2016 Republicans, Iowa, New Hampshire, State of the Race

Will Jeb Survive Until New Hampshire?

October 22, 2015

Next March, Primary Season kicks into overdrive.  Voting starts in February, with Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada providing approximately one event per week.  On March first, thirteen states go to the polls.  March 15th is both the date of Julius Caesar’s demise and the Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri primaries, with plenty of delegates up for grabs.

The way Team Jeb drew it up, either 3/1 or 3/15 would spell the end of Marco Rubio.  While Jeb’s PAC raised north of $100 million, much of it to spend on an ad blitz, his establishment competitors have languished.  Rubio has more than enough to function, but needs way more to slug it out over the airwaves in several large states at once.

John Kasich and Chris Christie are even more resource challenged.  If by some chance, one should break through in New Hampshire, they’ll have to furiously raise money while campaigning non-stop.  At the moment, it looks like they risk repeating the 2008 Huckabee and 2012 Santorum experiences where lack of money made it hard to leverage early upsets.

None of these guys has the grass roots support of Ted Cruz or Ben Carson, both of whom are leveraging hundreds of thousands of small contributors, Carson in particular.  While neither have Jeb’s PAC money, Cruz has a fair amount himself and both have more regular campaign funds on hand.

Under normal circumstances, this would almost guarantee a finals spot for Jeb.  From the beginning, the Bush campaign focused on having enough money to run a full, legit national campaign.  Generally speaking, the GOP nominee is a candidate who is able to do this.  Ever since the Summer of Trump kicked off, it’s become clear that at least one outsider candidate will make the final group, making it even more important.

Instead of the planned fight with Scott Walker and perhaps Rubio, Jeb has to clear the pack of establishment-friendly contenders, just to get a shot at one or more individuals previously thought un-nominatable.  A couple months ago, Jeb might have thought this was almost helpful.  If Donald Trump was a real threat, perhaps the establishment would want to rally around him quickly to make sure the unthinkable didn’t happen.

When Rubio was at 5% in the polls, that was a logical delusion.  Now it’s not, but the same concept could spell Jeb’s doom before the calendar even turns to 2016.  At a minimum, it raises the specter of Bush getting knocked out the evening of the Iowa caucus.  Here’s how:

Pick a poll, any GOP primary poll at all.  Choose a national poll.  Perhaps you prefer Iowa, after all, they go first.  Maybe New Hampshire is more your thing.  Or South Carolina, traditionally more predictive than either.  Those early states too misleading?  Well, pick another, Florida, Jeb’s home state, or Ohio, a GOP must-have next November.  Want to be unique?  Try Wisconsin.

Pick one from this week, choose one from last.  If September is more your style, give one of those a shot.  Average a few together, throw darts, whatever.  Odds are very strong the results will break down as follows:

Trump/Carson/Cruz/Fiorina: 60% or more (low of mid-50s, high of low 70s)

Rubio/Bush/Christie/Kasich: 30% or less (rarely much over 30, often closer to 20)

Huckabee/Paul/Undercard Debaters: 10% (give or take, more often take)

Sure, maybe as we get closer to actual voting this shifts a bit, but so far the outsider numbers are going up, not down.  Instead of Trump alone having equal support to the combined establishment candidates, it’s now Trump and Carson who can say that.  The Freedom Caucus has virtual veto power over the House speaker.  In a world where Paul Ryan isn’t conservative enough, everyone is recalibrating.

John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy are actually conservatives.  Really.  If you compare them to Bob Michel, the pre-Newt House GOP leader, they look like Ted Cruz.  But the goalposts have moved over the past 20-25 years.  Democrats are more liberal, Republicans more conservative.  Yesterday’s conservative is today’s squish.

After seeing what happened in the House, taking in to account Trump’s staying power, Carson’s surge, and Cruz’s balance sheet (along with very decent polling and favorability ratings), many establishment conservatives are realizing a few things.

