After slogging through Iowa and New Hampshire for months, the Republican campaign is about to pick up the pace and some warmth, hoping to head south for a winner.
He pledges to press on, but the early states made it clear Jeb Bush will not be that winner. Not only that: If Bush wants the nominee to be anyone but Donald Trump, as he’s indicated, the best thing he could do is drop out.
Both Trump and Ted Cruz arrive in South Carolina with a victory in tow. Between the two of them they won 52 percent of the GOP vote in Iowa and 47 percent in New Hampshire. In the modern era of party primaries, no candidate from either major party has won the nomination without placing in the top two of either of those states. Only Cruz, Trump and John Kasich did that.
While Cruz and Trump fight for one half of the primary electorate, Kasich is far from being in control of the other half. Marco Rubio appeared on his way to leading it before a damaging — if overblown — debate misstep dropped him to a fifth-place thud in New Hampshire. I don’t know if he can get back on his feet, but he was sturdy enough before that late gaffe that he has a shot.
Bush, on the other hand, has stumbled the whole way. A disastrous showing in Iowa (sixth place, just under 3 percent) meant he had to close strong in New Hampshire. Some of his local supporters suggested to me before Tuesday night that Bush needed to be top three in the Granite State and ahead of Rubio. He beat his fellow Floridian but was only in fourth place, behind Cruz, whom he’d outspent there by some $36 million to $580,000. That’s 62-to-1.
In fact, Bush’s main edge throughout the campaign has been his fund-raising clout. But his pace has fallen off sharply in recent months, bringing in barely $7 million in the last quarter of 2015. At the same time, he’s burned that money to no effect. At $70.4 million spent for a total of four delegates, out of 1,237 needed for the nomination, Bush is on a pace that would require him to spend $21.8 billion — that’s billion with a B — to win.
While he certainly could be more efficient, to believe he could certainly start reeling off wins is to believe voters will suddenly start responding to him in a way they have not yet, anywhere.
If Rubio’s path to victory requires a big bounce-back, Kasich’s path is hard to make out. But having placed second in New Hampshire he could at least conceivably hope to get a similar response in such states as Massachusetts, Minnesota and Vermont (March 1), Maine (March 5), and Michigan (March 8) before the race gets to his home state of Ohio and nearby Illinois on March 15. It’s a narrow path, but at least it involves replicating an actual result.
Bush has neither path. All he might do is stand in the way of the other two, leaving the nomination to Trump unless Cruz can stop him. Bush hasn’t been in the top four of national poll averages since late October. At one stop in New Hampshire he had to ask people to clap; in his post-primary pep talk to supporters Tuesday he felt compelled to say, “This campaign isn’t dead.”
If you find yourself saying something like that, it probably just means you’re the last to know.