Thanks to his surprising second place finish in the New Hampshire primary, Ohio Gov. John Kasich has emerged as the GOP establishment's savior du jour. If conventional wisdom is to be believed, the Republican Party's comparatively moderate leadership will rally behind Kasich on the basis of his strong showing and use his candidacy to thwart Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
Let's hope this doesn't actually happen, because if it does, the nomination of Trump or Cruz is all but assured.
To understand why this is the case, one need look no further than the actual composition of Kasich's New Hampshire supporters. Although Kasich tied Trump among moderate and liberal voters, he only received 11 percent of the self-identified conservatives in the state. This may augur well for Kasich's electability against Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in November, but it's ominous in terms of his fate against Trump over the next few weeks. Statistics aside, a Republican Party that was in the mood to anoint a moderate wouldn't have elevated Trump and Cruz to frontrunner status in the first place. For that matter, it wouldn't have nearly denied Mitt Romney's nomination in 2012 with the extremism-fueled candidacies of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Love it or hate it, but Republican voters in the Obama era have taken a hard right and aim to keep things that way.
Of course, the Republican Party's problems go beyond Kasich's fundamental inability to survive his own party's primaries. The establishment alternatives to Kasich have, without exception, proved to be terrible duds. Jeb Bush's dismal showing in New Hampshire puts enormous pressure on him to make an epic comeback in the upcoming South Carolina primary, but polls there show him in a distant fourth behind Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. The Florida Senator, meanwhile, has been effectively discredited as a viable contender by placing fifth in New Hampshire so shortly after the Iowa caucuses made him seem like the establishment's official go-to guy; his embarrassing exchange with Chris Christie at the most Republican debate appears to have been a defining moment for his national image. As for Christie, the fact that his deft deflation of Rubio did nothing to improve his chances is as good a sign as anything that if he doesn't drop out soon, Republican voters will force him out of the race.
In short, the GOP establishment may have no other option but to back Kasich in the aftermath of New Hampshire, especially since it's likely that his inevitable post-primary bounce will further sink the candidacies of Bush, Rubio, and Christie. Because Kasich is appealing to exactly the wrong type of Republican voters, though, that means the establishment really has no choice at all -- just the two unappealing radicals, Trump and Cruz.
It's worth taking a moment to appreciate the great historical significance of what's happening right now. Presidential primaries come and go, but rarely has a single series radically upended one party's traditions as much as this one. Before Trump and Cruz, the last GOP presidential nominee to have been actively opposed by his own party's establishment was Barry Goldwater... and that was in the 1964 election, more than fifty years ago. As a result of Goldwater's victory in that primary contest, the GOP was transformed from a comparatively moderate organization to a staunchly conservative one, laying the foundations for Ronald Reagan and his right-wing revolution in the 1980s. While Trump hasn't developed anything like the consistent right-libertarian philosophy that inspired Goldwater's movement in the early 1960s, he has tapped into an equally potent populist strain, drawing from wells of overt racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that many Americans (including some from his own party) assumed had been laid to rest as acceptable forms of political currency.
Much as Goldwater normalized the strain of conservatism later popularized by Reagan, so too will Trump reshape the GOP's brand according to his ideology of anti-political correctness if he is ultimately nominated. The mere fact that his strongest rival is a man who has aped his style and rhetoric is a testament to that fact, and future presidential aspirants on the right will remember the popularity of Trump's message when shaping their own national campaigns. Even if Trump doesn't make it to the White House (like Goldwater), Trumpism will linger on long after the final votes have been counted in the 2016 election cycle.
Unless, of course, I'm wrong and the Republican throws so much support behind Kasich that he single-handedly denies Trump at the last second. If they're going to pull this off, though, they'll need to get started now.