November 20, 2015
Within 5 days last week, both parties had debates and Paris happened. Candidates spent this week reacting to and moving forward from last week. Here are several things to pay attention to:
Start the Kasich Countdown
It’s now officially time to start the clock on John Kasich, more likely to exit the race prior to New Hampshire than launch his campaign forward there. Key indicator? Not his stalled Granite State numbers, not his declining national scores. No, not even his whiny off-key debate performances.
His affiliated super PAC is now planning a targeted campaign against Donald Trump. That’s all folks.
If your PAC thinks bashing another candidate is a better investment than supporting you, your campaign might have a problem.
If you think getting into a war of words (already, The Donald has launched a Twitter barrage) with Trump is a good way to look like a trustworthy, serious adult candidate, your campaign is delusional.
One particularly hard to debunk bit of conventional wisdom is the idea that going negative in a multi-candidate race usually benefits the third (or other candidate). This isn’t going to work, but if I’m wrong, somebody like Chris Christie or Marco Rubio benefits, not Kasich.
When Rick Perry went after Trump in late July it made total sense to me. Trump was riding high, but there was no proof he could stay in the polling clouds. Perry was merely trying to elevate himself from just below to just above the cut line for the first main debate.
How could throwing himself in there fail to move Perry from 1.8% to 3.2%? It did. Trump has decades of practice in these scraps. He doesn’t need to stay professional or statesman-like. His fans like seeing him rumble, so this usually helps him.
The attacker has to say nasty stuff without lowering himself. After all, how can you say the other guy is a clown when you’re blowing your horn real loudly? If you hold back too much, he overpowers you and you look weak.
Worst of all, Trump is the king of free media. When someone attacks him, it’s a new Trump story, a reason for him to go on all the shows and remind everyone his attacker is desperate.
Within a few weeks of taking on Trump, Perry was out. Despite that result, Bobby Jindal gave it a shot several weeks ago. Same result. Temporary noise, most of which was made by Trump, followed by candidate withdrawing.
Diving in is a sure sign the campaign itself does not believe it is getting enough oxygen and is behind schedule. After Perry failed, the attempt showed Jindal was very desperate. With two bad results, you can only imagine how Team Kasich would have to feel to sign off.
If the PAC is doing this without any consent from the candidate, that’s a bad sign too. They’ve lost faith in their candidate. If he manages to stop them now, he looks like a weak moron for picking a fight he can’t finish.
This doesn’t end well for Kasich. Very soon the polls, at least in New Hampshire, will reflect the incredible difference between how well the Christie campaign has handled the past few weeks compared to Kasich.
The Big Four
Let’s look at a few numbers:
These are the combined totals for Trump, Carson, Rubio and Cruz in very recently released polls. There’s some mild cherry-picking. Another national poll has the group at 67%. I left out New Jersey (67%) and New Hampshire (high score of 60%), but you can clearly see which way the trend is heading. The Granite State is not representative of the national GOP electorate.
While Jeb, Christie and Kasich combine for 20-23% in New Hampshire, they total 3% in Oklahoma. For now, in much of the country, Rubio is the acceptable moderate/establishment candidate (16% in OK, 19% CO, 18% FL), Cruz and Carson are dueling for evangelicals and anti-establishment conservatives and Trump has his 20-25% floor, sometimes doing noticeably better than that.
These are virtually always the top 4. Trump usually leads, though he’s 3rd in Colorado. Rubio isn’t leading anywhere, though he’s rarely worse than third. Carson and Cruz have more variability.
To show how dominant the group currently is, all four lead Jeb in Florida and all but Cruz are ahead of Christie in New Jersey. Trump and Rubio have an edge in New England (and Florida which is sort of an honorary northern state). Carson and Cruz seem relatively stronger elsewhere, though their gains come at the expense of the Jeb/Christie/Kasich group, not Trump and Rubio.
As a result, places like Oklahoma and Colorado are more compressed, where around 10 points divide first from fourth. Given that voting is still multiple months away and most voters like a couple candidates pretty equally, any of the four could win many of these states.
There are a few strategic implications. While Trump is attacking Carson with great gusto and frequency, he needs to make sure not to do this too well (Carson hangs in against him pretty well anyway). Of the four leaders, Trump has the lowest favorability rating among GOP voters.
