February 19, 2016
Winning is the best. Grabbing a decent quantity of delegates is next best. Beating expectations is awfully useful. On March 1, it’s mostly about the delegates. For now, spin is pretty darn useful.
The following is what each candidate can plausibly get away with:Donald Trump
A win is a win. He has a good story to tell if he wins by any margin. He outperformed his polls in New Hampshire, so even if the reverse happens here, it’s just a single data point. If Trump can go after George W. Bush, Nikki Haley and the Pope in the same week and win a primary, good enough.
A big 7 to 10 (or more) point gap, with Cruz and Rubio knotted up in the second tier is plenty of reason for Trump to strut in his victory celebration and gives him great momentum heading to Nevada.
He can survive a loss, but there’s no good way to spin it. He can complain all he wants about dirty tricks from the Cruz campaign, but he held a big lead. If voters are that sold on him, a Cruz push poll shouldn’t move them too far.
He will try to spin any finish ahead of Rubio as a win. There is something to this. South Carolina evangelicals are not Iowa evangelicals. The two were on fairly equal footing, with Rubio having an arguable edge before his Chris Christie smackdown.
If Cruz bests him again, that’s three states in a row, with only Iowa clearly more favorable to Ted. If he winds up third, trailing Rubio and Trump, he will attempt to say Marco underperformed considering the endorsements he got, but it will ring hollow.
Rubio wasn’t going to drop out just because he finished fifth in New Hampshire, Cruz won’t if he finishes third (or even fourth) here. But it’s a loss/underperform if it happens, especially if Trump doubles his vote.
A close finish, something on the order of Trump 28, Cruz 24, Rubio 19, will get spun as a win, with Ted closing the gap on Trump once voters got a better sense of what The Donald is really about. That will work. Cruz sold his 12% third place in New Hampshire as a win. This is easier and more legit.
As usual, Team Rubio has avoided setting high expectations. He appears to have some momentum, with New Hampshire at least partially in the rearview mirror. He’s spent the past couple days campaigning with Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Trey Gowdy.
Not only are they the United Colors of Benetton as Haley said, but these are the three most popular politicians in the Palmetto State, especially Haley. If Rubio can’t finish safely ahead of Jeb with the perfect endorsers, it’s hard to sell.
At this point 20% is his over/under if he finishes third. Above, he can declare pseudo-victory, especially if Cruz isn’t that much ahead of him. Below that, with his top campaign staff from South Carolina, and having spent a fair amount of time in state, it’s a rough argument.
The real victory is finishing ahead of Cruz. He needs to wind up ahead of Jeb to try to start consolidating establishment-friendly results, but he’s also in a contest with Ted for strong conservatives. South Carolinians are more susceptible to electability arguments than some others, so it’s a chance for Rubio to make up for trailing him in the first two states.
Unless the polls are wrong, South Carolina will not mark the rebirth of the Bush campaign. The question is if it represents the burial. Jeb polls better here than anywhere else. His funds are beginning to run out. Even the super PAC is facing limits. Unless he finishes ahead of Rubio, the spigot will remain closed.
Third place for the second state in a row, winding up ahead of Rubio twice in a row, while marginalizing Kasich, is something he can work with. Even if Trump finishes well ahead again, it would prove Rubio can’t actually deliver when he needs to. Unlike New Hampshire, Marco has no excuse this time.
A close fourth place, with Kasich well behind him, and Jeb can make an argument to continue if he chooses to, though it would not qualify as any sort of bounce, outperform, or something much more than a death rattle.
He will have to exit if he trails Rubio and Kasich.
If Kasich finishes approximately even with or ahead of Jeb, he’s good to go for now. His supporters and fundraisers can make the argument that Bush had his chance and it’s time to give another governor a go.
Twelve to fourteen points is a good result. Eight is not enough. He’s received plenty of media coverage the past 10 days, participated in the town hall, did as well as he’s going to in the debate. He’s drawn decent sized crowds.
Democrats and Independents can vote in the GOP primary, though they need to decide now, as the Democratic side isn’t until 2/27. If Kasich is in single digits in an open primary, with momentum, it’s tough to see how he makes himself viable. Even if Jeb exits, not all Bush voters will go to him.
Selling a sixth place finish is almost impossible. His poll numbers in Nevada are lower than in South Carolina, and that’s a closed caucus, so he’d likely follow this with another disappointment then. He needs double digits, fourth place, or both.
Anything over 10% can and will be spun as a win. He entered the week below 5% in the polls and continuing to lose altitude. Now he’s progressing in every poll. Some are more skeptical than others, but in any tracking poll, he’s ahead of where he was a week ago.
This isn’t about getting nominated. There’s no path for that. It is about doing well enough to justify his presence, by showing his most loyal supporters he can continue to hang in. Carson isn’t like any of the other candidates. If he can hang in at least through March 1, he can influence the process.
That 10% plus result would likely put him ahead of or even with one or two other candidates. If he finishes a distant 6th, closer to 5% than 10%, it’s tough to justify his relevance going forward, even to his diehard fans.