2016 Democrats, 2016 Republicans, Iowa, New Hampshire, Poll Watch

Poll Watch: Episode 11 (Setting the Brackets)

October 5, 2015

More polls.  Nationally, Pew Research and Investor’s Business Daily weighed in over the past couple/few days.  In Iowa and New Hampshire, newly released NBC/WSJ polling has an update for us.

Let’s get the Democrats out of the way first.  Bernie Sanders continues to lead in New Hampshire.  It’s not particularly close.  Hillary Clinton leads in Iowa as she has in most polls over the past couple months.

Beyond that, polls continue to provide enough inconsistency to allow you to reach whatever conclusion you would prefer.

Sanders is either really close nationally or not.  Biden is close to making this a competitive 3-way race if he enters or not.  Biden is either even with or ahead of Sanders almost everywhere  except for New Hampshire, or Bernie is really the only credible challenger.

So, I’m willing to conclude the following:

1. Biden is probably reasonably legit.  I’ve theorized this for months, but there’s some decent evidence too.  Even with the most pessimistic view, he’s now over 20% in polls at least as often as under.  He’s the most frequent second choice on a regular basis.

2. We’ll only know for sure where he stands when (if) he actually announces.  Is this the backup quarterback effect where he’s better in theory than reality or does he move from second to first choice for many when he’s real?

3. If Sanders wins Iowa, Hillary (and Biden if he’s in) are in a world of hurt.  Bernie is very strong in New Hampshire and would have a ton of momentum if he won both, enough to do well enough with non-white voters.  He’s both in position to make Iowa possible and far from guaranteed to.

Once the first debate happens in a little more than a week, things should clarify a bit.

On to the GOP, where it is becoming apparent the field is organizing itself into a 3-dimensional version of NCAA tournament brackets.  This format, as long as it holds, should give us a system for semi-regular updates.

Before placing the matchups in the appropriate brackets, let’s look at who fights whom:

Ben Carson v. Carly Fiorina

The two non-Trump, non-traditional candidates are very different, but having those two traits in common mean they are taking some of the same space.

Carson is doing better in Iowa, Fiorina in New Hampshire.  Each are a strong second in their better location, running third or fourth in their weaker.  Both have poll numbers Jeb Bush would instantly swap his for.

Carson is relying on hundreds of thousands of smaller donors, using a modified version of the Bernie Sanders program.  The results are almost as good too, with Carson raising $20 million or so in the just completed quarter.

Though Jeb, like Hillary, may have access to the most total amount of funding right now, Carson has a potentially bottomless pool of small contributors and now appears a top tier fundraiser, on a path to potentially even outdistance Bush by spring.  Taking the PACs out of it, he likely won last quarter.

Meanwhile, Carly is still trying to generate a consistent stream of revenue.  She has momentum coming out of the last debate, but had less than two weeks to capitalize before the funding period ended.  Her numbers will likely reflect this.

Having operated on a shoestring for months, Fiorina delegated a much larger campaign role to her PAC.  While she apparently has plenty of big donor interest right now, she’s likely too late to set up the sort of drip system Bernie and Carson benefit from.

On the other hand, Fiorina is likely the most establishment-acceptable candidate in the outsider group (this includes Ted Cruz).  If she gets off to a strong start, Carly may be able to draw on resources (financial, infrastructure, endorsement) not available to Carson.

Being the strongest outsider alternative to Trump is a great place to hang out.  Plenty of interested voters, and even a chance of being acceptable to mainstream conservatives if they need to stop Donald and can’t rely on a traditional candidate.

However, as the field narrows, there isn’t room for both of these guys to function as reasonable nomination possibilities for that long.  If Carson wins Iowa and Fiorina New Hampshire, Trump fades and these two slug it out to reach the finals.

If Trump defeats one but not the other, the survivor has the upper hand and then some. Either way, Carson and Fiorina need to get past each other to defeat a more traditional candidate for the nomination.

