The 2016 contest in New Hampshire could wind up being the "Seinfeld" primary, a political event about nothing. Or at least one that clarifies nothing.
If current polling holds — and that is a massive "if" these days — Donald Trump will score a fairly convincing win. But after Trump, there could be a four-candidate pile-up. Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are all tightly bunched behind. One of them will get the bragging rights of finishing second but none is likely to gain much separation.
If that turns out to be the case, then the question of who emerges as the "establishment lane" alternative to Trump and Cruz will remain completely unclear. Bush, Kasich and Rubio will likely all have rationales for staying in the race at least through South Carolina and Nevada and possibly even through Super Tuesday on March 1.
The things we do know about the race are not likely to change after New Hampshire. Cruz and Trump will continue to battle for the title of hardcore conservative outsider champion. And someone, eventually, will emerge as the more mainstream, traditional GOP option.
After Rubio's strong third place finish in Iowa, it looked like the Florida senator had the clearest path to unifying the establishment wing. But then Rubio had his robotic debate meltdown and raised fresh questions about his readiness for the role of Republican presidential nominee.
Kasich has promised that if he didn't do well in New Hampshire he would pack it up and head back to Ohio. But Kasich's moderate approach and sunny demeanor has helped him rise in the Granite State, and he is likely to get a ticket out of the state to continue his campaign, even though subsequent Southern contests offer little hope for him.
Bush needs a strong result to stall a rush of donors to Rubio and keep his hopes alive. And he seems likely to get it. As Rubio falters, the once-dead Bush dream of playing the long game and emerging as the establishment savior now appears to have at least a sliver of life.
The lone odd man out in New Hampshire could turn out to be Chris Christie, who despite his strong debate performance — and evisceration of Rubio — is still mired in single digits in late polls. If Christie does wind up well out of the top group in New Hampshire it's hard to see a reason for him to continue. He doesn't have much money and has little to no shot of doing well in South Carolina without a momentum boost from Tuesday's primary.
If anyone is likely to drop out after Tuesday night, it's Christie. Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina might be another who decides to call it quits after New Hampshire. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson will also likely finish near the bottom but has already moved on to South Carolina. After premature reports of his demise in Iowa, it's hard to imagine Carson giving anyone the satisfaction of actually leaving the race based on New Hampshire.
So after all the millions in ad spending and exhaustive coverage, New Hampshire could wind up leaving the race pretty much where it is was before Iowa. Trump would once again be the front-runner in a pitched battle with Cruz and a trio of hopefuls battling behind them.
Of course there is also the chance that the polls, as they were in Iowa, are totally wrong. If someone manages to beat Trump, that would be a truly momentous event. A Trump loss might not knock the billionaire out of the race. But it would likely mean that he is definitely not going to be the Republican nominee. The more likely outcome is New Hampshire winding up like a "Seinfeld" episode: amusing, full of weirdness and quirky characters with no clear message at all.