Three Things to Watch For in N.H.

Photo credit: Tom Arthur via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Photo credit: Tom Arthur via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

We correctly predicted the story out of Iowa would be Marco Rubio, as this Vox article details about his virtual tie with Donald Trump:

What happened next? There was a massive wave of media coverage about how “Marco Rubio was the real winner in Iowa.” By exceeding expectations, the argument goes, Rubio generated positive buzz that will help him raise money, recruit volunteers, and win later primary contests. That, in turn, could consolidate his status as the choice of the party’s mainstream.

But Vox also notes something else we’re witnessing . . . that Ted Cruz could surprise in New Hampshire while the risk is greater for the Rubio camp that he underperforms there — as you point out here in your third point — rather than take over the race as his ‘Marcomentum’ out of Iowa might have lead one to believe was possible:

Getting third place in Iowa is pretty good, but getting first place is better. And there’s no good reason to simply assume Cruz is going to be a one-state wonder. Cruz is in a dead heat with Rubio in national polls taken since Iowa. And he’s only about 2 percentage points behind Rubio in New Hampshire polls, a state whose Republican voters are known for supporting more centrist candidates.

New Hampshire may prove three things, in my estimation.

The first is that Ted Cruz, underwhelming (a.k.a. ‘loathed”) as he is to the chattering class and DC establishment types, is running a near flawless campaign (okay, yes, the Carson flap was an unforced error…). But as accounts on the ground attest in Iowa, and now New Hampshire, and in upcoming Super Tuesday states, he has both the foot soldiers and the data mines fully operational to succeed at a very high level throughout the primary, absent some significant misstep. The prevailing narrative that Cruz is “unlikeable” is merely spin that falls under its own weight the more he performs well or wins. After all, this is the year of the “un-endorsement” (thank you Governor Branstad), and as Vox’s Timothy Lee notes:

…many commentators — particularly believers in the “party decides” theory of presidential nominations — have long assumed that because Cruz is so despised by elites, he can’t win. In contrast, Rubio is a much more palatable choice to party elites.

But for many Republican voters, being hated by media elites and Beltway insiders is an argument for Cruz.

The second point New Hampshire may prove is that Donald Trump is not a consensus candidate, but a merely poll performer who cannot translate popularity into votes. The sub-point here is that polling methodology matters and just because the media say they have done a poll doesn’t mean it is fully reflective of the eventual outcome.

Of course, an Iowa caucus and a New Hampshire primary are two very different things. But Iowa proved Trump vulnerable in several ways. First, he doesn’t appear to have a commitment to a disciplined and productive ground game. Second, anger, F-bombs, and bombast might boost media interview minutes, but they’re a poor substitute for converting voters as the field narrows. Anger excites, but solid and believable policy convince. I say that in the full realization that he very well may win New Hampshire. But my sense is that he will underperform at a level about equal to the underestimation of Ted Cruz and that Iowa was not a one-off but more the beginning of a slow and steady slide for him.

The third point New Hampshire may prove is that the Establishment lane is not closed, and that is bad news for Marco Rubio. As late polling indicates, John Kasich or Jeb Bush may emerge as the fourth candidate in what I predict will be a four-person race on Wednesday. The undeclared voters there may break for either Kasich or Bush. But Chris Christie, for all his prosecutorial prowess, may have self-destructed in front of the voter jury pool in a withering but all-too-personal ‘bubble boy’ assault on Marco Rubio.

Wednesday in New Hampshire will reshape the field on the Republican side. I believe Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina will be the first to exit, followed by Chris Christie, once all-in for N.H. but now all-out. If Bush surprises and prevails over Kasich, the Ohio governor may have no choice but to exit as the field south of New Hampshire tilts away from him. But if Kasich prevails, though Bush has both the organization and the money to survive, will his donors accept less than a fourth place finish?

Clint Cline is the president of Design4, a national media and messaging firm based in Florida.