Leaving Iowa, the Republican presidential race seemed as though it might finally be headed for some clarity. Donald Trump had slumped; Senator Ted Cruz had, almost predictably, consolidated the white-evangelical minority, and an establishment candidate—Senator Marco Rubio—seemed be emerging, given his strong third place finish. Conventional wisdom holds that there are only three tickets out of Iowa—of course that isn’t true, but we’ll play along—and they seemed to have been punched.
One week later, however, instead of clarity we’re seeing just more chaos. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Trump descended to a new level of ugly bullying, encouraging a woman who called Cruz a “pussy” at his rally, and repeating the slur as the dizzy crowd shouted, “Trump, Trump, Trump!” I didn’t think it was possible to feel sympathy for the ultraconservative, politically cruel Cruz, but I felt a twinge. It subsided quickly.
Meanwhile, across the state, Rubio continued his post-Iowa slump. Everyone saw his moment of shame on the debate stage Saturday night, when he robotically repeated the same anodyne line—“Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing”—three times in three minutes. Under ridicule by the other bully in the race, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Rubio seemed like a child playing candidate, a tween running for president of his sixth-grade class, not a man qualified to be commander in chief. His insistence that he hadn’t frozen but was rather a lean, mean message machine, hammering home his critique of Obama, was laughable.
There was more laughing Monday night, when Rubio went robot again, and repeated lines in his own stump speech. This wasn’t the pressure of a debate stage; he was facing a supportive crowd. He told them: “Janette and I are raising our four children in the 21st century, and we know how hard it’s become to instill our values in our kids instead of the values they try to ram down our throats.” He liked it so much, he said it again. “In the 21st century, it’s becoming harder than ever to instill in your children the values they teach in our homes and in our church instead of the values that they try to ram down our throats, in the movies, in music, in popular culture.” There was a long pause after the word “throats,” as through Rubio suddenly heard himself and tried to recover.
Again, I almost felt sorry for Rubio. Then I remembered he’d deny abortion to the victims of rape and incest, and his tax plan cuts the capital-gains tax to zero. Rubio obviously needs some lessons in empathy, and the universe is providing them.
Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich have in the meantime campaigned hard in this state, eager to deny Rubio the “establishment” mantle. So has Christie, but his triumph might be limited to hurting Rubio, not helping himself, as he trails the other three in the polls. But New Hampshire polls are notoriously unreliable; we are stuck waiting until Tuesday night or Wednesday morning to stay decisively what comes next.
Except I think a few things are already clear. Trump has survived his Iowa loss. The puffed-up “winner” didn’t fall apart just because he was suddenly a “loser”; in fact, he now insists he won Iowa, because Cruz cheated by telling Ben Carson supporters the good doctor was leaving the race. Who knows? All we know is Trump is more resilient than we thought.
We also know his supporters are, too. He’s back to drawing huge, adoring crowds—that low-energy Waterloo, Iowa, gathering I attended was an outlier, though it did foretell Trump’s low-energy showing there—and they’re back to shocking us with their high-energy ignorance and cruelty. Mic’s Elizabeth Plank caught up with the woman who called Cruz a “pussy,” and she elaborated on her theory of the race.
“I watched the debate, and [Ted Cruz] just comes across as a pussy. He doesn’t have the balls to stand up to Putin.” Trump, on the other hand, has “the balls the size of watermelons, whereas the other ones got the balls of little grapes.” Except Rubio, whose are “like a raisin.”
There you go, your GOP primary electorate in all its glory.
It’s also clear that the “establishment” race isn’t likely to narrow much as a result of New Hampshire. Kasich is expected to do well; Bush has the money to survive even a fifth-place finish, if it’s respectable. It’s possible Christie will give up and go home if he finishes fifth or lower, given that he’s staked everything on New Hampshire. But bullying Rubio has to be even better than bullying his New Jersey constituents; he might not leave the party while he’s still having fun.
Poor GOP donors. They don’t know what to do. A stampede to Rubio was reportedly in the offing, and then came Saturday’s debate malfunction. “People are hitting the brakes, saying let’s not rush to judgment. Let’s get this right,” GOP strategist and Bush supporter Vin Weber told CNBC. Another prominent Republican told Politico that donors are “frozen in place” after Rubio’s stumbles, waiting to see who emerges from New Hampshire. But it still may not be very clear.
I never expected to feel bad for GOP donors, but… nah, I don’t. This is kinda fun.