Several months ago, I said the state of the horse race in the polls doesn’t tell us anything definitive about the end result. Candidates still need to go out and make something happen.
So what has happened? Not much. Trump has vacillated up and down 5% from 30% and is roughly at his peak. Cruz has risen roughly 13% concurrent with a 17% drop of Carson. Except for a short-lived bump by Fiorina, everyone else has basically vacillated just a few points up or down.
Some facts (or meaningless trivia?) since 1972 when Iowa and New Hampshire became the “official” starts of the regular season:
- There is a maxim three tickets get punched in Iowa. (ticket=have a chance to get the nomination)
- Similarly, there is a maxim two tickets get punched in New Hampshire.
- In the last cycles in Iowa, the top three candidates cumulative poll support is quite close to their cumulative realized voter support. To large degree, the volatility was with the candidates below the top three when on occasion someone jumps into the top three.
- Also in the last two cycles, winning Iowa often results in underperforming pre-primary support in the polls. However, being #2 or #3 in Iowa seems to provide a New Hampshire bump.
- In Iowa, in both 2008 and 2012, the undecided were about 10%. This year they are less than 3%.
- In New Hampshire, in both 2008 and 2012, the undecided were also about 10%. This year they are less than 5%.
So, where are we?
Unless Trump’s debate decision or his weak Iowa caucus ground-game significantly impacts his performance, Trump will punch an Iowa ticket.
Cruz appears to have the most formidable Iowa ground game and will punch a ticket in Iowa (likely finishing either 1st or 2nd). While 2nd in NH, his ground game is considered not top tier and his lead is very small over Kasich, Rubio & Bush who all seem to have better NH organizations.
Rubio’s 3rd place standing in Iowa is a strong 6% lead over Carson and very strong 10% lead over Paul. He is likely to punch his ticket in Iowa but far from assured as I discuss below.
Carson, Paul and Bush are on the bubble looking in. In 2008, Thompson surged (+4.4%) and squeaked into 3rd. And, in 2012, Santorum really surged (+16.9%) to go from 5th to 1st. There is room for only one of these three to stop Rubio from punching his ticket. For Carson and Paul, this is do or die. Carson is the most likely to benefit from a Trump fall-out in Iowa if it occurs. Bush can hold on because he has already invested in organization infrastructure even beyond South Carolina and Nevada.
If Trump doesn’t punch an Iowa ticket, he is virtually assured of doing so in New Hampshire where he has a 19% lead over everyone in the field. I doubt the history of New Hampshire knocking down Iowa winners will be able to prevail over this large lead.
Cruz (12.6%), Kasich (12.1%), Rubio (10.6%), Bush (9.7%) and maybe Christie (6.7%) are fighting for the second ticket. Kasich has been recognized as having the best NH organization and is in a virtual tie with Cruz and Rubio for 2nd place. NH also historically lifts someone who didn’t do well in Iowa. And, Kasich has been collecting New Hampshire endorsements like baseball cards, even from former Senator Gordon Humphrey who proudly said he was to the right of Ronald Reagan.
Wildcard: South Carolina
Because this is a primary unlike others (or at least people are saying it is), a case can be made that South Carolina could be a place to punch a ticket to go onto Super Tuesday. Normally, South Carolina’s role is cancel tickets. But because of Governor Nikki Haley and Senator Tim Scott are rumored to be helping Rubio behind the scenes and may endorse him, Rubio is the only one likely to punch a new ticket in South Carolina. Otherwise, all the SC tickets will likely go to someone who already has punched a ticket.
Super Tuesday and beyond: If we aren’t down to three candidates before, I think we will be after Super Tuesday. Trump and Cruz are most likely to be two of those candidates and currently have roughly 55% of the GOP primary voters supporting them. Whoever the third candidate is, that candidate will need help (Trump or Cruz fade) to get the nomination. Otherwise, by the time the primary gets to South Dakota, we will be choosing between Trump or Cruz.
So what does this mean? John McCain is the only candidate since 1972 not to punch a ticket in both Iowa and New Hampshire and go on to get the nomination. If history repeats itself, right now it looks like Trump will likely punch a ticket in both states and only one of Cruz or Rubio can.
And, if Cruz or Rubio don’t, does that mean the nomination is essentially over? Or, because this election where there is nothing that resembles history, does one only need to punch a ticket in Iowa OR New Hampshire to move on or could the nominee could come from someone who doesn’t punch a ticket in either state? How many candidates will be viable on Super Tuesday? Who will they be? Did Trump’s absence in the final Iowa debate help or hurt him? Did Trump’s absence help or hurt anyone else? Did Cruz and Rubio both flub their responses to the video clips on illegal immigration?
Sidenote on Democrats: They have never nominated a candidate who didn’t punch a ticket in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Wonder what that means ifSanders wins Iowa.