January 7, 2016
We have our first post-New Year New Hampshire poll, courtesy of PPP. They survey the state regularly, most recently just after Thanksgiving, so there are plenty of reference points to see which candidates are improving or backsliding.
While you can’t count on any individual pollster to have an accurate representation of who will actually turn out to vote on primary day, at least there is usually consistency within their approach.
PPP also regularly surveys favorability ratings and second choices, both of which are often more predictive than current top line result. Several other polls will hit within the next day or three. If these results prove an outlier in any meaningful way, we’ll update accordingly.
New Hampshire is do or die for Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie and do or suffer noticeable injury for Marco Rubio. The definition of do varies from outright win, to strong second, to at least finishing ahead of the other guys in the group, depending on which pundit you ask about which candidate.
Trump probably really needs a win, while Ted Cruz mostly has an opportunity. If he finishes behind the others, no huge deal. If he finishes first or second, it’s a bonus. Anyone not yet mentioned doesn’t exist until something changes.
Conventional wisdom says the crush of New Hampshire-focused candidates is a problem, especially for anyone hoping for a strong establishment/center-right lane.
If Bush, Kasich and Christie are all spending most of their time, money and attention in the same state, won’t they block each other out, ensuring victory for Trump? Doesn’t this also harm the prospects of Rubio rallying mainstream conservatives in time to compete?
The competition is only good for the candidates and section of the party in question. It increases the odds of one winning the state, along with making a second place finish more acceptable. Best of both worlds.
Let’s look at the 4 most recent PPP surveys:
Early January 2016
Insurgents (Trump, Cruz, Carson) 43%
RNC Approved (Rubio, Bush, Christie, Kasich) 47%
Early December 2015
RNC Approved 34%
Mid October 2015
RNC Approved 34%
Late August 2015
Insurgents 55% (Included Fiorina–it’s justified)
RNC Approved 26%
There’s a very clear difference between August and the present, with a noticeable change in the last month since Jeb went all in on the Granite State.
Yes, there are more moderate and somewhat conservative GOP voters in New Hampshire. That’s why the governors are all camped out there. But ideological continuity wasn’t helping them a few months ago, when the numbers were much closer to the national results.
The current Real Clear Politics national average has the insurgents ahead 65/21, so there’s a considerable gulf. The RNC-approved message is getting more of a hearing in New Hampshire. While it is a more sympathetic audience, that doesn’t explain the shift by itself.
Nationwide, voters are hearing Trump, Trump, Trump, Cruz, a little Carson, some Rubio, a bit of Christie and Jeb on his heels. That roughly coincides with their current support.
It’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing. Jeb fell off the national radar because he communicated poorly, not because the media got bored, but there is some relationship.
With the August numbers, a mainstream candidate couldn’t win New Hampshire because their combined numbers were less than Trump’s.
The fall numbers made it very difficult. A candidate would have needed Trump to drop a little in addition to grabbing two-thirds of their group. Not very likely.
Before anyone can worry about knocking out their direct competitors, the total pie needs to be large enough to make it worth trying to eat the whole thing.
Now it is. The governors, who sometimes combine for single-digits in other states are at 32% without any assistance from Rubio. Expecting him to collapse was never a viable strategy. Now a governor can finish a strong second even if he stays where he is at 15%.
It’s great for Rubio. If he finishes second to Trump, and ahead of the governors (his current status), it’s not a resounding victory, but good enough. Meanwhile, the pool of voters who might swing over to him to blunt Trump or Cruz is now larger.
The governors don’t need to implode for Rubio to win or finish a very close second. This is the political version of a rising tide lifting all boats.
Now that we know the odds of at least one RNC-approved candidate ending New Hampshire primary day in a good mood have improved, what do the most likely outcomes look like as of today?
Trump is leading at 29%, almost double anyone else. He can win. He’s the most likely individual candidate to win, having led pretty much every New Hampshire poll since the middle of July (all of the polls listed at RCP).
He isn’t home free. We can’t be sure exactly what percentage of Independents will choose the GOP side instead of weighing in on Sanders-Clinton. We don’t know how many first-time or very sporadic primary voters Trump will turn out.
HIs current RCP average of 27% is both consistent with the past several months and just low enough to wind up below 25% if any one of several things (including finishing a noticeable second in Iowa) happen.
Not a stretch to get Rubio, Cruz or one of the governors into the low-mid 20s. Trump is the clear favorite for now, but this is far from over. Let’s add in second choice preference to see how many voters are readily available to each candidate:
As you can see, Cruz may only have 10% top line support right now, but if he gets a bounce from winning Iowa, many of the 17% who have him second could shift. The others are well positioned too, though Kasich needs to make up the most ground.
What about their respective floors? PPP asked voters how sure they were. There’s always the chance that a “positive” voter isn’t, especially after Iowa results are known, but if we multiply their first choice poll number by the certainty percentage, it’s a good estimate.
Other than being able to safely assume Trump will finish in the top 3, the remaining candidates could wind up in any order. Rubio is in better shape than the governors. He could survive finishing behind one of them, provided he’s not also trailing Cruz.
He has the highest ceiling of the RNC-approved candidates and the highest floor. It is important to note that he’s roughly even with Cruz in a state that should favor him. This is another example of things trending well for Ted.
Which governor has the best chance to break out? Let’s add in a look at favorability ratings (approve minus disapprove):
This view would favor Christie, with Bush a distant third among the governors. However, I think it’s misleading. Jeb has improved his standing noticeably in the last month, he was previously net negative.
Kasich made progress too, while Christie has stalled out. Given the competitive environment, there’s likely a ceiling on all of these guys. More importantly, Bush is very unpopular with insurgent-favoring voters.
Here’s how he stacks up with people supporting a more likely alternative:
Rubio supporters +30
Christie supporters +30
Kasich supporters +37
Add in a slight amount of improvement over the next month as Jeb continues to spend most of his time in New Hampshire and you have someone more than popular enough to grab 20-25% of the total vote.
Trump has a similar overall rating and he is very likely to wind up in that range or better. Furthermore, Jeb has accomplished this in the face of a very negative national narrative. He can’t go on Meet the Press without answering questions about why his campaign failed.
Christie is currently getting the benefit of a positive horse race narrative, but isn’t ahead of Jeb in New Hampshire on any measure other than overall popularity.
It does give Christie a slightly higher ceiling, as he’s +28 with Trump supporters, while Jeb is -40, but we already know Trumpists are the most devoted. Plus, Cruz is their most common second choice, not Christie.
Rubio remains the most likely RNC-approved candidate to win the primary. Jeb is the governor most likely to win their intramural battle. Christie has the best chance of posting a very high number, but has lost momentum. In order to restore it, he needs to finish ahead of Jeb in Iowa.
Kasich remains the also-ran. His impending poor finish in Iowa won’t help. While he’s superficially even with the others on the polling top line, he’s at an actual disadvantage.
Cruz’s result is very dependent on how he winds up in Iowa. A strong result for him is good for the governors, as his support tends to overlap Trump and Rubio.
Too soon to make a prediction, but that’s where we stand.