November 24, 2015
Massachusetts isn’t the first state you think of when looking for indicators in a national Republican primary race. The last time a GOP candidate ran better in the Commonwealth than nationwide was 1956. Apparently they liked Ike. Then JFK ran and ever since, Republicans only win there when they win everywhere.
Exactly two Massachusetts GOP presidential primary polls are in the public domain (i.e. listed at Real Clear Politics). The first, from Emerson College, was taken mid-October. The second, from Boston Globe/Suffolk is very recent (taken 11/19-11/22).
As always, keep in mind drawing firm conclusions from limited data points is dangerous. Since the pollsters are different, we can’t be 100% sure that changes in response are only due to changes in conditions/candidate performance. As you’ll see below, Massachusetts is particularly susceptible to a faulty reading.
Still, two important things come to mind after reviewing the results. Even if the poll results are flawed, it doesn’t change the two underlying questions. Here’s what they say:
Carson is on the Clock Just Like Bernie
Republican voters are very partial to Ben Carson. They still view him very favorably. However, his horse race poll numbers have slipped. He’s facing the same problem as Bernie Sanders. Many voters like him and may even think more highly of him than the person they support when being polled, but they question his viability.
Every candidate has a base of supporters, those who will vote for them even if it seems like a virtually lost cause. Above that foundation are voters who would prefer to vote for them, but will bail if it seems like a wasted vote.
Next are the voters open to the candidate, but very much in play. Finally, those leaning to someone else, but willing to consider the candidate as a backup if more viable than their current favorite.
Donald Trump has two yuuge advantages. First his base of voters is higher than any other candidate. Second, that base exists almost everywhere, while other candidates are far more dependent on particular states or regions.
Every candidate has setbacks. The larger the base, the smaller the chance of falling too far in the momentum game before you straighten things out. Trump does have his bad moments, but so far, at worst he’s a strong second when things go poorly. This gives him time and oxygen when needed.
Ted Cruz didn’t have a huge foundation when he was struggling over the summer, but it was enough, more than the undercard candidates. It gave him the freedom to plan for the long-haul, spend time in Alabama and Georgia instead of camping out in Iowa.
Dr. Carson has the second biggest base of any GOP candidate. These are the people who supported him before he got debate exposure, before he started showing up on morning shows every Sunday. They’ve internalized his story and are far more interested in his personal traits than his ability to rattle off a list of anti-ISIL coalition partners.
However, it’s not enough to win any single state. Nor is it evenly distributed throughout the country. While he has a high floor in Iowa and many Bible Belt states, the Northeast is not as kind to him. There are plenty of voters who are open to him, but few who are committed.
In October, Carson drew 14% in the Emerson poll, a very distant second to Trump, but more than Bush/Christie/Kasich combined (12%). The candidates never to have held office (Trump/Carson/Fiorina) totaled 67%.
Now, Carson is at 5% and the non-politicians combine for 41%. The main beneficiaries are Marco Rubio (up from 12% to 18%), Cruz (5% to 10%) and undecided. Emerson made voters choose someone, Suffolk didn’t, so 1/6th of the voters didn’t pick a candidate in the second poll.
Trump didn’t lose as much as it looks. He had 48% the first time, but still has 39% of those who listed a preference. Rubio has 22% of those with an opinion, so he actually almost doubled in the past month. Cruz and Carson combined for 19% last month and an adjusted 18% this time.
This is much closer to what mainstream opinion makers would have figured in the aftermath of the past two debates and especially Paris. Trump lost ground, instead of gaining. Rubio got noticeable credit for being aggressive, but also credible.
Cruz made progress and grabbed a large percentage of Carson’s support, but isn’t yet a front runner. The appetite for outsiders didn’t grow. By itself, this doesn’t change the race. Alabama and Oklahoma still get to vote too. This just confirms GOP voters in Massachusetts are reacting to recent events like the elite Republican media.
But it does show another place where Cruz has pulled ahead of Carson. Much as Sanders needs to stay close enough to Hillary outside of Iowa to ensure he gets full consideration from undecided and leaning voters in Iowa, Carson needs to seem credible enough to get Iowans who might like him a bit more than Cruz, but want to support a conservative evangelical-friendly candidate if he wants them to caucus for him.
The next debate on December 15, hosted by CNN, moderated by Wolf Blitzer, will definitely focus on foreign policy/national security. It’s the only debate between now and 2016. Voters traditionally pay less attention over the holidays.
This puts Dr. Carson on the clock. It’s unlikely he manages to change the narrative this week, particularly with Thanksgiving, Black Friday, etc. going on. It does give him a few days to re-group and plan his approach forward.
