How it will end, nobody knows.

Photographer: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Questions to Winnow the Presidential Race

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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As the results of the New Hampshire primary rolled in last week, a charter member of Washington’s Republican establishment received a one-word message from a colleague: "despair." It’s a safe bet that there was a comparable Democratic exchange.

The victory of Senator Ted Cruz and of Donald Trump in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two presidential nomination contests, along with Senator Bernie Sanders' smashing triumph over his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the Granite State last Tuesday, unnerved many politicians and politics professionals.

QuickTake How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

Conversations with smart strategists and pollsters of both parties suggest a consensus: a three-in-four chance that either Trump or Cruz will be the Republican nominee, and as much as a one-in-three shot for Sanders. Most believe that any of the three would lose a general election and that any independent candidacy inevitably fails.

Rather than despair, the task for the candidates, interest groups and media is to hold political feet to the fire, focusing on real challenges that would confront the next president.

For Trump, the self-styled conservative convert, the questions would be about the role of government. Breaking with Republican policies, he is a protectionist and he proposes tax cuts that might cost as much as $9.5 trillion over the next decade. Moreover, more than any other Republican candidate, he shows little interest in spending cuts -- he has taken cutbacks to entitlements off the table -- and favors allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, which most conservatives regard as tantamount to federal price controls.

A central issue for Cruz is how he would accomplish a conservative revolution when he's roundly disliked by his colleagues. Invoking Ronald Reagan and going over the heads of Congress is bad history; the Gipper, with the exceptional skill of top lieutenants such as Jim Baker, seriously and effectively courted Congress.

Senator Marco Rubio, if he recovers from his New Hampshire debacle, should be pressed on his neo-conservative, Dick Cheney-like views on America as a global protector or policeman. Jeb Bush and Governor John Kasich have to explain how they could lead a party that today is well to the right of their mainstream conservative views.

On the Democratic side, Sanders should continue to be asked to say how expansive his governmental agenda would be and how he would pay for it. He made clear in a debate with Clinton last week that he doesn't want Henry Kissinger's advice on foreign policy but hasn't said where he would seek counsel.

Clinton acknowledges that her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq War was a mistake, but she still soft-pedals what was to be her "signature" issue, orchestrating the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, which has turned into a terrorist haven. What has she learned from those mistakes? And it would be good to see the transcripts of the speeches she made to Wall Street interests. 

Rubio and Bush both once thought they would win the Feb. 20 South Carolina primary. If they come in behind Trump and Cruz, it’s difficult to see how they reignite their campaigns in time for the winner-take-all primary in their home state of Florida a little more than three weeks later. 

The bar is a little lower for Kasich, of whom less is expected, though he has to do well enough to be able to credibly advance to more friendly Northern and Midwestern states.

Trump and Cruz probably will come out of South Carolina as the leading contenders on Super Tuesday, March 1, the largest political day on the calendar, when one-quarter of all delegates are chosen.

For Democrats, a suddenly more vulnerable Clinton needs a big win at the end of the month in South Carolina, demonstrating that she can dominate with voters of color. Sanders probably needs a victory in the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 20 to show that New Hampshire wasn’t just a regional mandate for a Vermont senator.

In the meantime, rather than despair, here's a useful reminder: nothing has gone according to conventional wisdom over the last half year, why should we expect the next six months to be different?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net