January 26, 2016
It’s never too early to predict how results from a caucus that hasn’t happened yet will impact a primary that takes place still later. The last few days in Iowa have helped Marco Rubio in New Hampshire. Here’s how:
Trump moves ahead of Cruz
It’s still a contest, but Trump is now clearly ahead in polls. FiveThirtyEight’s polls-only measure has Trump at a 57% chance of winning Iowa, Cruz 36%. Overall, they have the two mostly tied (Cruz 47%/Trump 44%).
Things are close enough for a ground advantage to grind out a Cruz victory. A high percentage of Trump supporters have never caucused before. The debate on Thursday can make a big difference at the margins.
Three weeks ago, Cruz was ahead in the polls, plus had a ground advantage and momentum. Two weeks ago, Cruz was barely ahead in the polls, had a ground advantage and momentum was even. A week ago, Trump was barely ahead in the polls, Cruz had a ground advantage and Trump had momentum.
Now Trump is clearly ahead in the polls, has a definite momentum edge, is still controlling the narrative even in Iowa, is running anti-Cruz ads, and looks like a winner. Cruz still has a ground edge.
Rubio needs a Cruz loss. At a minimum, a very narrow Cruz victory. Two weeks ago, a large Cruz victory was as likely as a narrow Trump win. Now a noticeable Trump win seems about equivalent to a narrow Cruz win.
Ted is in pretty good position in New Hampshire. Expectations are low, but he’s consistently in the middle to top range of the non-Trump contestants. His second-choice numbers are good. His favorability ratings are good.
Plenty of conservatives are still weighing the Cruz-Rubio choice. If Ted finishes ahead of Marco in Iowa, and the results are reversed in New Hampshire, they remain somewhat equal options, with South Carolina looming as an important test.
If Cruz wins Iowa and then finishes ahead of Rubio in New Hampshire, things actually begin to resemble the Trump-Cruz binary choice so many are suggesting is on tap. I don’t think we’re there yet, but Granite State results could make it happen.
With Cruz and Rubio fairly close in New Hampshire polls, the Iowa outcome is an important variable. The better Trump does, the more likely Marco finishes ahead of Cruz, either due to conservatives choosing Rubio over him, GOP stalwarts picking Marco over one of the governors, or both.
Des Moines Register endorses Rubio
This endorsement does not make Rubio any more likely to pull an upset by finishing first or second in Iowa. In fact, you can argue it lessens his already slim odds by giving insurgent and outsider favoring voters one more reason to choose Cruz or Trump.
On average, Rubio + the governors = barely 20% of the total Iowa electorate. The Ted v. Trump war is not helping the establishment-friendly choices. For the first time, the two leaders are combining for about 60% of total support. At one time, getting to that level required including Ben Carson and a then-visible Carly Fiorina.
Interestingly, if current numbers hold, the top two and top three finishers in the caucus will have a higher than normal share of the vote, despite a record number of candidates. The diversity has seemingly forced voters to pick a contender sooner, rather than giving underdogs their normal space to pull an upset. Martin O’Malley is suffering from this on the other side.
With first and second likely off the table, this does present Rubio with a chance to put noticeable space between himself and the governors, no small matter heading into New Hampshire. Voters who want to make sure there’s an alternative to Trump/Cruz have extra reason to pick Marco, and these particular souls may pay at least a small bit of attention to the endorsement.
If a Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or John Kasich can’t even win over the Register, voters might as well stick with or move to Rubio as the alternative to a binary decision.
Governors continue evaporating in Iowa polls
We know Bush/Christie/Kasich aren’t well positioned in the Hawkeye State. We know none have thought they had any chance to win, place, or show for months (or at least several weeks for Jeb).
While at one time they might have hoped to finish ahead of Rubio, the strategy shifted to making the gap close enough to limit his momentum and make the case that a governor finishing ahead of him in New Hampshire was the most credible Trump (or Cruz) challenger.
Right to Rise, the Jeb super PAC/donor slush fund, has spent millions in Iowa and elsewhere to exactly this end. On the one hand, it’s worked beautifully. Rubio has stalled out in the mid-low double-digits. Unlike Cruz, who averages about 20% nationally, and scores well above that in his best states, Rubio is usually a clear and distant third.
The proof of damage comes in a question asked in each of the six states recently surveyed by CBS/YouGov. Voters were asked about the consistency of the three leading GOP candidates.
On average, Cruz gets positive marks from about 3/4 of the audience, Trump from closer to 2/3, Rubio just over half. Objectively, this isn’t fair. Rubio’s voting record is remarkably similar to Cruz’s. Trump is the candidate who has positions almost 180 degrees from where he used to stand.
