November 12, 2015
Most polling at this stage in the cycle focuses on national numbers (especially when they impact debate eligibility), Iowa, New Hampshire, and to some extent South Carolina. This is logical.
Results in the couple/few early voting states will impact the rest of the race. Candidates are spending more time there. Several have strategies predicated on winning (or getting real close) in Iowa or New Hampshire.
But other states sometimes have interesting clues too. They aren’t necessarily predictive, but they are reasonably informative. The Jeb v. Marco competition has encouraged semi-frequent polling in Florida. Until the third debate, many perceived these two as close competitors for the establishment nod. Do their constituents have any message for us?
From March 2013 to mid-September 2015, Jeb Bush led Marco Rubio in all 19 polls listed in the Real Clear Politics table. Sometimes it was close, but usually not. This is both a good argument for Jeb, after all, Floridians should know best, and unsurprising.
Bush was a good governor. He was easily re-elected and left office with high approval ratings. He has a billion detractors these days, but none claim his performance in office is the problem. At home, a strong two-term governor should have the edge over a freshman senator.
The next three surveys found them virtually tied. Rubio +1, Jeb +2, Rubio +2. The student reached parity with the master. Did people suddenly remember Bush wasn’t as good a governor as they thought? Doubtful. We know Rubio hasn’t spent much time in Congress lately, so it wasn’t a push to pass legislation for his state.
Floridians were following the national results, mirroring the campaign events. Current progress was becoming more important than memories. As Rubio continued past Jeb nationally, the home voters followed along. The next poll was Rubio +6, and the poll after the third debate showed Rubio +9. Most ominously for Jeb, he now trails Ted Cruz as well.
Mind you, Donald Trump leads everyone in Florida, and by a lot. The RCP average has him 12 points up on Ben Carson, 14 ahead of Rubio. Though Marco and Jeb are running slightly ahead of their national numbers, there is very little home-field advantage.
This may present a problem for Rubio. From the beginning of time (or at least 1912 when primaries were invented) certain contests have taken on an outsized meaning. Beating someone on their home turf (or failing to) is always a big deal. Should he lose at home to Trump (or someone else) it’s hard to see Marco gliding to nomination.
His potential final round competitor Cruz is in better shape at home. Texas votes March 1 and if voters are closely scrutinizing the two 44-year-old Cuban-American first-term senators, they will have these results in mind when Rubio faces his home crowd two weeks later.
A newly released University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, taken between the third and fourth debates has Cruz and Trump tied at 27%, well ahead of Carson at 13% and Rubio at 9%. While Cruz and Rubio have almost identical support in the other’s home state, Ted is more likely to defend his own turf. Not only are his current numbers better, but unlike Rubio, he spent much of 2015 in the lead.
As in Florida, Texas voters are showing sensitivity to national results and debate performances. Cruz dipped in Texas polls as he fell well behind Trump and Carson nationally. As he’s jumped back into the second polling tier nationwide, he’s recovered at home, if not yet fully. While he’s just as susceptible to national trends, his home baseline is higher.
Rubio will likely need to win elsewhere first in order to avoid embarrassment at home. Cruz can likely hold Texas as long as he’s highly competitive in the earliest states, as he appears to at least double his national support at home.
So where is Rubio well positioned to win? Perhaps Arizona provides an example. They don’t vote until March 22 and Marco needs a victory well before then, but it does show a scenario that could work for him.
A recent BRC poll, taken over a two week period places Rubio a close third, trailing Carson and Trump. Cruz languishes in fifth with a third of Rubio’s support. Arizona is very infrequently polled, so it’s just a single data point, but as early as last February, Rubio was near the lead in a PPP poll.
Twelve states vote on March 1. Based on his national numbers, Rubio is likely well placed in a few of them (several have no even semi-recent polling). Assuming his campaign can identify these (pretty safe bet), he likely has the chance to win often enough to remain viable heading into Florida.
Interestingly, Cruz might not be sure who to root for. If Chris Christie pulls a New Hampshire comeback, Cruz would hope he finishes ahead of Rubio in March 1 contests. That’s probably the matchup Ted would prefer, a definite ideological contrast, which likely favors him in GOP primaries.
The problem is if neither a resurrected Christie, nor Rubio win any of these states, instead having Trump take the northern ones and Carson or Trump the southern. Cruz needs to get past these guys at some point, which is a problem if they regularly beat him.
We are accustomed to looking at the contest in insider/outsider, establishment/insurgent, mainstream conservative/very conservative terms. However, there’s also a north/south split. Rubio and Trump tend to do relatively better in the northeast and west, while Cruz and Carson are often stronger in southern and border states. It’s not exact, but it is a general trend.
So, even if Trump and Carson remain almost tied in national polls and Rubio and Cruz remain pretty close, their spreads in individual states we aren’t talking about are larger. Depending on how those play out, a victory or loss narrative will ensue.
Is Cruz better off if Rubio wins some states, making it harder for Trump or Carson to keep Cruz from catching fire, or is he better off risking getting semi-buried to see Rubio marginalized? Tricky question.
In the meanwhile, as polls from random states are slowly released, pay attention to when they vote in the cycle and how they lean on Carson v. Trump, Rubio v. Cruz, and whether the first or second group is running ahead of their national numbers.
This will give us at least a few small breadcrumbs to start following towards March.