Now that Iowa and New Hampshire are down, it is clear that the Republican primary race has two leading candidates, Trump and Cruz, both running as hard-right outsiders. The “establishment lane”, however, is a muddled mess. How will it shake out?
With his win in New Hampshire and second place in Iowa, Trump seems to be the front-runner. Though his populist positions defy easy characterization, he is undoubtedly unpalatable to a large portion of the Republican electorate, as well as the big-money donor class.
Cruz seems to have sewed up the evangelical/very conservative voter base, knocking off other contenders like Santorum, Huckabee and Carson. However, his hard-right positions are probably too extreme for most voters, and he is absolutely detested by the Republican establishment.
This leaves candidates aiming for the more centrist/establishment vote (though how centrist they actually may be is a subject for debate): Kasich, Bush and Rubio, each of which has some significant negatives. (Christie is functionally out of the race, even if he hasn’t pulled the plug right yet).
With his strong showing in Iowa, Rubio seemed to be the great hope for the middle, until Chris Christie shived him at the New Hampshire debate, and his empty suit deflated. He came in fifth in New Hampshire, and has an uphill battle to convince the media and the voters that he is ready for prime time and can do more than repeat talking points.
Kasich staked everything on New Hampshire, and it seemed to pay off, with a second-place finish after The Donald. He has the advantage of having been an apparently effective governor, and of coming from a swing state. However, he has to overcome a huge deficit in name recognition in an environment where the available media attention is consumed by his more vibrant rivals.
Bush got negligible support in Iowa and a fourth-place finish with 11% of the vote in New Hampshire, following the expenditure of an extraordinary amount of money by his supporters. His New Hampshire results were probably enough for him to stay in the race, but it is unclear whether he has any ability to improve his position. His two main obstacles are the Bush name and the fact that he doesn’t seem to be dynamic enough campaigner to generate substantial voter support.
So, assuming that Trump and Cruz can maintain their voting blocks, where does the “excluded middle” place its voting support? Is there a way that any of the remaining centrists can build up enough support to displace the other? And if so, will they have enough support (and will Trump and/or Cruz not) to claim a place at the table at the end of the process?