We should look to compare them in Iowa and New Hampshire and pay attention to how their respective margins shift.  If Carson leads Fiorina in Iowa by more than she leads him in New Hampshire, he’s ahead.  If the reverse is true, advantage Carly.

At the moment, the polls have a slight edge to Carson by this method, but it’s much closer than before the last debate.

Donald Trump v. Donald Trump

The only thing Trump has to fear is Trump himself.  Yes, Ben Carson could beat him in Iowa.  Yes, Carly Fiorina could beat him in New Hampshire.

They can only do so if he lets them.  Huh?  How is this up to Trump?  Perhaps I’ve spent too much time listening to him insist the Mexican government is paying for his wall.

Simple.  If Trump is above 25%, he’s likely to win Iowa, defeating Carson and anyone else.  Same goes for Fiorina in New Hampshire.  Unlike the others who have limited direct relationship between their favorability numbers and poll numbers, Trump has a direct link.

While some competitors struggle to get a fraction of those who like them to list them as their first choice, almost half of Trump’s admirers plan to vote for him.  The more inspired of these folks have given him a high floor and keep him at or near the top of each poll.

Even if only his core supporters vote Trump, he can still win early states if the other 78-82% of the vote is dispersed enough.  But it’s not guaranteed.  It’s very possible another candidate could come up with more than 18-22%

However, there’s another group that is willing to consider Trump.  They do care if his debate performances are decent.  They do care how “viable” he is.  When The Donald was riding high in August, many of these voters were at least kicking the tires.

When they were on board, he regularly cleared 30% in polls and was +20 to +30 net favorable among Republicans instead of +10.  They were not with him in July, but he won them over.  They aren’t with him now, but who’s to say he can’t win them back?

Recently, Trump has taken a contrarian (for a GOP candidate) position on Syria, saying it’s fine for Putin to play in our Middle Eastern sandbox, and let’s just watch him track dirt into his mom’s kitchen.  Right or wrong, heretic or visionary, Trump tends to do well when breaking with Republican orthodoxy.

Either way, this has more to do with Trump, his message and how he interacts with media than what any other candidate says or does to position themselves against him.

It also has plenty to do with his next couple debate performances.  A better result (which I’d expect), and these extra voters are available to him again.

Jeb Bush v. Marco Rubio

Rubio and Bush are positioned somewhat differently, but are very much in the way of the other.  When it wasn’t yet evident 2016 might represent a major break from GOP tradition, the two Floridians were in separate places on the chessboard.

Now, the youthful first-term senator with the strongly conservative overall voting record may wind up as the establishment candidate.  As such, he’s in Jeb’s way.

With Bush having an edge in endorsements, funding, and infrastructure, tie goes to the upstart.  If Rubio finishes ahead of Jeb in the first two states, it’s fatal.  The reverse, only a large obstacle.

In the aftermath of the last debate, Rubio led Jeb nationally, in Iowa and in New Hampshire.  Given Jeb’s visibility and Rubio’s tactical decision to stay as under the radar as possible, this was really scary for anyone hoping for Bush 45.

With Jeb’s third quarter funding numbers modest enough that his team didn’t want to leak them after Carson’s haul was publicized, he really needed a few positive developments.

The new polls are slight progress, particularly in his contest with Rubio.  While he still trails him in the Pew and IBD national polls, NBC/WSJ has Bush ahead by 1 in Iowa and New Hampshire.

It’s not much.  Rubio’s national margin is larger (3 points in IBD, 4 with Pew).  Jeb’s positive gap in the early states is basically a rounding error.  Still, it’s the first positive sign in weeks.  If Jeb can stay very close in Iowa and New Hampshire and Rubio stumbles…

You still have to favor Rubio, but at least maybe there’s a contest to follow.

Chris Christie v. John Kasich

This is the most zero-sum game of them all. There is only room for one comparatively moderate governor who is attempting to survive Iowa and thrive in New Hampshire.

If Jeb hangs in against Rubio, the winner of this contest will then need to defeat Bush.  If Rubio knocks out Jeb, the Christie/Kasich survivor will need to topple Marco.  It’s a long road, but it is paved and well-marked.

