Well, we can begin to talk about who will make the cut and who will not for entry into the first Republican presidential debate in Cleveland on Thursday. With the NBC/WSJ poll coming in and showing mostly bad news for politicians across the board, there are still some who are getting ready to breath a sigh of relief.

It looks like Chris Christie and John Kasich will avoid disaster and a seat at the kiddie table. On the other hand, first degree felony-indicted Rick Perry should probably wrap up his second “Oops” try at this.

Here’s the expected cut, and I’ll have some observations below:

  1. Trump: 23.2%
  2. Undecided/Other: 16.2%
  3. Bush: 12.8%
  4. Walker: 10.6%
  5. Carson: 6.6%
  6. Huckabee: 6.6%
  7. Cruz: 6.2%
  8. Rubio: 5.2%
  9. Paul: 4.8%
  10. Christie: 3.4%
  11. Kasich: 2.8%

Not making the cut:

  1. Perry: 2.0%
  2. Santorum: 1.4%
  3. Jindal: 1.2%
  4. Fiorina: 1.0%
  5. Graham: 0.4%
  6. Pataki: 0.2%
  7. Gilmore: 0.2%

When you look at this average of polls, you can see that 83.8% of respondents express support for at least one of these candidates, but 16.4% of them do not. That’s not a terribly high number considering that it’s so early and a lot of people either don’t know some of the candidates or want to take a wait-and-see approach before throwing their support behind anyone.

As for the folks who have been relegated to the kiddie table, they collectively have managed to get the support of only 8.6% of the Republican base. What this means is that about 75% of poll respondents are backing a candidate who will be on the Fox News debate stage, while 25% are not. In such a wide field, 25% is a big chunk of change. It exceeds the number of people who have thrown their hat in Donald Trump’s three-ring circus.

Another way of looking at these numbers is to evaluate how the media-ordained frontrunners are doing. What should stand out immediately is that Marco Rubio and Rand Paul are polling below fellow senator Ted Cruz.

Now, Rand Paul is a special case because of his unorthodox views on the several issues, but Marco Rubio is a darling of the Republican establishment and the Beltway press. So far, though, he isn’t showing us much.

Now, there’s really only one guy on this whole list that everyone can imagine being president, and that’s Jeb Bush. We know that he has the connections and experience to staff up an administration and do the nuts and bolts aspects of running the country. That doesn’t mean he’d be popular, successful, or make decisions any better than his brother, but he meets the basic plausibility test better than Ben Carson, let’s put it that way. Yet, 87% of the Republican base is expressing support either for someone else or for no one at all. So, while Jeb can take comfort in the fact that he’s in second place and that only enormously implausible Donald Trump is ahead of him, he still has to recognize the magnitude of the rejection he’s getting in these poll numbers. Just based on name recognition alone, Jeb should be dominating these polls, and he’s not.

Scott Walker should be similarly disappointed that about 90% of voters are picking someone else or no one at all. But he’s probably in the best position here. There’s a huge anyone-but-a-Bush electorate out there, but the anyone-but-Walker contingent is extremely small. He has good reason to hope that as his name recognition grows, so will his support.

Now, lastly, I want to discuss governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio. They both made the cut, which was especially crucial for Kasich because the debate will be held in his home state. What they have is executive experience. And their experience is current, unlike the gubernatorial experience of Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee. In this, their main competitor is Scott Walker. Their job is to outshine Walker somehow and become the main alternative to Jeb. The culture warriors, Carson and Huckabee, will have life in Iowa but not much beyond it. The senators, Cruz, Paul, and Rubio, will be saddled with their association with Congress. So, if anyone at the bottom of this list has real potential to rise to the top, it’s Christie and Kasich.

A lot will depend on how Walker conducts himself. On paper, he’s the guy. But if he stumbles, there will be a big opening. My guess is that Christie is too damaged and too flawed to catch on, or to sustain it if he does. So, I look at this race right now, as it gets set to really begin, as four separate contests.

1. Will Trump come back to Earth or coast to the nomination? Almost everyone assumes he will crash sooner or later, but I sense some folks are getting a little uncertain about this.
2. Will Jeb rise to the top and stay persistently above the rest? How locked is the anyone-but-a-Bush vote?
3. Will Walker perform at the expected level and become the main competitor for Jeb or will he slip up and leave an opening for John Kasich?
4. Finally, among the senators, will Rubio emerge as the class of the field, or will Ted Cruz succeed in sucking up enough of the Trump/Anger vote to emerge as the third place choice?

As always, Rand Paul is a special case. Can he rally enough of a rump group to challenge for second or third place finishes with the hope that he’ll outlast the rest and get into a one-on-one contest with Jeb or Walker?

My guess is that he will fizzle badly and be gone by South Carolina, but this is partly because he just doesn’t seem to want to campaign very much. A better candidate might be able to do more with the support that is out there for Paul’s message.

So, in summary, as this begins, I see it as Trump’s race until people tire of his act, which may happen before Iowa or after, and not at all. But, assuming that Trump has no lasting power, it will become a race between either Jeb/Walker/Rubio or Jeb/Kasich/Cruz. In the first scenario, Walker will be the main beneficiary of Trump’s explosion, while in the second scenario it will be Cruz who sucks up most of his support.

Bush’s problem, as I see it, is that close to half the Republican electorate is currently either supporting Trump, some of the also-rans, or is undecided. I consider virtually all of those votes to be out of Bush’s reach. I don’t how many Cruz, Huckabee, or Carson voters are within his reach, either. So, Bush’s ability to grow seems limited, and I don’t see that same problem for Walker, Rubio or Kasich.

Walker has skeletons to worry about, but his biggest liability is lack of charisma and intelligence. Rubio is disadvantaged by a variety of factors, including his own rather massive skeletons, but also by being stuck in Congress, having brokered the immigration deal in the Senate, and simply by being a racial minority in a party that currently wants a white nativist nominee. Kasich probably is best positioned to move up, but he’s peddling a compassionate conservatism that doesn’t seem to fit the mood and that also most easily overlaps with Jeb’s base of support. It could be that a Trump collapse just moves to other protest candidates in an unpredictable and rotating way, but I do see Cruz as best-suited to capitalize on it. He could become a weaker and diminished vehicle for Trump’s message, but one that is strong enough and anti-Washington enough and anti-Republican leadership enough to become the third alternative.

We will see shortly.

[UPDATE] Here are the final FOX numbers:

Trump 26
Bush 15
Walker 9
Carson 7
Cruz 6
Huckabee 6
Rubio 5
Paul 5
Christie 3
Kasich 3
Fiorina 2
Santorum 2
Perry 1
Jindal 1

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com