Trump's New Hampshire win is a political earthquake for the Republican Party and American politics more generally. For the past year, pundits and political insiders have been confidently predicting that voters would sour on Trump as Election Day drew near, or that a defeat for Trump in Iowa would suddenly lead voters elsewhere to abandon him.
Tuesday's results, though, make clear that Trump isn't going anywhere anytime soon. And the polling numbers in upcoming states look good for him. The next Republican contest is in South Carolina, and polls taken in January — before last week's Iowa caucuses — showed Trump leading his opponents by double digits. National polls also still show Trump beating his closest rival, Ted Cruz, by an average of 8 percentage points.
Even better for Trump, the opposition remains hopelessly divided. Exit polls show John Kasich in second place with 17 percent of the vote, followed by Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. With no single candidate pulling ahead of the pack, it will be hard for anti-Trump donors, volunteers, and voters to rally around any single candidate.
Experts have been predicting Trump's downfall for months
Trump is a highly unconventional presidential candidate. He has never held elected office, and his campaign has seemed to break every rule of political campaigning. His rise to the top of the polls has been powered by outlandish comments — including some bigoted comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and women. Where most candidates lobby for endorsements from prominent members of their own party, Trump has gleefully insulted Republican insiders.
His controversial comments, along with his fame as a businessman and reality television star, have earned him ample media coverage, which in turn has allowed him to attract a broad following. He has also been a skilled user of social media, using his nearly 6 million Twitter followers to amplify his campaign talking points. This strategy has worked so well that he has been able to rise to the top of the polls while spending comparatively little on television ads.
Ever since Trump announced his candidacy in June, pundits have predicted that his star would fall once primary voters started going to the polls. FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver, for example, predicted last August that Trump had only a 2 percent chance of winning the Republican nomination.
"No modern candidate has received a major-party nomination — and perhaps no candidate in American history — while being opposed by the party’s elites," wrote David Leonhardt in the New York Times in October. Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein piled on, arguing that "nothing so far tells us that Trump has any serious chance of being the Republican nominee." And even Vox's own Andrew Prokop predicted that "decline is in Trump's future."
In past primary races, unconventional candidates such as Steve Forbes and Herman Cain have briefly risen to leading positions in the polls. However, two forces tend to pull them back down to earth. First, as Election Day draws near, primary voters tend to get cold feet about electing someone with no experience in elected office. Second, party elites use their influence to steer voters toward more conventional candidates.
Of course, Donald Trump hasn't won the Republican nomination yet. There's still plenty of time for another candidate to beat him in future primaries and caucuses. But Trump's New Hampshire victory and strong second-place finish in Iowa make it clear that there's no reason Trump will necessarily lose in later states. A plurality of voters in New Hampshire weren't put off by Trump's unconventional background or his controversial comments, and voters in South Carolina, Nevada, and other early states may well not be either.
Indeed, Trump's New Hampshire victory may be a sign that Trump's status as a total political neophyte — generally seen as a liability in previous presidential elections — may now be working in his favor. Republican primary voters are apparently so sick of conventional politicians that they're not only willing but eager to hand the reins of power to someone who has never held elected office before.
The Republican establishment will probably rally to try to stop Trump
Trump's New Hampshire victory forces Republican power brokers to take Trump seriously, but it won't force them to surrender. Instead, it will likely give them a greater sense of urgency about the need to rally around a rival candidate.
Trump got a plurality in New Hampshire but is still well short of a majority, so in principle it should be possible to rally these non-Trump voters behind a single candidate. The problem is the winner of last week's Iowa caucus was Ted Cruz, who is himself hated by a lot of elite Republicans — so much so that some leading Republicans have recently said they'd prefer Trump to Cruz.
Meanwhile, exit polls suggest that second place in New Hampshire may go to John Kasich, a man without much money or organization. So Trump may continue to benefit from a divided opposition in future contests.