In early August, Kasich was clearly ahead of Christie.  He had momentum, somewhat better national polling, a better received (by media at least) debate performance, and most importantly a polling bump in New Hampshire, averaging a strong third or even second place spot.

By contrast, Christie had lost the little bit of Granite State momentum he had to Kasich.  He was struggling to stay in the top 10 in the state he visited most frequently.  More well known among GOP voters than Kasich, he was also less popular, often showing negative favorability ratings.

Things have gradually changed.  What looked like a strong launching point for Kasich was actually a temporary plateau, one he is descending from.  His NH numbers were aided by an effective introductory ad campaign from his PAC.

Meanwhile, Christie appears to have bottomed out.  He’s slowly improving nationally, has positive favorability numbers for the first time since Bridgegate, and is back in strong second-tier contention in New Hampshire.

He now leads Kasich in the most recent NBC/WSJ New Hampshire and Iowa polls, and is the second choice of more voters in each as well.  The advantage is small, well within the margin of error.  Still, each new round looks slightly better for Christie than the preceding.

We’ll keep our eyes on Governor Death Match, but as of the first Monday in October, New Jersey is just ahead of Ohio and has the momentum.

Mike Huckabee v. Rand Paul

A social conservative and a libertarian shouldn’t normally compete with each other. Huckabee is a bit protectionist, but very pro-Israel.  Paul is a free market guy who wants to keep troops out of the Middle East.

There aren’t a bunch of voters trying to decide between the two and wouldn’t be even if they had more supporters to divide.  However, they’re sort of in the same space.

Each are well-known with a national reputation.  Both were planning to run as outsiders until the definition changed.  Neither are considered anti-politicians like Trump or Carson, neither are anywhere near acceptable to establishment insiders, at least as long as Rubio, Jeb, Kasich or Christie still exist.

Paul struggles for money and a path, Huckabee finds Carson and others blocking his.  Each should worry about being able to consistently qualify for main stage debates over the next few months.

There probably isn’t room for either, but getting the other competitor out of the way would open up more room and oxygen to stick around, just in case almost every other candidate falters.

Huckabee has the edge in Iowa, Paul in New Hampshire.  Like with Carson and Fiorina, you can compare their relative position.  While it seemed Paul was an absolute goner (and his $2.5 million fundraising number for Q3 doesn’t help), NBC/WSJ has him on Huck’s tail in Iowa and a few points ahead of him in New Hampshire.

Ted Cruz v. The Clock

It’s easy to see what Team Ted was thinking.  Being very tied to Tea Party activists and other committed conservatives, Cruz saw much of the 2016 cycle’s outsider lean as it was beginning to develop.

If he could just build a coalition of social conservatives, Tea Party indetifiers and more mainstream conservatives distillusioned with DC, Cruz would have a majority.

While several high-profile governors slugged it out, Ted could consolidate his base.  As we know, this hasn’t happened yet.  First Trump took up his space and oxygen with one type of diseffected voter.

Not great, not the end of the world.  Cruz still had a path, perhaps concentrating more on the social conservative side, while he waited to vulture Trump’s supporters.

Oops, Ben Carson happened, going from curiosity to serious Iowa contender.  The combination of Carson and Trump meant Cruz needed to wait for his top tier wristband, but he could still lie in wait for them to show their inexperience during debates.

It happened.  Neither distinguished themselves.  For someone wanting an outsider, but requiring strong, detailed answers on foreign policy matters, both Carson and Trump stumbled.  Some voters were back in play.

And promptly scooped up by Fiorina.  While Cruz has a room full of debating trophies from his Ivy League days, Carly stole the show.  Even if Cruz were somehow tempted to moderate himself to appear more acceptable to outsider-fearing solid conservatives, the existence of Rubio makes this pointless.

While Cruz uses his outsider status in the Senate to burnish his anti-establishment credentials, it also makes him appear ineffective, especially when compared to what Trump, Carson and Fiorina claim they can accomplish.

