December 14, 2015
Yesterday we took a look at four candidates holding on to their position by a thread. Today, it’s time to view three more with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
These probably aren’t the trio you would have chosen. Donald Trump is the national polling leader. Chris Christie is in mid-resurrection. Jeb Bush has done less with more than any candidate in recent memory.
Yet, none should feel any pressure tomorrow. Each should relish the opportunity. Here’s why:
I’ve already declared Bush 45 dead. Most recently, I speculated on when he would exit the race. If you think me too pessimistic, he still clearly trails Marco Rubio among establishment-certified candidates.
Well beyond that, he has negative favorability ratings among Republicans in most polls. He’s also still trending downward on that measure and top line support. A 5% poll result is now cause for celebration.
This is despite dumping a ton of advertising money over the past several weeks, particularly in early voting states. In Iowa, he remains clustered with several also-rans in margin of error territory.
New Hampshire numbers indicate a light pulse, but in addition to trailing Rubio, he’s even at best with John Kasich and now follows Christie too.
Running on fumes, seeing virtually no benefit from ads or repeated New Hampshire campaign appearances, he now enters another debate, a format charitably described as not his best friend.
If this isn’t the definition of nothing to lose….
Jeb has completely bottomed out. When the best moment your campaign had last week was being mocked by Will Ferrell on SNL (Broccoli!), there’s nowhere to go but up.
Several weeks ago, Jeb attempted to reboot himself as Mr. Fix It. The timing was off, and saying Jeb Can Fix It! when his own campaign needed fixing was just asking for scorn.
Still, that’s who Jeb really is, as his voluminous e-book of email correspondence from his governorship reveals. With Trump leaving him alone and other candidates to focus on, the updated Jeb got lost.
Worst case, the Jeb from the first four debates shows up, makes little impact, and fades into the night. He’s already dead candidate walking. No loss. If his team truly believes he’s decently positioned right now (denial is a nasty thing), this is the likely result.
However, if he understands there is absolutely nothing to lose at this point, and wants to go out swinging, there’s an ever-so-narrow path over a rickety, swinging bridge above a giant ravine with an angry river rushing through it.
The debate will center on foreign policy and national security. Buried in Jeb’s dismal polling is a shred of hope. When CNN asked national, Iowa, and New Hampshire voters who was best qualified to serve as Commander-in-Chief, Bush did relatively ok.
While some candidates scored below their overall support, Jeb did better, finishing close to, and once ahead of Rubio on this measure. There’s no way Bush 43 and Iraq don’t come up again.
Jeb should embrace his legacy, defend his brother’s intentions and some of the results. He should explain how he learned from the successes and failures of both Bush presidents.
Without reluctance or apology he should point out he will learn from what they did but not necessarily repeat it, noting a few specifics to take advantage of his general wonkishness.
He can go on to claim he’s learned, analyzed, adapted and prepared, while likely adversary Hillary Clinton has stumbled, temporized and obfuscated.
Nobody is expecting anything. Candidates have attack lines queued up for others. Take a giant swing Jeb. You’re playing with your fourth strike here.
He’s both a good debater and not likely the main focus of competitor attacks. This gives him a high floor. Worst case, he gets less screen time than higher polling/profile candidates, says what he usually does and finishes the evening where he started it.
That location is as an underdog with a puncher’s chance at making this interesting. He’s already in the top tier of New Hampshire non-Trumps. What if he had a really good night?
This time eight years ago, John McCain was on the comeback trail. Given up for dead a few months before, he was scraping his way back to respectability, one Granite State town hall at a time.
In a Holiday Season debate, one watched by many fewer than will tune or stream in tomorrow, McCain uncorked one of the better prepared lines in recent memory. In reference to Hillary Clinton pursuing legislation to designate Woodstock as a protected historical landmark, McCain deftly reminded the audience he missed the original festivities because he was tied up at the time.
Nobody likes a general election loser, so McCain is often referenced by conservative candidates as a path to ignore, but the line, and more importantly what it represented was an example of how the former POW closed the sale.
If Christie has a similarly clever approach, while John Kasich continues to annoy, Jeb plays it safe, and Marco Rubio spends the evening fending off Ted Cruz, he may eventually find himself as one of the three final candidates standing.
It may seem odd to speak of someone who got 41% support in the just released Monmouth national poll as an underdog. Especially when the second through fourth place finishers combined for less.
That actually understates things. It took adding together the next six candidates to match his 41%. Also, 10% didn’t choose anyone, meaning Trump grabbed 46% of the respondents who chose a candidate.
So in a field of 14, The Donald is almost equal to the sum total of everyone else. The poll was taken by the same organization that found him trailing Cruz in Iowa last week. This isn’t CNN/ORC which uses methodology which ignores whether voters have recently participated in the primary process.
It is the only released national poll taken completely after Trump’s announcement that he would bar Muslims from entering the country. They started counting on Thursday after voters had a full 48 hours to hear opponents and journalists slam him repeatedly.
However, there is now a gap between Trump’s Iowa position, where on average he trails Cruz a bit, and his national reading, which is showing a higher than expected ceiling.
Iowa votes first of course and could well puncture the bubble. As such, many are arguing Cruz is actually better positioned for the nomination. I would tend to agree.
As Trump pointed out himself last week, the only way he gets nominated is by having enough delegates to win on the first ballot before anyone gets to Cleveland. While Cruz is an establishment nightmare, Trump is the apocalypse.
An establishment candidate who could win a share of primaries and go into the convention with a competitive amount of delegates would likely have an even easier time than Cruz. If they need to choose an insurgent, it’s Ted not Trump.
While the math to get nominated is hard (though hardly impossible), the equation for staying very relevant is easy. As the past week has reinforced, there is seemingly no point at which Trump exceeds the tolerance of his supporters.
His high support floor and the large amount of proportionately assigned delegates over the first 20+ contests means getting rid of him is even tougher than getting him nominated.
As such, Trump can let it fly and see if Cruz can hold up. Ted has high favorability ratings, but hasn’t had to take fire from other insurgent candidates. When Mitch McConnell says he hates Cruz, that helps.
Though Ted is extremely fast on his feet, trying to keep himself as a backup for Trump voters, while holding on to current supporters and not losing the verbal battle is hard.
If Trump draws blood, he continues. If he doesn’t, like with some of his attacks on Rubio, he stops. While Cruz has a base of support, his Iowa lead comes from voters who aren’t all-in yet. A month ago they were with Ben Carson.
If some go back, Trump likely wins Iowa without his own support increasing at all. With half of his likely voters saying it’s The Donald or nobody, it’s safe to attack.
Usually front-runners play it safe. Trump doesn’t, hitting repeatedly at the first sign of someone catching him anywhere important. It’s possible this is just Trump being Trump, but my bet is he still thinks of himself as an underdog, if an increasingly plausible one.
His first debate was controversial, second lackluster, third and fourth forgettable. He doesn’t need a good performance to thrive. What if he actually lands a few blows tomorrow?