Let’s start with the obvious. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are the big winners tonight. They both won by crushing margins.
Trump is a really YUUUUUUGE winner tonight, because the upcoming primary calendar puts him in a very strong position. I have to think he’s going to do very well in South Carolina and the South in general, and that’s where the bulk of the contests between now and March 1st are going to be. By three weeks from now, he could have a substantial lead on the Republican side.
Sanders does not appear to be set up nearly as well as Trump in the coming weeks, but the magnitude of his victory and his strong victory speech tonight are bound to get him a look from some people who hadn’t considered him before. I’ll be very interested in seeing how he does in Nevada on Feb. 20. But he has got a big job ahead of him to cut into his deficits with nonwhite voters, and if he can’t do that, he won’t be the nominee. Sanders is on the clock. He’s got a couple weeks to change that dynamic.
John Kasich won by placing second tonight, but he doesn’t have the personality, the charisma or the money to take charge of the GOP’s “establishment lane”. I doubt he’ll win very many more contests. Kasich placing second was the absolute worst thing that could have happened to the GOP establishment (for reasons to be explained below). His rambling, touchy-feely speech tonight demonstrates that he is out of touch with the mad-as-hell GOP base. He’d better enjoy tonight, because there won’t be many more celebrations.
Ted Cruz, who’s in a dogfight for third place with Jeb Bush, did just well enough not to be hurt, and he benefits by the fact that the “establishment lane” no longer has a frontrunner.
Bush passed Marco Rubio tonight, which he’ll call a victory, but he’s still going nowhere. Then again, with Rubio in free fall (at least for now) and Christie done for (see below), he might still have a chance at coalescing the establishment lane. But he’s got a lot to overcome.
Everybody else, but in particular Rubio and the Republican establishment, who tie for biggest loser of the night. Rubio, riding a wave of momentum after a strong finish in Iowa, was poised to take over the “establishment lane” in the GOP contest. There was a feeling that the establishment wing of the party was likely to pull the plug on Kasich, Bush and Christie and coalesce behind Rubio.
Then the debate last Saturday happened, and Rubio absolutely embarrassed himself. It looks like he may finish fifth in New Hampshire. Suddenly, the establishment lane is wide open again, which helps Trump and maybe Cruz. The longer there is no united front behind one candidate on the establishment side, the more victories Trump and Cruz will win. The utter failure of Rubio in last weekend’s debate creates an establishment vacuum that Kasich is not big enough to fill.
The next biggest loser is Chris Christie. He took down Rubio but didn’t help himself. He’s headed for sixth place in a state that really should have been exactly the kind of place he should have won. He managed to place in the bottom half of the field, with less than 10 percent of the vote, even after being endorsed by the most powerful conservative newspaper in New England. Even if he stays in the race, he’s dead.
Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and Jim Gilmore aren’t even relevant enough to be among the biggest losers. What they’re hanging around for is beyond me.
And Hillary Clinton is in the loser category as well. By getting blown out tonight, she guarantees herself at least a week and a half of bad headlines and endless questions about “What’s Wrong With Hillary’s Campaign?” But of all tonight’s losers, she’s the one in the best position. She still has a friendly calendar and a massive superdelegate lead, and she is still the frontrunner, despite all the prophecies of doom we are going to hear over the next couple of weeks.