Much of the last year in politics has been consumed by discussion over the Republican nomination. The story that a lot of us expected to be reading–about Jeb Bush battling whatever insurgent tried to knock him down–has been replaced by all Donald Trump, all the time. The nice thing, though, is that 2015 has very little bearing on the results of caucuses and primaries. (Three weeks before the Iowa caucus in 2012, the eventual winner was pulling around 5 percent in polling. It would be foolhardy to suggest that the same thing is likely to happen in 2016, but it is certainly not outside the realm of possibility.) So, much of the coverage in 2015 has been like covering Spring Training in baseball; maybe you’ll see something on the field that’s useful, but you’re really most interested in evaluating the injuries and the makeup of the various teams rather than the polls themselves.
But the regular season is about to begin, and it’s useful to take stock of where we are as the actual voting gets underway.
In a valuable piece at The Weekly Standard, Jay Cost wrote about the role of momentum, noting:
If a candidate whom most of the party likes—or at least does not dislike—wins an early contest, it is a decent bet that he or she will develop some momentum. Think of John Kerry after his victory in Iowa in 2004, George W. Bush after his South Carolina triumph in 2000, and Ronald Reagan after New Hampshire in 1980. The parties were basically content with these men as their candidates and were happy to follow the signals sent by the early states. If, on the other hand, a party is internally divided, momentum can stall as factions balk at accepting the choice of the other factions. Think of Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Barack Obama in 2008. All three had momentum at one point or another in the contests, but they could not sustain it in the face of lukewarm support (or outright opposition) from certain factions.
To Cost, momentum comes from broad acceptability; a candidate that can appeal to broad sections of the party is more likely to get support as people’s top choices bow out.
In the era of competitive, binding primaries and caucuses, there is a very stable pattern in Republican primaries and caucuses: one candidate wins Iowa, a different candidate wins New Hampshire, and one of those two candidates gets the nomination. This pattern has been remarkably stable across primaries where there was no Republican incumbent running.
|Iowa||New Hampshire||South Carolina||Nominee|
|1980||George H.W. Bush||Ronald Reagan||Ronald Reagan||Ronald Reagan|
|1988||Bob Dole||George H.W. Bush||George H.W. Bush||George H.W. Bush|
|1996||Bob Dole||Pat Buchanan||Bob Dole||Bob Dole|
|2000||George W. Bush||John McCain||George W. Bush||George W. Bush|
|2008||Mike Huckabee||John McCain||John McCain||John McCain|
|2012||Rick Santorum||Mitt Romney||Newt Gingrich||Mitt Romney|
Generally speaking, one of Iowa or New Hampshire produces a winner that the party establishment can support. That candidate gets the necessary “momentum” and consolidates support across later contests, and the Republicans get a nominee. Usually, the nominee is apparent by South Carolina.
There are two developments in the broader history of the Republican Party, though, that complicate this year.
First, it seems that the “anti-establishment” may finally have more voters than the “establishment” within Republican politics. Indeed, as Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry pointed out last March, combined, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich got more votes than Mitt Romney in several primaries after New Hampshire. In other words, the typical consolidation around an establishment candidate didn’t really happen; the only reason Romney won is because the “insurgent” vote was hopelessly split. (In a standard consolidation scenario, Romney would have won South Carolina, as the pattern goes. He did not; instead, he got thumped there.)
Second, in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the current field leaders (Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, respectively) are broadly unacceptable to wide swaths of the party. With Cost’s discussion of momentum in mind, the expected consolidation around one of those two candidates, if both win their early contests, may not happen. In fact, almost every candidate is not acceptable to a significant chunk of the party:
- Donald Trump is opposed by country-club Republicans, limited-government types, and traditional conservatives.
- Ted Cruz is opposed by most elected Republicans and the party establishment.
- John Kasich and Chris Christie are opposed by conservatives and the Tea Party.
- (Currently) Jeb Bush is opposed by everybody (except rich donors and family friends).
Which is to say: none of those candidates is a lock to gain momentum after early successes because of the wide swaths of the party that they have alienated. Going into the race, there were really seven candidates who plausibly could have made a play for the center of the party this time around: Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, and Marco Rubio. Romney and Ryan sat out. Jeb Bush completely crashed and burned; if he wins, it will simply be by virtue of being the last man standing after a sustained carpet-bombing operation. (Among Republicans, Jeb Bush has a 52 percent unfavorable rating. 52 percent!) No one was receptive to Rick Perry’s message. Bobby Jindal never got off the ground. And Scott Walker ran an absolutely inept operation.
The only candidate left who is making a play for the broad middle of the Republican Party is Marco Rubio. Sure, anti-immigration Republicans dislike Rubio, but Rubio came up through the Tea Party and still has some support there; he is much more broadly acceptable to factions of the party than Cruz or Christie. Meanwhile, Rubio is racking up Congressional endorsements of late and gaining on the endorsement leader, Jeb Bush. (In part, this is because Jeb’s endorsements have slowed to a trickle.)
That the middle-of-the-party alternatives have all fallen by the wayside is a massive break for Rubio. Indeed, with the field as it is now, Rubio has several different avenues to get the nomination:
Scenario 1: Rubio wins Iowa. If Rubio steals a win in Iowa, we’re looking at the Democrats in 2004 all over again. Rubio will get a ton of momentum, storm New Hampshire, and wrap up the nomination by March. This may seem implausible, but Rubio strikes me as the most compelling speaker on Christianity in the field, and that sort of thing matters in Iowa. He also has a substantial television advertising presence in Iowa.
Scenario 2: Rubio wins New Hampshire. If Rubio wins New Hampshire, he is also highly likely to win the nomination. Even if Cruz is more popular among rank-and-file Republicans, the delegate rules in the Republican Party benefit the candidate who can win blue state Republicans. Ted Cruz isn’t winning New York.
Scenario 3: Rubio places in Iowa and slingshots to a New Hampshire win. A strong Rubio showing in Iowa would likely build substantial momentum for him entering New Hampshire. Scenario 2 could follow. (Rubio’s campaign has studiously avoided raising expectations in Iowa.)
Scenario 4: Rubio places in New Hampshire behind Trump. That leaves Rubio as a plausible “not-Trump,” and one could see the Republican establishment betting on Rubio to keep Trump and Cruz out of the nomination. (Again, considering how much public saturation Trump has had in the campaign, it is hard to imagine him building momentum; it’s not like anyone’s opinion on the man is likely to change.) The runner-up in a potential Trump win in New Hampshire likely would have the best opportunity to consolidate support in future contests.
All four scenarios are conceivable, and they all would give Rubio a very good shot to win the nomination by virtue of momentum.
But all might be less likely than the alternative, which is that the more factional candidates perform better in Iowa and New Hampshire. For months, the smart position has been to ignore horse-race polls and to focus on fundamentals: favorability, fundraising, endorsements, presentation. But at some point the polls become the best indicator, and we’re getting there soon. And Rubio, for all of his advantages, has not yet begun appreciable movement upward; over the second half of 2015 he moved from single digits into the mid-teens with some consistently solid debate performances, but he’s still by no means a leader in any poll, anywhere.
If Rubio finished, say, fourth in Iowa and third in New Hampshire, while John Kasich or Jeb Bush ran very well in New Hampshire, we might be looking at a standard race, where the Iowa and New Hampshire candidates must do battle in South Carolina and beyond. Rubio might wind up on the outside looking in, his middle strategy being outflanked on both sides.
A useful frame for the next month or so of politics-watching, then, is to monitor Rubio’s polling, because either he wins the nomination, or it’s going to be quite a ride for the next few months as the voters of the Republican Party grapple with multiple factional options.
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