Presidential races

Iowa, New Hampshire battles heat up for Republican field

Greg Nash

The Republican White House field is sprinting toward the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary — in two distinct groups.

Several contenders are putting all of their chips on New Hampshire, where the Feb. 9 primary looks to be a make-or-break affair for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

{mosads}Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), in contrast, have their sites set on the Feb. 1 Iowa contest. Both are polling at roughly twice the level of support in Iowa that they enjoy in New Hampshire. 

Further down the field, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee still have hopes of performing above expectations in Iowa. All three are well behind the pack but have reason for optimism. Santorum and Huckabee are both past winners of the caucuses, in 2012 and 2008 respectively, while Jindal rose to fifth place in one recent Iowa poll.

Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who has been edging up in the polls, can boast some consistency, placing third in both Iowa and New Hampshire, according to the RealClearPolitics (RCP) averages. 

Meanwhile, businessman Donald Trump is in pole position in Iowa, New Hampshire and third-to-vote South Carolina as well.

Seemingly hundreds of stories have been written predicting Trump’s decline, but so far it hasn’t happened.

As a result, one key question of the 2016 race remains as important as ever: Will Trump fade, or could he go all the way?

Here’s a look at how things are shaping up in both states.

IOWA

Trump, Carson and Cruz all must be considered as serious contenders in Iowa with less than 90 days to go.

Trump has defied the conventional wisdom so far, as some strategists in both early states concede. 

“I was one of those who said the Trump thing can’t last, and it has,” said Pat Griffin, an unaligned GOP strategist in New Hampshire. “And the smart guys in Washington who consider themselves to be part of the chattering class were all wrong, too.” 

Caucuses by their nature are tests of a campaign’s organization because of the inherent difficulty in getting people to turn out rather than merely cast their ballots.

And experts say Trump has a more serious approach than he is sometimes given credit for.  

Among his campaign’s key hires is his state director, Chuck Laudner, a well-respected activist who helped former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) to an against-the-odds victory over Mitt Romney in the 2012 caucuses. 

Griffin offered a warning to those who believe Trump’s campaign is all sizzle and no steak. “Retail politics remains important here, and he has a real staff and a real field operation,” he said. 

But he remained circumspect on the businessman’s chances overall.  

“He attracts big crowds when he comes up here. But then, the circus is a big draw too, when it comes to town, and I’m not sure people want to elect the ringmaster president.” 

Trump is just narrowly ahead of Carson in the polls, but experts seem skeptical Carson can convert his high poll ratings into a caucuses victory given questions about the strength of his grassroots operation.  

Rubio has been moving up the polls across the board. In tandem, according to Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa, he has been appearing in the state more frequently. 

“But I still don’t have a feel for what goes on with his campaign in Iowa when he’s not here,” Robinson added. “I wonder the same thing with everyone. What are they doing when their candidates are not in the state? … What kind of activities are they doing, and how good are they at identifying supporters?” 

Cruz’s brand of conservatism should be a draw in Iowa, and the Texan’s poll numbers in the state have been on the rise over the past two months.

He’s still well behind Trump and Carson in the RCP average, but he is on the upswing and in a de facto dead heat with Rubio. How he handles his growing rivalry with Rubio over the next three months could be a major factor in Iowa’s outcome.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

While a poor result in Iowa may end the 2016 dreams for some of the most conservative candidates in the GOP race, a disappointing showing in New Hampshire could be doomsday for several establishment favorites.

Either way, the crowded GOP field is likely to thin after each contest.

Trump has a big lead in New Hampshire, making him the clear favorite in the state.

In the RCP average, he has a 13-point lead over Carson and a 17-point lead on Rubio.

If he fades, there is an opportunity for candidates such as Bush, Kasich and Christie, who are all-in in the state.

Yet all three men are now polling in the single digits.

Christie hasn’t built a house in the Granite State, but GOP strategist Dave Carney jokes that he “has been living here. He’s probably not going to have to pay New Jersey income tax at this stage.” 

He is currently eighth in the RCP average in New Hampshire. 

Kasich had seemed to be performing more strongly — he had edged up to fourth in New Hampshire, overtaking Bush among others — but he may have hurt himself with a widely criticized debate performance earlier this week. 

Carney suggested that candidates who were pursuing a “New Hampshire or bust” strategy were unlikely to meet with success in the bigger battle for the nomination. 

“The sad thing is, for people who plant their flag in one state, there is only one result that is acceptable, and that is winning. And even if you win New Hampshire and you have no operation in South Carolina, then what?” Carney said. “It is wishful thinking that you can win one state and then vault to the nomination. I don’t think that has ever happened.” 

The picture is somewhat different for candidates, such as Cruz, who are stronger in Iowa than New Hampshire. So long as they attain a reasonably impressive showing in Iowa, they can survive a worse result in the Granite State, since the race then turns to South Carolina and, after the Nevada caucuses, to the so-called SEC primary, nicknamed after the collegiate Southeastern Conference, in which many Southern states are scheduled to vote on March 1. 

But a premium is still on a strong showing early on.

Dave Woodard, a South Carolina GOP consultant who is also a political science professor at Clemson University, noted that he believed Rubio could do well in the Palmetto State, where he is tied with Cruz for third place.

But, he added, if the Florida senator performed poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire, “that whole thing is moot.” 

Whatever their views of the specifics, GOP insiders seem unanimous on one point. Even though the first contests seem near, extreme caution should be exercised in making any judgments based upon how polls look right now. 

“Until we are 10 days out from a primary, one should never jump to conclusions about anything,” cautioned Griffin. 

Tags 2016 GOP primary Ben Carson Chris Christie Donald Trump Iowa Jeb Bush John Kasich Marco Rubio New Hamshire Ted Cruz
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