Even though everyone has expected for weeks that Donald Trump would win the New Hampshire primary, the scale of his win should unsettle both his rivals and the pundits.
Trump won big: At this writing it looks as though he will have gotten more votes than the next two candidates combined. He also swept nearly every demographic category. He won young and old, men and women, independents and Republicans, first-time voters and returning ones, moderates and people who call themselves “very conservative.” He won every education group, albeit with a narrow margin among those with advanced college degrees.
He won, as well, in that Republicans who don’t want him are not much further along in finding a champion than they were before the Iowa and New Hampshire contests.
John Kasich, who took second place in New Hampshire, does not have a national organization and is considered too moderate by many to win. Many anti-Trump Republicans are at least as hostile to Ted Cruz, the third-place finisher. Neither of the next two Republicans, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, have any reason to leave the race now.
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The non-Trump candidates are paying more attention to one another than to Trump – jockeying for the right to be the anti-Trump candidate in the race; and that too looks as if it will continue for a while. Advantage Trump, again.
Both the other Republican candidates and the pundits should take a close look at those polls, because they raise questions about what we think we know about the Trump phenomenon.
Many people, including me, have looked at his support as a sign of dissatisfaction among Republican voters with Republican politicians. That dissatisfaction is indeed widespread, including about half the New Hampshire Republican electorate. But Trump did roughly the same among people who feel betrayed by Republican politicians and those who don’t.
Is his support instead about immigration? He certainly did markedly better among the 15 percent of Republicans who picked it – rather than the economy, terrorism or government spending – as their top issue. But he won among the people who picked each of those other issues, too. (A majority of New Hampshire voters said they favored offering legal status to illegal immigrants. Trump won 23 percent of those who favor making this offer.)
Is his support coming from people who feel they have been losing in the modern economy? He did better among them, sure. But he also won among those who say their family’s financial condition is improving.
Is it instead about fear of national decline? It has often seemed that way. But a mood of pessimism does not appear to be a distinguishing feature of Trump voters. He won 44 percent of those who think the next generation will do better than this one – better than his showing among voters overall.
New Hampshire is just one state, but the exit poll numbers coming out of it do not lend themselves to an obvious anti-Trump strategy. Co-opting him on immigration does not seem promising, given that he cleaned up among voters who don’t prioritize it. Saying he isn’t a real conservative may be important for conservatives, but won’t drive down his strong support among moderates.
Perhaps, given Trump’s large margins among people who are looking for a candidate who tells it like it is, his rivals should let people know how often the man lies.
But how to take down Trump is at the moment a theoretical concern. While it’s still early in the primary season, we have to circle back to Trump’s other coup of the night: Even if there were a clear anti-Trump strategy, it’s not clear which candidate would employ it.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. Email him at email@example.com.