One, Cruz is potentially much closer to the average primary voter than one of the establishment candidates.  Two, Fiorina is probably the most insider-friendly outsider, but is still very unproven.  Three, they’ll be lucky to slide Rubio past the primary electorate, but Jeb is likely out of the question.

Rubio has struggled to win big donors and establishment endorsements.  They’re playing wait-and-see.  I’ll contribute if he does, I’ll endorse if she does.  Let’s wait to see how he does in Iowa, etc.  That made sense in a world where March wasn’t too late to get behind a non-Trump/Carson/Cruz choice, a world with Speaker Boehner or Speaker McCarthy.

A couple/few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton looked weak, now not so much.  Most establishment folks are thinking Rubio is a safer, more verbally deft competitor than Jeb, who still can’t master Trump. Clash of the Dynasties just isn’t looking appetizing.  GOP primary voters are starting to see it that way too, and not just those supporting outsiders.

Rubio has finished ahead of Jeb in most polling over the last month.  The Real Clear Politics average has him ahead 9% to 7% nationally, not super impressive for either.  In Iowa he’s ahead 9.3% to 6.3%.  Bush has a narrow 9% to 8.5% advantage in New Hampshire.  While the trend favors Marco, it’s not outside the margin of error or a few fickle voters, most of whom aren’t completely settled on someone anyway.

But that’s the average over the past 4-6 weeks, not post-Hillary recovery, not post-House explosion.  If we look more recently:

Iowa (Quinnipiac) 10/22:  Rubio 13%, Bush 5%

Wisconsin (WPR/St. Norbert) 10/22:  Rubio 18%, Bush 3%

National (ABC/WaPo) 10/21:  Rubio 10%, Bush 7%

National (NBC/WSJ) 10/20:  Rubio 13%, Bush 8%

Florida (UNF) 10/20:  Rubio 15%, Bush 9%

Massachusetts (Emerson) 10/19:  Rubio 12%, Bush 7%

I’m guilty of some quality cherry picking.  Several very recent New Hampshire polls were skipped.  Bush leads in a couple, overall they’re about tied.  A couple credible national polls that showed Jeb even or close were also ignored.  But Rubio doesn’t trail in any recent poll outside of New Hampshire, and as you see above, double-digit support is becoming commonplace.  Jeb’s PAC has blanketed the airwaves in New Hampshire, and while it clearly helped, it was only enough to bring them even.  Rubio hasn’t started advertising.

Next week is another debate.  So far, Rubio has earned a bump from each appearance.  Unlike the first two rounds, he enters with momentum.  Jeb entered the first debate as a top-tier candidate.  Before the second, I argued he needed a strong performance to stay relevant and avoid being a decided underdog.  His position continues to worsen.  If Rubio does well again while Jeb struggles, expect to see a jailbreak.

Whether a voter or donor, establishment conservatives are feeling the pressure.  Rather than waiting to see how things go in February, they will put their hands on the scale.  The idea of Jeb’s PAC skewering Rubio in early 2016 is not appealing.  It risks leaving the insiders without a candidate.  Visitors to nationalreview.com today saw multiple anti-Jeb articles, one saying he was toast, the other that his candidacy is bad for the GOP.

Once upon a time, National Review was on the side of the rebels, for Goldwater over Rockefeller, Reagan over Ford.  No more.  The upstart magazine is now 60 years old, writers sometimes more moderate than GOP voters.  Jeb can’t beat the insurgents without friends in places like this.  He’s almost completely out of time.

While imagining the son and brother of presidents, one with a big war chest, dropping out before anyone votes may seem impossible, it’s not.  His donors would prefer Rubio to Cruz, Christie to Carson, Kasich to Trump.  They won’t countenance Jeb savaging his establishment opponents unless he is really able to win the nomination.

The odds he exits before Christmas are still well less than 50/50, but a poor showing in Iowa, one which polls are already indicating is another story.  If Rubio beats him handily and Kasich or Christie finish slightly ahead too, the wolves will be out in force.  Don’t assume Jeb will have the opportunity to salvage his campaign in New Hampshire, let alone leverage his resources in March.

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