The results in New Hampshire were the best possible result for Donald Trump and the worst possible result for his Republican critics. New Hampshire didn't just hand Trump a win, it left him perfectly positioned to dominate in South Carolina, Nevada, and other future races.
Trump won by a double-digit margin, which is, of course, great news for him. But perhaps even better for Trump is the order the other Republican candidates finished. John Kasich finished in second place. Third place will probably go to either Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz, with Marco Rubio likely finishing in fifth place.
A whopping 42 percent of Republican voters view Donald Trump unfavorably — the second-highest unfavorable rate of any Republican presidential candidate, after Jeb Bush. So in a two-way race between Trump and most other Republican candidates, Trump would be vulnerable. But Trump isn't facing one opponent — he's facing several of them.
So his critics desperately need to unify around one candidate — and New Hampshire was supposed to be an opportunity to do that. Instead, New Hampshire left Republicans even further from having an anti-Trump champion:
- John Kasich is an impressive candidate on paper: He's the popular governor of Ohio and was a key architect of the balanced budgets of the late 1990s. And his second-place finish in New Hampshire will help boost his profile. But many Republican voters see him as too moderate. More importantly he doesn't have the money and organization to wage a nationwide campaign.
- Ted Cruz is probably the most formidable anti-Trump candidate. He won Iowa and likely finished a solid third or fourth place in New Hampshire. The problem is that many Republican insiders hate him. They're not going to rally around Cruz until they've run out of other options.
- Jeb Bush also appears to have taken third or fourth place in New Hampshire. He has plenty of money and an extensive national organization. The problem is that he seems to be a fatally flawed candidate. He squandered an early lead and tens of millions of dollars in campaign cash to finish in sixth place in Iowa. And polls show him even more unpopular among Republicans than Trump.
- Marco Rubio, a charismatic Hispanic senator with a compelling life story, was supposed to be the Republican establishment's best hope. But after an embarrassing gaffe in Saturday's debate, he underperformed his recent poll numbers, finishing behind Kasich and likely behind Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz as well.
Add it all up, and the result is going to be continued paralysis. The primary doesn't put any of these four candidates in a position to seriously threaten Trump. And the longer it takes for the race to converge on a single anti-Trump candidate, the harder it will be for anyone else to catch up.
And it's even worse than that for Republican elites: The candidate with the best chance of challenging Trump is Ted Cruz, a man whom many Republican insiders hate. So GOP insiders will have to choose between allying with a man they can't stand and making themselves totally irrelevant.
Correction: I originally stated that Trump was viewed unfavorably by 62 percent of Republican voters, but this was the figure for all voters. His unfavorables among Republicans is actually 42 percent.