After the initial meltdown over losing Iowa, Donald Trump has been positively docile, by his standards. He’s skipped events in New Hampshire, toned down his twitter rants, and other than a losing exchange with Jeb Bush, pretty much stayed out of the fray on Saturday night. For the first time in this campaign, Trump has not been the lead item in the news, and that’s on purpose.
Trump doesn’t know much about policy or conservative philosophy or history, but one thing he studies pretty extensively is polling. And Trump has seen the polling that indicates that he would lose either a head-to-head matchup with Cruz or a three-way matchup with Cruz and Rubio. And Trump realizes that the faster the GOP field consolidates down to two (or three) candidates) the worse his chances for the nomination are.
Accordingly, he plans to let the egos of the people who are remaining in the field do his work for him by deluding themselves into believing that they have a chance, or by stoking the fires of resentment between them.
Here’s the reality: everyone in the race – and I do mean everyone – has placed all their chips down in either Iowa or New Hampshire. There’s not a single candidate in the race who can credibly say that they were really waiting until South Carolina or Nevada to make their strongest showing. Anyone who does not finish in the top 3 for either contest has no shot at the nomination. None.
Ben Carson got 4th in Iowa and will likely get 6th (or worse) in New Hampshire. He has absolutely no path to the nomination whatsoever right now. His national poll numbers are on the way down and his support in South Carolina is not enough that even a significant bounce would place him into the conversation. But the entirety of Trump’s meltdown last week can be seen as stoking Carson’s ego and encouraging resentment towards Cruz, so that Carson will continue to stay in the race and (probably) take votes from Cruz.
Christie expected a strong showing in Iowa but finished behind even John Kasich, who completely ignored the state from day one. He will probably finish fifth or worse tomorrow in New Hampshire, but he has developed a strong personal dislike for Rubio, which the Trump people have been stoking over the weekend, feeding Christie’s delusion that he has a way forward in this race, even though he is not even ticking the needle in South Carolina, Nevada, or anywhere else in the SEC primary.
Likewise, either Jeb or Kasich or both will walk away without a top 3 finish even though they have essentially staked everything on New Hampshire. Likewise, neither is registering well in either of the upcoming states. One or both should announce their exit from the race on Wednesday, but neither likely will.
Of course, all of this goes double for Carly Fiorina.
I’ve resisted calls for any of the candidates to drop out until after New Hampshire. Everyone deserves a shot to do well in one or the other of the two very different early states in the nomination process. But the truth is that if you can’t do well in either, it’s not going to happen for you anywhere. Everyone who stays in the race without a top 3 finish in either state is only feeding two things: 1) their own ego, and 2) Donald Trump’s chances at the nomination.
And Donald Trump is counting on the candidates’ need to feed their egos to carry him through to the nomination from this point forward.