Tomorrow night, the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination will experience yet another thinning of the herd at the New Hampshire primary, only the second contest and the first primary of the GOP nomination battle. With its moderate, independent-minded electorate, the northeastern state is a sharp contrast to Iowa, where evangelical conservatives control the outcome.
After a cringeworthy moment early in Saturday’s nationally-televised debate, Senator Marco Rubio—seen as the favorite to place first or second in New Hampshire after his strong performance in Iowa—no longer seems to have a lock on a strong finish in the Granite State. Meanwhile, the governors shined. Jeb Bush finally had a decent performance, landing some blows on Donald Trump for his views on eminent domain. John Kasich made his folksy pitch, pointing to his experience in federal and state governments as a demonstration of his ability to solve problems and balance budgets.
With Rubio’s momentum appearing to taper and the lower-tier candidates gaining strength, what can we expect from the closely-contested New Hampshire primary?
According to the latest RealClearPolitics average, Donald Trump holds a 16 point lead over his closest competitor. Though Iowa showed his support to be softer than anticipated, it almost certainly is not soft enough to be overcome. Prior to the debate, I might have given Rubio a 20 percent chance of pulling ahead of Trump, but that figure would have presupposed a strong debate performance. Unless Rubio’s gaffe somehow improves his standing in the polls, a possibility which is quite remote by my estimation, I think the first-place position is securely Mr. Trump’s.
At the margins of probability, however, I think a Trump defeat could only occur at the hands of Sen. Rubio, Gov. Kasich, or Gov. Bush. Rubio would need to maintain his momentum from Iowa in spite of his poor debate performance and create a last-minute surge in order to post strong enough numbers to topple Trump. Kasich’s strong appeal among traditional moderates and independents could push him over the finish line and sap some of Trump’s support, which also draws heavily from these demographics.
Bush’s strong debate performance, coupled with his moderate bonafides, could give him a strong second-place or even a first-place finish. An Emerson tracking poll released today showed Bush gaining nearly ten percent over the four-day polling period, raking in 21 percent support among the voters surveyed on the final day. If the trend here is borne out on Tuesday, we could very well see a Bush surge, though almost certainly not enough to dethrone Mr. Trump. However, before Jeb fans get too excited, the Emerson poll’s day-to-day figures were enormously volatile. Between Saturday and Sunday, Trump soared 11 points, a move which followed his 15-point collapse over the first three days of the survey. If this poll tells us anything, it is that Bush might be getting a little momentum, but nothing more.
Of course, I will reiterate what I said before Iowa. Because Mr. Trump has put together a unique coalition of moderates, disillusioned independents, and unlikely voters1, there is no telling what kind of turnout he will be able to produce. As with Iowa, I imagine that Mr. Trump’s performance will be worse in the actual primary than in the final polls, which have consistently marked him at over 30 percent, but it is hard to see him losing enough ground to make New Hampshire competitive for anyone else.
Probability: 90 percent (Trump victory) and 10 percent (anyone else)
Despite his debate screw-up, Marco Rubio takes second place.
Since Donald Trump is almost certain to be victorious in New Hampshire, the battle for second place is key, especially for Marco Rubio. His embarrassing exchange with Chris Christie early in Saturday’s debate punctured a hole in his sails just as the gusts from his Iowa victory began to press his poll numbers toward the upper teens and out-of-range of the mid-tier and lower-tier candidates. And with only hours remaining before New Hampshire votes, there is not enough polling data to determine the impact of this difficult moment on Rubio’s efforts in New Hampshire.
So we turn to anecdotal data. Saturday’s debate had strong ratings, averaging a little over 13 million viewers.2 Yet the ratings rose steadily throughout the broadcast, which means that a good portion of viewers only saw the latter portion of the debate in which Sen. Rubio excelled. At worst, the ratings indicate that the viewers who saw his poor moment kept watching, therefore catching his much brighter moments later on in the debate as well.
And though the usual assortment of armchair political pundits and reporters have trotted out their claims that Rubio’s moment of weakness has finished him as a candidate, with some comparing his lapse to Rick Perry’s infamous “oops” moment in 2012, it is hard to tell whether this moment will really doom his candidacy. In the absence of hard post-debate polling data, anecdotal evidence and post-debate analysis are the best we can do.
First, Sen. Rubio’s messaging coming out of the debate has been absolutely on point. In his first post-debate town hall meeting, faced with criticism for repeating himself when discussing President Obama’s leadership in the debate, he repeated his words again and expressed his desire to focus on what he regards as the real issue of the presidential race: defeating and reversing the president’s legacy. There is nothing that Republican primary voters like more than when candidates—on-stage in a debate or a town hall meeting—turn their focus to attacking the Obama administration and its policies, so Rubio is saying all the right things to placate voters nervous about his performance on Saturday.
Second, the media’s coverage and evaluation of Rubio’s moment has not been highly unfavorable. The most awkward parts of the exchange were too lengthy to cut into a ten-second sound bite, so the worst pieces were typically lost when the clip was replayed on television. Chris Christie faced the karmic backlash of criticizing Sen. Rubio for being overly “scripted” in an interview with Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly on Sunday, who played several clips of the New Jersey governor making repetitious statements of his own in several of the Republican debates.
Third, if Rubio’s following has been seriously damaged by his debate moment, it is not showing on the campaign trail. His campaign raised more money in the first hour of the debate than in any other debate so far, and his town halls have been packed to the gills, even overflowing.
None of the preceding is to say that Rubio’s moment in the debate was good for him (it wasn’t) or that it will not put doubts in the minds of some voters (it will). However, it is hard to say whether it will ultimately hurt him much at all without the hard numbers to prove it.
My intuition tells me that Rubio still has the best chance of taking second place in New Hampshire. According to the latest CNN/ORC poll, Marco Rubio has the highest net electability score3 of all the GOP candidates, and a separate poll by the Boston Herald showed the Florida senator to have much higher favorability than John Kasich, his closest contender in the RealClearPolitics polling average. Even a bad debate gaffe cannot erase favorability and likability, even if it can blunt a candidate’s momentum.
Probability: 60 percent (Rubio 2nd), 20 percent (Kasich 2nd), 20 percent (Bush or Cruz 2nd)
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- The debate Saturday hauled in nearly a million more viewers than the Trump-less debate before the Iowa caucuses on Fox News Channel. (Source: Redstate.com)
- The net electability score of a candidate is the percentage of respondents who would not vote for the candidate under any circumstances, subtracted from the percentage of those who support the candidate. ^