He definitely has the highest floor, but also likely has the lowest ceiling. More Republicans say they would never vote for Trump than any other contender (the neutralized Jeb has a problem here too). If each of the four stay relatively strong and viable, it’s much easier to win a primary or caucus with 26%, 28% in the states where voters would prefer someone more evangelical or consistently conservative or both.
These states, places like Iowa, Georgia, Oklahoma, etc. have noticeably larger combined support for Carson and Cruz than Trump. As long as both are doing well, but in relative balance with each other, Trump can play divide and conquer, winning with 26% while the other two divide 35-45%.
If Carson fades too quickly, Trump could find himself losing Iowa to Cruz by a decently wide margin, ruining the string of wins necessary to give himself a real chance at the nomination. It’s extremely likely Trump realizes this. He’s proven his skills at reading polls and attacking strategically. You’ll know he’s worried about Cruz moving ahead of Carson when he shifts his fire, much as he tried to slap down Rubio as Jeb faded away.
Rubio continues to face the same primary issue he’s had since his entry. He can compete everywhere but is favored to win nowhere. Particularly once March 15 rolls around and delegates are distributed in a winner-take-all format (either statewide, or by congressional district), he’ll need to finish first regularly.
Getting rid of Jeb/Christie/Kasich as early as possible is crucial to Rubio’s chances. To have good odds at the nomination, none can make it to South Carolina. If Rubio finishes ahead of each of them in both Iowa and New Hampshire, he will accomplish this.
In states where the governors are doing very poorly, Rubio is already close enough to win, but is dependent on Trump, Carson and Cruz splitting the anti-establishment vote. Against all 3 he could win, against 2 he will likely contend. Head-to-head, particularly against Cruz or a more sure-of-himself on foreign policy Carson, he’d likely lose. Like Trump, Rubio needs to make sure neither Carson not Cruz (especially Cruz) kills the other off too quickly.
Trump has a tougher matchup with Carson but needs to worry about Cruz putting too many voters together and winning delegates. Rubio has a tougher matchup with Cruz but needs to worry about Carson getting on a roll and grabbing too many delegates.
In the more governor-friendly states, Rubio is doing well, but he needs the Jeb/Christie/Kasich votes to catch Trump. The Donald is north of 30% in Florida and often is in South Carolina. Even if Trump gives back several points once the voting is real, a strengthened Christie or Bush would make a Rubio win very difficult.
Cruz has all kinds of upside, but he is not leading anywhere outside of Texas (where he was tied for first in the last poll). He’s also avoided front-runner type scrutiny and is less popular than Carson with GOP voters and especially Independents. Carson is spending significant time in March 1 voting states too and will not be an easy out.
Speaking of Carson, he’s supposedly fading. Instead of virtually tied with Trump, newer national polls are showing him trailing by a few points, in the 18-20% range instead of 22-26%. No new polls from Iowa, but even those taken before the last debate showed his lead over Trump evaporating. By many measures, Rubio is even or possibly even ahead when measuring overall favorability.
I would argue this speaks to Carson’s strength, not his weakness. Let’s consider what’s happened over the past three weeks. He participated in two debates (a format not favorable to him), dealt with a media (and Trump) pile-on about his biographical statements about youthful violence and a West Point invitation, and stumbled through multiple interviews about ISIS and Syria right after a major terrorist attack.
Running a strong second after all that is really impressive, especially when you consider his most direct competitior Cruz had his best run of the campaign. After the second debate, Carson briefly fell back into a tie with Fiorina, based on her superior skills in that format. Over the next couple weeks, he recouped his losses and eventually wound up ahead of where he started. We haven’t heard from Carly since.
Cruz is a bigger problem and is more able to draw attention to himself away from debates, but it’s not always favorable. Unlike Fiorina, who struggles to locate the spotlight, but says things almost all GOP voters agree with, Cruz turns some Republicans off. Carson is easier to root for than Ted. If he can clean up his foreign policy pitch, the fade will end quickly.
Of the four, the group garnering almost 3/4 of combined support nationwide, Marco Rubio is the candidate with the most traditional experience. 4 years, 10.5 months in the Senate. This creates a ton of variability.
It’s very clear these four are well ahead of the others, at least for now. How things shake out between them, especially if none of the governors can join in, is far more cloudy. If I had to order their chances, it would go Rubio, Cruz, Trump, Carson, but that is subject to rapid change.
Stay tuned for part two, where we cover GOP foreign policy and examine one bit of hope for Bernie Sanders.