If he can improve his national security pitch over the following two weeks, he’ll be ready for the debate. Expectations are very modest. A few well executed pre-meditated comments and he’s back in the game. If Carson sounds foggy and unsure of himself, all but his core support will fall away heading in to Xmas.
With Iowa a must-win if he wants the nomination, the stakes are high. A month ago, while few were ready to anoint him just yet, Carson could argue he was more electable than Cruz, at least to the sort of voters who are considering the two.
He led Cruz everywhere except Texas, had higher overall favorability ratings and did better in pseudo-contests with Hillary Clinton. GOP voters might have appreciated Cruz’ quick intellect but were more likely to favor the likeable Carson. Things can shift back, but the window is closing.
If Hillary Wins Quickly, GOP Field is Impacted
You might still think I’m overemphasizing Massachusetts, even if they have more GOP delegates than Iowa or New Hampshire and almost as many as South Carolina. After all, it’s not like these results are mirroring national polls.
There’s another variable. Only 46% of Massachusetts voters are registered Democrats (35%) or Republicans (11%). Like several others, particularly those voting in March, the Bay State is a modified primary, meaning Independent voters get to participate.
In a closed primary, only Democrats can vote on the Democratic side, Republicans on theirs. A modified primary allows Independents to choose where they want to participate. An open primary allows for cross-over voting. Of the twelve contests on March 1, three are closed, two modified and seven open.
While it’s not over yet, there’s every possibility Hillary will win in Iowa and Nevada before dominating in South Carolina. That would probably wrap things up. If she wins New Hampshire, where Bernie has a minimal lead now, it is definitely over.
It is easy to see why even Democratic-leaning voters might prefer to participate in the March 1 Republican primaries, as getting to vote against Trump, for Trump to troll the other party, or just pick a candidate you could tolerate if Hillary loses sounds more fun than helping to coronate Clinton.
Republican-leaning Independents will definitely have reason to turn out, and truly middle of the road voters would have heavy incentive to choose the GOP ballot. If debate ratings are a proxy for which primary Independents and curious Democrats would choose, Republicans should expect a large outside influence in these open or modified contests.
While Massachusetts Republicans and GOP-leaners may not accurately represent national Republicans, they are significantly closer to true Independents and Democratic-leaning Independents elsewhere.
Not only would the Massachusetts electorate move a little leftward on March 1 if Hillary is inevitable, but places like Tennessee and Georgia would look a little less red. It’s dangerous to try to predict exactly which candidates this will favor, but we can still try.
Trump’s strength in places like Massachusetts and New Hampshire indicates modified primaries are likely favorable to him. Remember when Jeb Bush spent a bunch of time saying The Donald wasn’t a true Republican or true conservative?
Well, in a closed primary that might matter at some point. It actually already does. Trump does noticeably worse in state polling when only registered Republicans are surveyed. Remember, he usually is weaker in (closed) Iowa than nationwide.
Rubio does best in closed states, often running very close to Trump, or even ahead of him in Arizona and Colorado. This makes sense too. He’s the only establishment-approved candidate of the polling leaders, so by nature actual registered Republicans are rallying to him.
Carson is comparatively stronger in closed states, but not to quite the same extent as Rubio. He’s helped by the exclusion of mixed-ideology Independents who would prefer Trump and some Cruz loyalists who aren’t registered Republicans.
Speaking of Cruz, it’s not that clear yet which arrangement favors him. Looks like the effects sort of cancel each other out. Closed states keep Trump’s numbers to a level where another candidate can pass him, but also help Carson who is most in the way for Cruz and Rubio, who usually leads Cruz in closed states (Iowa a notable exception).
All of these polls (in non-closed states) are based on Republican or Republican-leaning Independents who at the time of polling assume they are voting in the GOP primary/caucus. This does not account for people who think they are voting on the Dem side today but will change their tune if there is nothing going on for their team.
We can guess they would like Rubio better than the others, or provide a real boost for a governor who can somehow leverage himself forward from New Hampshire, but it isn’t certain with no direct polling to prove anything.
You can look at favorability numbers, but a registered Democrat or Dem leaner might pick the candidate they find least unfavorable, having told a pollster they don’t like any Republican. Plus there’s always the chance of trolling. It’s a very difficult to measure key factor.
Putting this together, the GOP race has even more variability than already recognized. You can claim Chris Christie could get a big boost from more moderate non-GOP voters if he can survive New Hampshire. You can argue some of those voters would flock to Rubio to avoid Trump or Cruz.
But you can also argue this helps Trump and gives him a higher ceiling than commonly accepted, giving him a very decent chance as long as there are at least two strong candidates to split the anti-Trump vote. The only thing I’m fairly certain of is Dr. Carson has less than three weeks to sound way better on national security.