MANCHESTER, N.H. — Donald Trump may have come out of New Hampshire with the victory, but Sen. Ted Cruz has emerged as the Republican front-runner.
Though Trump's victory in New Hampshire was no doubt impressive, the electorate of independent voters and super high turnout was tailor-made for him, whereas Cruz didn't put substantial effort into winning the state — where very conservative candidates don't typically do as well. He is currently in position to win third here, with votes still outstanding.
As the race moves to South Carolina, however, Cruz has a ground game in place and the electorate is much more tailored to his strengths.
In Iowa, Cruz dominated Trump among "very conservative" voters, who made up 40 percent of the electorate, and evangelicals, who made up 62 percent of voters. But when it came to New Hampshire, evangelicals only comprised 25 percent of the electorate and "very conservative" voters dropped to 27 percent.
The South Carolina electorate is much closer to the Iowa electorate. In 2012, evangelicals were 65 percent of the electorate and very conservative voters were 36 percent of the electorate.
Furthermore, in Iowa, Cruz had to fend off Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who were all competing for similar voters. Carson received 9 percent in Iowa, and though Huckabee didn't perform well, he did serve as an anti-Cruz attack dog to evangelicals. Now, Huckabee and Santorum are out, and Carson enters South Carolina greatly hobbled.
Though the RealClearPolitics average currently has Trump up 16 points over Cruz in South Carolina, that's misleading, because none of the polls were taken after Cruz's win in Iowa.
Furthermore, now that the field has narrowed down and Trump has won a primary and proven himself a serious threat, there will be a lot more focus on his liberal record — on abortion, guns, healthcare, property rights — among other issues. It won't dissuade his strongest supporters, but it doesn't matter, because it will discourage enough very conservative voters and evangelicals to give Cruz the victory.
Which brings us to Rubio's poor performance in New Hampshire. The fact that Cruz was able to best Rubio in a more moderate state where Rubio should have been a lot stronger, is more good news for Cruz.
Had Rubio won a strong second in New Hampshire, he could have knocked Kasich and Bush out of the race and emerged as a serious threat in South Carolina. Now Rubio will still have to spend his time in the state trying to fend of Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Should Cruz carry South Carolina, he will have won two out of the first three primary states, severely wounding both Trump and Rubio. That's why he should be considered the front-runner.