It seems that just about every pundit is looking at Donald Trump’s poll numbers and assuming that he’ll win New Hampshire. He probably will, but the real question will be whether or not he gets the 30% of the vote that the polls are showing or if he’ll dramatically under-perform like he did in Iowa.
Let’s look at the scenarios. We like to look at the FiveThirtyEight Polls-Plus forecast over the more popular RealClearPolitics average because it weighs the polls more accurately and it takes other factors into account. With that said, they got Iowa wrong, just like pretty much everyone else.
First, the improbable scenario: a Trump loss. They’re taking a more conservative view of his chances of winning (70%) than the than the polls-only forecast (77%) despite polling much higher in the Granite state than he did in Iowa. Their thinking is clearly, “fool me once…”
With that said, he’s still very likely to win, but if he doesn’t, he will crumble. Notice that I didn’t say his support will crumble or that his campaign will crumble. With a loss in New Hampshire, Donald Trump himself will crumble. He’ll figure out some way to continue, but he’ll be looking for an exit strategy. It’s not that his chances of winning the nomination would be doomed, but his ego simply cannot accept such major under-performance when the polls point to victory. The question at that point is how graceful he’ll be able to exit if he decides to and whether or not he’ll attempt to take the Republican party down with him.
Now, let’s assume that he wins. The rest of the candidates will be judged by how well they performed based upon expectations. The top prize for all but Rubio will be 2nd or 3rd and would be viewed positively by the campaigns. For Rubio, anything short of 2nd would be damaging. We’ll start with him and work our way down based upon likelihood of finishing high.
- Marco Rubio: At this point, anything other than a strong, over-performing second place finish would be a setback. This is his place to truly pick up the Republican Establishment mantle and demonstrate that he can compete with Trump and Ted Cruz. A strong second gives him huge momentum going into South Carolina where he has the best endorsements. If he falls to third behind Cruz, he’ll still be the best option for the Establishment, though he won’t eliminate all of his competitors in that lane. If he finishes third behind John Kasich, Jeb Buish, or even the longshot Chris Christie, he’ll probably try to pivot back to the conservative side, take on Cruz again, and vie for a VP spot as the conservative side to the Establishment’s moderate. If he comes in 4th, he’ll need to do some soul searching. He needs a strong finish for fundraising purposes while the others can suffer a defeat and still move forward.
- John Kasich: He just wants to make it to Ohio. He’s put the best effort into New Hampshire even if it hasn’t been the most effort. Chris Christie holds that honor. Still, Kasich’s message has resonated better with Independents and Democrats. In New Hampshire, they can vote in the GOP primary. Kasich is banking on getting the Romney votes from 2012, but will more likely get the Jon Huntsman votes instead. I’m putting him at third based upon strong polling and an apparent surge, but my feeling is that he’ll finish fourth and wrap up his campaign. Ohio on March 15 is a long way off.
- Ted Cruz: For once, Cruz is the beneficiary of negative liberal mainstream media press. They’ve done an excellent job of downplaying his chances and making him seem like a lost Evangelical in a sea of agnostics. Those low expectations will make a 3rd place finish raise some eyebrows and a 2nd place finish close the deal that he’s a serious contender and not the next Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee. While placing second seems much harder than it did a couple of weeks ago, he has two wildcards: his prowess in the ground game and the Libertarian vote that helped Ron Paul place second in 2012. Considering that his ground game was stronger in Iowa and will be stronger in South Carolina and the “SEC Primaries” states, placing second could truly turn this into a two-man race.
- Jeb Bush: Some are saying this is his last stand. The only way that he’ll leave the race after New Hampshire is if he finishes fourth or fifth and gets pressured by donors. If he finishes second, he’ll actually become the favorite to take on Trump going forward. Third behind Cruz would give him a shot at the Establishment nod like Kasich. However, third behind Rubio or Kasich and he’s still going to get a little pressure to move out of the way.
- Chris Christie: As strange as it may sound, Christie stands the most to gain by a second place finish. It’s very unlikely, which means that if it does happen, he might be able to wipe the other Establishment candidates off the map with a handful of phone calls from GOP insiders. His position of vulnerability means that over-performing into third would prolong his candidacy. Finishing fourth might doom him based upon having a state to run. Finishing fifth or sixth and he’s almost certainly going to be shaking hands and reminding candidates that he’ll make a great Attorney General.
- Ben Carson: It doesn’t matter what spin is put on. Carson’s campaign is done. He’ll battle Carly Fiorina for last place today and he’ll continue his campaign until he’s done with his email collection campaign. I’m not going to go into details in this article, but at this point he’s running a fake campaign for the sake of fund raising to generate his every-important email last that will guarantee strong book sales from now until full retirement. If I sound bitter, it’s because I really thought that his campaign was legitimate until seeing some signs of ulterior motives popping up over the last couple of months. He should be Surgeon General, but I don’t know that he’d take the role at this point.
- Carly Fiorina: She’s still in the race to find other options, whether in politics as a cabinet member or ambassador or out of politics in business. Her campaign has become a job interview. Before anyone tosses out the VP role… don’t. Her best shot at being a VP dropped out of the race with Rand Paul.
All of this brings us to Trump. It was a long setup to get to the short point, but it was important to lay the groundwork for this statement: If Trump gets less than 24% of the vote, he’s very vulnerable. Even if he gets more than 24% but another candidate gets within 7% of him, he’s still vulnerable. He’s lived by the polls since the summer and anything that can cast doubt on the voter strength of his support (as compared to the polling or social media support) will energize the two lanes (conservative and establishment, not the “Kasich” lane as he likes to claim) to fight harder. It will also allow an opening for those supporting other candidates to remain true and not jump on a potentially artificial bandwagon.
Donald Trump is the frontrunner. Make no mistake. However, we’ll know after New Hampshire whether he’s a juggernaut among boys or if he’s the top guy in a tight race to the finish.