The majority of the anti-Rubio ads focus on his diverse answers on immigration, something both Cruz and pre-2015 Trump are guilty of as well. However, Jeb (and Christie in New Hampshire) dumped millions on stopping Marco, while we all know The Donald wants to build the Great Wall of Trump on Mexico’s dime.
It’s a real problem for Rubio to overcome over the next few weeks. In the short run it leaves his support low enough to stay in range for a governor to surpass. But the governors are doing miserably in Iowa. Even prior to the Register endorsement, they’ve struggled to combine to match Rubio’s support.
The path for a governor was to have the results look something like this:
Governor X 9%
Governor Y 4%
Governor Z 3%
Numbers like that would give Governor X good momentum for New Hampshire, both showing Rubio wasn’t a savior and a noticeable difference compared to the other two governors. This is part of how McCain won New Hampshire in 2008.
He finished fourth in Iowa, but well ahead of Rudy Giuliani and very close to Fred Thompson in third. He also won the Register endorsement. Having all three governors finish fifth or worse, perhaps all in a tight cluster is the worst of all possible outcomes.
It reminds New Hampshire voters Rubio has a much better shot to pick up delegates in the rest of the country and fails to create space between the individual governors. Recent New Hampshire polling gives the governors about 23-28% to play with. One candidate will need about 2/3 of that just to finish second, never mind win.
Failing to separate in Iowa makes it harder in New Hampshire. This can only help Marco. Among the governors, it helps Kasich the most, as he was least invested in a mini-Iowa slingshot. He’s spent far less time attacking Rubio, preferring to build himself an alternative lane.
Anti-Cruz and Anti-Trump forces build
We wondered for months when various establishment forces would attempt to stop either or both of these two candidates. Now we know. In the past week, the National Review and Washington Times have joined the fight against Trump. Several of the contributors to the NR anti-Trump issue are based at the Weekly Standard or other similar publications.
You can consider them the Conservative-Industrial Complex, a group of serious, mostly full-spectrum conservative thinkers who have contributed to GOP-friendly think tanks and publications from the days when William F. Buckley was a freshly-graduated Yalie to the present.
Given the choice between Cruz and Trump, they would far prefer Cruz. However, they are also very open to Marco Rubio. Some already prefer him to Ted. They will happily and vocally support Rubio at such point Cruz becomes untenable as an option.
Meanwhile, the non-ideological Republican establishment drew their line in the sand against Cruz. Your Bob Doles and Trent Lotts have decided Ted is not an option, but The Donald is. This is logical, the same way the Trump opposition makes sense. For these people, established power brokers and some elected officials, Cruz is the bigger risk.
They don’t care that Trump doesn’t have a lengthy history of staying in line with conservative principles. Even the current version of Trump is not compatible with the free-trading, interventionist side of the conservative movement. These guys don’t care. They’re looking for two things:
As many victories as they can get in November, be it governorships, senators, representatives, state legislatures, etc. Someone they can negotiate with in 2017. They’ve convinced themselves Trump can and will pivot to the center in a fall election. Cruz has defiantly indicated that is out of the question.
Trump brags about his deal-making acumen. Cruz will govern against these forces. There are congressional Republicans he can work with, but it won’t be the normal K-Streeters.
This part of the GOP establishment would readily support Rubio if he had momentum. They aren’t sure he can get past the governors, and are really questioning if he can beat Trump, but they certainly can live with him if he does. There’s no comparison in their minds between Marco and Ted.
Of course, this is why Cruz is ahead of Rubio in most places. Ted gets the benefit of scorn from the right places, while Marco doesn’t have compensatory support. It’s the worst of both worlds. Still, both the anti-Cruz and anti-Trump forces can gladly settle on Rubio at such point he shows he’s worthy.
Both Trump and Cruz will skilfully run against their newly visible opponents. Do not expect this to seriously hurt either in the short-run. But Rubio has already dealt with organized opposition for the past several weeks, as his establishment-friendly opponents have tried to keep him in check. This forces his two strongest opponents to play a little defense too.
If the governors can’t make any noticeable progress over the next couple/few weeks, the anti-Rubio forces will go away. The anti-Trump and anti-Cruz groups will not. For New Hampshire, expect one last push to stop Marco, but if he survives, it gets better going forward. He’s operated at a disadvantage to Trump and Cruz for weeks. Not anymore.
None of this guarantees an easy path to second place in New Hampshire for Rubio. His updated message, focusing on the horrors of President Obama and the ability to defeat Hillary Clinton lacks the texture necessary to get voters to buy in to him.
The Thursday Iowa debate and subsequent event on 2/6 in New Hampshire are important places for Rubio to make a closing argument. His current pitch isn’t strong enough and requires additional focus on the economy.
However, Rubio is in better position than he was a week ago. Not because of anything he’s done, but because a surging Trump is better for him than a surging Cruz and the governors are remaining at the margins.
This isn’t a two-person nomination race yet.