Trump leads ’16 GOP rankings one month from Iowa

Greg Nash

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is the biggest upward mover in The Hill’s new rankings of the Republican presidential contenders, while Ben Carson has plunged. 

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Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzGrassroots battling establishment on trade at conventions Fixing the disastrous nomination process Attacking Trump for the few sensible things he says is bad strategy MORE of Texas has also strengthened his standing in the two months since our last rankings while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has seen none of the momentum he so badly needs.

But with just one month to go before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, the name at the top remains the same.

1. Businessman Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump campaign dismisses Dem attacks as ‘night of empty rhetoric’ Obama makes case for Clinton to succeed him FULL SPEECH: President Obama at the Democratic convention MORE (Oct. 28 ranking: 1)

Trump is the man to beat, whatever his detractors say. He leads his closest competitors by a margin of about two-to-one both in national polling and in New Hampshire. The RealClearPolitics (RCP) average in the Granite State has him at 26.5 percent support, with second-placed Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioGroups unendorse Grayson after domestic violence allegations Trump postpones Hispanic roundtable Tim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense MORE (Fla.) garnering 12.8 percent. The business mogul dominates the field in South Carolina as well. Money is not a problem. Nor, apparently, are any of the numerous furors he has sparked. Trump has tapped into some deep emotions running through the GOP base, and no one has a better chance of becoming the party’s nominee.

The bad news: Much media attention has focused on the fact that Trump has been pushed into second place in Iowa by Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas). That’s important, even though it’s the result of Cruz surging rather than any notable erosion in Trump’s support. Skeptics have also suggested Trump’s standing will decline as voters get serious in the coming weeks. Time will tell.

2. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (Oct. 28 ranking: 4)

The Texas senator is now the clear favorite to win the Iowa caucuses, edging Trump by around 3 points in the RCP average. A win there would copper-fasten Cruz’s status as the choice of conservatives for whom Trump’s brashness and lack of electoral experience are deal-breakers. Cruz is highly unlikely to win the New Hampshire primary, but he will be strong in South Carolina, where Republicans vote on Feb. 20, and in the so-called SEC Primary on March 1, when several Southern states including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and his home state of Texas vote. Campaign officials stated on Dec. 30 that he had raised almost $20 million during the fourth quarter, a big increase from the previous three-month period. Cruz is the candidate with momentum, and that counts for a lot as the first contests near. 

The bad news: Cruz still has to find a way past Trump, which is by no means guaranteed, and concerns persist among GOP insiders about his capacity to win a general election. As a trenchant conservative, he also benefits from the number of candidates who are currently splitting the establishment vote. As the field is winnowed, he could come under greater pressure.

3. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (Oct. 28 ranking: 3)

Of all the candidates, it is Rubio whose chances of winning the nomination are the most difficult to pin down. His strengths — charisma, youthful vigor, powerful oratory and demographic appeal — are obvious. But a large question mark hangs over the extent to which the GOP base wants him to be its standard-bearer. Rubio’s recent rise in the polls, though modest, has been enough for him to claim second-place to Trump in the RCP New Hampshire average. If he holds that position, he could vanquish other candidates on the center-right and consolidate that vote in the contests to come. 

The bad news: On the national level, the polling boomlet that Rubio enjoyed in November and early December appears to have passed. More broadly, he remains susceptible to the charge that he is the second-choice of plenty of Republican voters but not the number one selection for enough of them.

4. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (Oct. 28 ranking: 9)

Christie is the single biggest mover in the current rankings, having risen five places since The Hill last assessed the GOP contenders two months ago. That’s a result of his surge in New Hampshire, the state upon which he has placed all his chips. Christie has been an extremely frequent visitor to the state, and his abilities on the stump have helped him rise to tie for third place in the RCP average. Christie was seen as near-dead politically only a few months ago, but now he has overtaken other candidates for whom New Hampshire is equally important, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

The bad news: While Christie’s chances have improved, his path to the nomination remains extremely narrow. Even the very best he could hope for — a win in New Hampshire — would still see him facing steep odds in South Carolina and across the South, where more conservative contenders have a clear advantage. The distrust in which he is held by a large part of the GOP base will be tremendously difficult to overcome.

5. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (Oct. 28 ranking: 5)

Things are getting desperate for the former Florida governor. On Dec. 30, it emerged that his campaign was pulling TV ads in Iowa and South Carolina, concentrating its resources in on-the-ground efforts in the early states. Bush’s appearances on the stump have drawn some praise recently, and his performance at the most recent debate in Las Vegas was a big improvement on his earlier outings. He retains considerable fundraising strength, but he needs to show credible evidence that he can actually become the nominee.

The bad news: Bush and his allies have spent more than $25 million in TV advertising alone, to no discernible effect. He is sixth not only in the national RCP average but also in New Hampshire, a state where he probably has to win or, at worst, come in second.

6. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson (Oct. 28 ranking: 2)

The bubble appears to have burst for Carson. Things first went wrong for the retired neurosurgeon in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino, Calif., when his knowledge of foreign policy and national security issues seemed wanting. More recently, a chaotic sequence of moves pertaining to campaign staffing concluded with the resignation of two top aides. Carson is still polling at respectable levels, and he has retained his personal affability. But the limits of where that can take him have never been so apparent

The bad news: Carson’s support in Iowa is about one-third of where it was at his peak in late October. He is now fourth in the state. There is no obvious sign that he can stop the bleeding, much less mount a serious comeback.

7. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (Oct. 28 ranking: 6)

Kasich showed some promise after he first launched his campaign in late July, but his progress has been slow — and, for stretches, non-existent — since then. The Ohio governor, like several other centrist candidates, is depending on a strong performance in New Hampshire to slingshot him into serious contention. At present, he is fifth in the RCP average there, ahead of Bush but behind both Christie and Rubio in the establishment lane. Unless he can find a way around them, it is hard to see a viable way forward.

The bad news: Even if Kasich does well in New Hampshire, the road ahead is very tough for him. And he has been an inconsistent performer in the debates so far, so he can’t rely on those high-profile occasions to propel him forward either.

8. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (Oct. 28 ranking: 8)

Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, but conservative voters this time around have flocked to fresher candidates such as Trump, Cruz and, for a while, Carson. Huckabee has genuine political skills, but he needs a strong finish in Iowa to make his bid viable.

The bad news: Huckabee has offered a clear suggestion in recent weeks that he will drop out of the race if he does not finish in the top three in Iowa. He is currently tied for seventh in the RCP average in the state.

9. Kentucky Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulWhat to watch for on Day 2 at the GOP convention Cyber squatters sitting on valuable VP web addresses Majority of GOP senators to attend Trump convention MORE (Oct. 28 ranking: 10)

The Kentucky senator is probably too proud a man to drop out of the race before the first contests, but it’s clearer than ever that his hopes of expanding on the support that sustained his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), during his presidential runs were misplaced. 

The bad news: Paul is mired in the low single digits everywhere, and there is no sense of momentum.

10. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina (Oct. 28 ranking: 7)

Fiorina polls better than Paul and Huckabee in New Hampshire, but that doesn’t change the fact that she has even less of a shot at becoming the nominee. Those other struggling candidates at least have an identifiable ideological constituency to which they can appeal. Fiorina has sought to present herself as an effective manager first and a conservative second. She hasn’t done a terrible job — her debate performances have sometimes won plaudits — but with the exception of a short-lived surge in late September, her candidacy simply hasn’t caught fire. 

The bad news: There is no reason to assume Fiorina will improve her current standing.