee if they had already coalesced around a good alternative, but they haven’t. Instead, New Hampshire was a step backward for them. From Trump’s standpoint, in fact, the 65 percent of the GOP vote that he didn’t receive here was arranged just about as perfectly as the chandeliers at Trump Tower.

The second-place candidate, Kasich, is cash-poor. His 16 percent of the vote in New Hampshire was almost exactly what Jon Huntsman received four years ago, suggesting that Kasich resembles a factional candidate whose appeal is concentrated among Northeastern moderates and independents. On Tuesday, Kasich received 28 percent of the vote among moderate voters, but just 11 percent among conservatives, a group that will become much more prevalent in subsequent states. (Kasich’s actual track record on issues including abortion is fairly conservative, but he’ll have to reorient himself in a hurry.)

After Kasich came Ted Cruz with 12 percent of the vote — a New Hampshire performance in line with the two previous Iowa winners, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. There are several reasons to think that Cruz could have a higher ceiling than Huckabee or Santorum. But he’s hardly a unity candidate, and Republican elites are at least as opposed to Cruz as they are to Trump.

Following Cruz were Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, each with about 11 percent of the vote (and apparently in that order, with Bush in fourth place and Rubio in fifth). Until about 96 hours ago, Rubio looked like Republicans’ best chance to stop Trump. But the momentum he gained after a third-place finish in Iowa evaporated, presumably in part because of his poor performance in Saturday’s debate and the media freakout that followed.

It strains credulity to suggest that Bush has much momentum of his own, though, after he and his super PAC spent almost $90 million to get 3 percent of the vote in Iowa and 11 percent in New Hampshire. Bush is a known commodity who has arguably already been put forward and rejected by Republican voters, with underwhelming favorability ratings.

If you could somehow combine Rubio’s likability and appeal to conservatives, Kasich’s policy smarts and post-New Hampshire momentum, and Bush’s war chest and organization, you’d have a pretty good candidate on your hands. But instead, these candidates are likely to spend the next several weeks sniping at one another. The circular firing squad mentality was already apparent in New Hampshire, where fewer advertising dollars were directed against Trump despite his having led all but one poll of the state since July. Trump has also been attacked less than Rubio and Cruz in recent debates.

The Republican field probably will consolidate, eventually. In about the only bad piece of news for Trump on Tuesday, it appears possible that Chris Christie will soon end his campaign. And it might not take that much to upend the stalemate between Rubio, Kasich and Bush. I’m guessing, for example, that if Rubio and Kasich had switched places on Tuesday, the national media conversation would be about how Rubio’s “3-2-1” plan was right on track and how it was time for Kasich and Bush to fold up shop. It might seem fanciful to swap the second-place and fifth-place candidates, but only about 15,000 votes separated Kasich from Rubio in New Hampshire.

By the time that consolidation happens, however, Trump and Cruz will have swept up quite a few delegates. And whichever Republican emerges from the “establishment” pack isn’t necessarily a favorite to beat Trump one-on-one (or Trump and Cruz in a three-way race). A lot of Republicans would never consider voting for Bush, in particular.

It would be easy enough to overreact to Tuesday’s results. With only two states having voted so far, we don’t really have enough data to know why Trump finished with 24 percent of the vote in one of them but 35 percent in the other, or which result represents the better baseline going forward. (Be wary of tautological explanations along the lines of “Iowa was a bad state for Trump” or “New Hampshire was a good state for Trump.”) Prediction markets regard Trump as more likely than any other candidate to win the Republican nomination but nevertheless slightly worse than even money against the field, an assessment that strikes me as pretty reasonable.

But for anti-Trump Republicans, there’s a danger to underreaction, too. One reason that candidates like Trump have rarely won nominations in the past is because parties take a lot of steps to fight them. If the Republican Party’s defense mechanisms are broken, or if it assumes Trump will go away without intervention, the rest of the party may be competing for second place.

Check out the latest forecasts for the 2016 presidential primaries.


  1. Excluding incumbent presidents.

  2. Note that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz did even worse on this question, with 40 percent and 37 percent of Republicans, respectively, saying they’d be satisfied with those candidates’ nominations.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.