Things Can Change, But Will They?

Nate Cohn reminds us not to get overly invested in the polls:

In recent primary campaigns, going back to the 2004 Democratic primary, those candidates who have led in Iowa or New Hampshire polls with just one month to go have lost as often as they have won. On average, candidates’ share of the vote at this stage differed from their final share of the vote by around seven percentage points. With many candidates running, it was not at all uncommon for a candidate to move by more.

The most extreme examples are just that. In 2004, John Edwards held 7 percent of the support in Iowa with a month to go; he won around 32 percent. In 2008, John McCain held 18 percent in New Hampshire; he won with 37 percent. In 2012 in Iowa, Rick Santorum held 5 percent; he won with 25 percent.

Obviously, nothing about this election cycle feels particularly familiar. Yet, it’s still true that most voters have not made up their minds about who’ll they’ll vote for. A lot of people haven’t even decided whether they will vote.

On the Republican side, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump look well-positioned to top the field, and really no one looks poised to overtake them. Ben Carson is moving in the wrong direction. Chris Christie is perhaps moving in the right one.

These early contests don’t contain a lot of actual delegates so their importance is more about perceptions. In Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, it can be just as beneficial to exceed expectations as it is to win. It can also be unduly detrimental to do worse than expected.

If Trump and Cruz meet expectations and finish as the top two in Iowa and New Hampshire, I think that sets up a two-person race, particularly if they split the two contests between them. But, if one of them falls below the top tier, and especially if Trump fails to outright win either contest, then there should be room for someone else to move into serious contention.

So, there will be a real fight among the also-rans like Bush, Christie, Rubio, Fiorina and perhaps Kasich to get either a second place finish or a strong third place that stands out from all the others behind them.

Bush has been left for dead, but given his resources, any sign of life could rejuvenate his campaign. Rubio has been the media’s favorite to fill the “Establishment” role, and his campaign could gain some momentum if he can exceed the polling expectations. I don’t think Christie is trying to do well in Iowa, but a second place finish in New Hampshire could turn him into an “Establishment” choice. Fiorina, Kasich, and (I guess) Rand Paul are looking very weak, but that makes it easier to do better than expected. Their challenge, though, is to stand out by launching themselves into the top three.

Ben Carson is in a weird place. He’s already fallen below expectations and it’s threatening to create a total collapse of support. He needs to restore expectations in order to regain supporters, but that would make it harder for him to positively spin the results. I think Ben Carson needs to win Iowa or he’s finished.

On the Democratic side, the big question that remains is whether Sanders can win in New Hampshire even if he loses in Iowa. As Bill Bradley discovered in 2000, a small lead in the Granite State can evaporate in a hurry in the aftermath of a punishing loss in the Hawkeye State. I know the Sanders folks haven’t given up on winning Iowa outright, but I think that’s a long shot and they should probably stop saying that they think they can win. If they can reduce expectations there enough, they might get a positive spin out of the results even if they lose. And that could be just enough for them to hold onto what looks like a very small and tenuous lead in New Hampshire.

The problem for Sanders is that it’s hard to see where he would get his next win after New Hampshire. In 2008, it wasn’t too hard to identify states that would go to Obama after New Hampshire. There were a lot of them. At one point, I was able to correctly predict that Obama would win the next twelve contests in a row based solely on demographic data. There’s nothing like that out there for Sanders. I don’t see any slam-dunk Sanders states, including New Hampshire and Vermont. What I see are a small handful of states where he should be competitive and have a real shot. And I don’t see that changing much even if he wins the first two contests.

There’s definitely a lot of potential for volatility in the race over the next five or six weeks, but it also looks predictable in some ways. Clinton looks like a juggernaut. Rivals to Trump and Cruz look weak and unlikely to make a move. I expect someone to emerge on the Republican side to rival the top two, but not necessarily with enough strength to matter. The scenario that has the most potential to shake up the race is a much better than expected performance by Jeb. More likely scenarios involve stronger than expected finishes by Rubio or Christie.

Anything other than this, like a Carson revival or Paul, Kasich or Fiorina boomlet would be pretty shocking to me at this point. I still think Kasich is the best general election candidate they have, but I don’t think the GOP electorate is in a general election mindset.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.