“The polls don’t matter”
“The polls only matter for my candidate”
“This is about momentum and expectations”
“My candidate is clearly best-positioned and here’s why”
These are just a few of the comments I heard from the punditry as I was jogging on the treadmill at the gym yesterday evening (as an aside: Fox News, your commercials are ridiculously long. I get it, you’re capitalists, but jeez, six or seven minutes of mini-infomercials is an eternity when you’re climbing a hill at 8mph.).
Here are a few things that we all know: 1) cable news is biased; 2) most people on cable news have an agenda; 3) controversy sells; and 4) it’s all about the clicks these days.
So, your opinion about who is best-favored to win in New Hampshire and what your expectations are for next Tuesday night are likely colored by your own view of the race and candidate preferences (or visceral, visceral hatred of one or two candidates in particular). But, for the purpose of today’s post, let’s assume we are cold, logical, and decisive about reading what’s really going on in New Hampshire and elsewhere and try to get a good lay of the land.
Trump has a plan to beat Cruz
Donald Trump is “going craaaazy” over Iowa voter fraud! He’s such a bozo loose cannon loser!
No. What he’s doing makes complete sense. Trump sees that current numbers show that Ben Carson is still drawing between 8 and 10% of the GOP vote nationally. Most of Carson’s early support drifted to Ted Cruz and played a large part in Cruz’s ascendancy. Trump realizes that an extra 10% for Cruz would put him on top on Super Tuesday and may push Trump to a second-or-third place finish in South Carolina.
With this in mind: Trump needs Carson’s supporters. More to the point, Trump needs Carson’s supporters not to go to Cruz before Super Tuesday. If Trump can keep Carson’s supporters angry at Cruz long enough, he will blunt any significant bounce for Cruz. Trump benefits tremendously from Carson remaining in the race, but, if Carson does decide to drop out, Trump is hoping that his stalwart defense of Carson over allegations of fraud are going to make Carson’s supporters consider Trump. Will he be right? That’s not clear.
Rubio’s Press Team is Better than Anyone Else’s
“An AMAZING third place finish and surging in New Hampshire!”
Watch what happens in New Hampshire next week. By all estimations, unless something strange happens, Donald Trump should pick up his first primary win. Could this change? Sure. There’s some indication in very early polling that Trump may have lost a few percentage points, but the reality is that New Hampshire follows so close on the heels of Iowa that any protracted slide will be cut off by the actual vote.
Rubio was lightly jabbed for his “winner’s speech” when he came in third place in Iowa. It was a better-than-expected showing precisely because Rubio’s team was strongly underselling their candidate.
In New Hampshire, press teams from Kasich, Bush, and Christie are stating flatly that Rubio “must” get second in order to keep that storyline alive. Rubio’s people are countering saying that Rubio will finish strong and get right to the next primaries. There’s a lot of interest in Team Rubio to clear the establishment lane before anyone starts high-kicking towards the finish line in New Hampshire.
Rubio is not going to be attacking Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Frankly, Rubio doesn’t need to care about either of them. His biggest concern is the media portrayal of his finish in New Hampshire. Even if Donald Trump wins by 20 points, if Rubio finishes in second, he’s going to have the press-momentum to force other candidates out.
10% is the Magic Number
“He’s surging, he’s falling, he’s stagnant…”
New Hampshire only awards delegates to the GOP convention if a candidate gets over 10% of the vote. That’s your ticket out of New Hampshire, folks. If Rubio is the only establishment candidate to get over 10%, he can make the claim that there’s no reason for the other campaigns to remain in the race.
On the other hand, if (at this point it seems they’re within the margin of error) Bush and Kasich get over 10% and run within a few points of Rubio, you can expect to see them remain in the race. Kasich has the claim that he can win his home state of Ohio (winner-take-all) and Bush has the claim that he has millions of dollars left in the bank to spend to rehabilitate his image as time goes on. (As of the time of writing, Christie and Fiorina are outside of the 10% threshold margin of error, but the same principle would apply in their cases).