Each of the three are getting more free media exposure as well.  Programmers are discovering viewers are more curious about what one of the rookies might say than hearing Ted Cruz sound like Ted Cruz.

While his consistency is appreciated by his core constituency, it’s not as interesting.  In order to move forward, he needs one or more of Project Outsider to stumble.

Ultimately they will, it’s usually best to bet against any candidate, experienced or not.  The question is how soon?  If each are still very viable the day Iowa votes, Cruz will suffer.  As strong as he thinks he is in the South, as much money as his PAC has, there’s no recovering from 7th in Iowa.

The dominos need to start falling before he does.

Bobby Jindal v. Louisiana

First the good news.  NBC/WSJ has Jindal at 6% in Iowa.  Given his constant presence in the state for the past several months, it’s ok if you aren’t impressed.  Still, it’s progress, and averaging out his results shows a steady positive trend.

He’s ahead of where Rick Santorum and Huckabee were during their 2012 and 2008 Iowa victories.  Eight candidates are clustered between 3rd and 10th place, only separated by 4 points.  One little push and suddenly Bobby sits third, the new momentum candidate.

Even if you share my view that his current pitch, when separated from the hours of town hall Q&A he does in Iowa has limitations, this is unmistakably good news.  Jindal has very strong favorability ratings and his mix of social and fiscal conservatism should always play well in Iowa.

While no Republican Iowa underdog has ever translated an unexpected win into a nomination. Jindal is very young, so whether Veep and/or 2020/2024 front runner is his backup goal, you can see why this looks exciting to his team.

There’s a catch though.  Jindal is phenomenally unpopular at home.  His current approval rating in Louisiana sits at 31%.  He’s a governor who ultimately needs to run on his record.

WWL-TV recently polled Lousianans on the presidential race.  Among home state GOP voters, Jindal garners 3%, half of his most recent Iowa number.

With all Louisiana voters, he trails Hillary Clinton 45% to 42%.  Hillary isn’t winning that many match ups, and it’s his home state, so this doesn’t look good.  It’s actually much worse.

Louisiana is now reliably Republican in presidential elections, having supported Mitt Romney and John McCain by wide margins in the past two elections.  This state is not in play for Democrats, even in a landslide.

Donald Trump, who regularly scores worst among Republicans in these exercises, leads Hillary by 8 points.  Jeb Bush, who seems to disappoint in virtually every poll is +18.

Chris Christie struggles with his numbers in New Jersey, something that acts as a drag on his candidacy.  However, he’s usually in the high 30s, not the low 30s.  There’s a big difference between those numbers.  Short of major, major scandal, it’s almost impossible to score worse than 25-30%.

At his least popular, post-Katrina, pre-surge, Bush 43 still stayed in the high 20s.  Richard Nixon was around 20% the day he resigned the presidency.  Jindal is flirting with these numbers as the conservative governor of a red state.

Christie, as he likes to remind us, is a somewhat conservative governor of a blue state, one who recently dealt with a major scandal.  I don’t think it’s possible to win the presidency if your own state, the one you are currently governing, hates you.

While one bump might get Christie into the safe range, he’s already liked by a strong majority of New Jersey Republicans, Jindal isn’t close.  This is the guy who easily won re-election 3 years, garnering over 60% in an open primary with more than 10 people on the ballot.

While there are plenty of justifications for why this happened and how you can consider Jindal effective even if his constituents would prefer he spends his time in Iowa, he has no path without resolving this.

It means two things.  First, a persuasive argument for how this disapproval proves Jindal isn’t like the other hated political insiders, how this indicates he’s an effective reformer.

Second, he needs Louisiana to start liking him better.  At 40% approval, you can sell this.  At 31%, you can’t.  Right now half of Louisiana conservatives don’t like him.  I’m not well enough versed in Bayou politics to know what the steps are, but it’s a must.

Now that we have the latest way to frame things, stay tuned for updates on how the candidates are doing against their opposition.  By the time the next debate (10/28) is over, we’ll be able to build brackets out of these contests.

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