The Debate will Actually Matter
Trump skipped the last debate. Was it a mistake? The people on FoxNews who hosted the debate say absolutely. Trump says not really. At this point, it doesn’t matter.
What matters is the debate this Saturday. ABC will be broadcasting the last debate before the primary in New Hampshire on “Superbowl Eve.” The analogy that these debates are candidates’ “closing arguments” is a fine one to make. However, most of the time, in a closing argument, you aren’t picking up heaps of mud to fling at one another.
Look for a fight between Trump (+Carson) v. Cruz and a fight between Rubio and “the rest.” Trump may hit down at Rubio to try to knock him off of his game, but if any projections right now are reliable it looks like Trump should win. What this means is that Trump will be talking to the people of South Carolina and the states voting on Tuesday. His message is simple: Ted Cruz is dishonest. While this contention may generate some scoffs from anti-Trump voters (Trump! Calling someone else dishonest!), his goal is to make Cruz voters (primarily more conservative and more religious) doubt Cruz’s principles.
Trump is in the Best Position, for now
If a “national primary” was held right now, we would likely see Trump get a plurality of the national vote but win a majority of the delegates at the GOP convention (because of winner-take-all provisions in some states). That analysis is generally worthless because that’s not the way that we conduct primaries.
Trump needs to do a few things in rapid succession in order to solidify his position as the frontrunner:
- Win New Hampshire- Obvious but necessary. The larger the margin the better.
- Hope Rubio loses to Kasich and Cruz- The biggest threat to Trump down the line is Rubio. Preventing him from getting momentum and attracting supporters from establishment folks and Cruz is paramount.
- Consume Next Wednesday’s News Cycle if it’s the Last Thing He Ever Does- Even if he wins by 1%, Trump needs to completely dominate coverage. Any talk of Rubio’s momentum must be stopped. He needs to have huge, simulcast parties watching the NH results in South Carolina and across Super Tuesday states. He needs to be the ultimate showman. If he can keep the story focused on him, he can prevent Rubio’s goal of getting momentum coverage
Rubio Thinks He’ll be the Nominee
Rubio knows he has a lot of support among establishment Republicans and in conservative media. Some of these forces are waiting for the lane to clear before making endorsements. But, you better believe that they are coming.
It’s actually not bad logic. Rubio has bet that Cruz will falter and his supporters, when forced to choose between Rubio and Trump will pick Rubio. We saw some of this play out in Iowa when “late deciders” were coming in disproportionately (at least by the polling) for Rubio. The smaller the race becomes, the more voters will be forced to decide whether they want Donald Trump to be the nominee. Current polling suggests that about 1 in 3 people do. That’s great for a race of 9 people, but not in a race with 2.
Rubio’s problem is that, as long as Ted Cruz stays in the race, he has a long-term problem (consequently, this is the reason you’re not going to see Rubio going after Trump. Trump attacking Cruz is, ultimately, helping Rubio). Especially on Super Tuesday (and then into Florida), there’s no state where Rubio is predicted to have an outright win. That’s a problem if you’re trying to be the eventual nominee.
However, Rubio hopes that Cruz falters under “dishonesty” attacks and drops out after poor showings on Super Tuesday. Rubio’s plan also relies on Bush, Kasich, and Christie clearing the lane after New Hampshire. If Rubio and his press team can’t make this work, the Florida Senator will have a very difficult uphill battle to reach the “late stage” of the primary season.
No One Really knows
Polling in Iowa was “fairly” accurate. We knew Rubio was increasing and we knew Cruz had strong support. Cruz’s back was against the proverbial wall, so he needed the win and he got one. New Hampshire seems like it should go for Trump unless something strange happens.
The big question is: who remains in the race after New Hampshire. At this point, it looks like it may well come down to ego rather than polls or funding, so, on that issue, it’s too difficult to predict.
Matt McDaniel is running for City Council in Baltimore. Nothing in the foregoing is meant as an endorsement of any candidate or position. Mr. McDaniel has received no money from any entity affiliated with any person or organization mentioned herein.