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Mark Mellman: The early states for the GOP

Let’s talk Republicans. 

As I write, it’s 365 days before the New Hampshire presidential primary, which makes this a propitious time to cast an eye toward the only party likely to have a serious nomination battle; and engage in some rank and nearly meaningless speculation.

I’ll focus here on what polling in Iowa and New Hampshire reveals about the prospects for putative GOP candidates, fully cognizant that this can change a great deal over the coming year. 

One fact, though, is unlikely to change: These early contests will matter — a lot.

{mosads}Since 1976, when proliferating primaries and caucuses became the basis for selecting delegates, every single nominee but one, in both parties, won either Iowa or New Hampshire. (The singular exception occurred in 1992 when Iowa’s favorite son, Tom Harkin, rendered the Democratic caucuses moot, while Paul Tsongas’s victory in his neighboring New Hampshire, along with Bill Clinton’s powerful second-place comeback finish, gave the contest a unique structure.) 

One Republican hopeful seems to be doing well in both states: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. In the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll, Walker holds first place (albeit by a single point), while he runs second in two recent New Hampshire polls. 

Walker also has room for growth. He has only the fourth highest favorables in the Iowa poll and ranks seventh in New Hampshire. But almost no GOP voters dislike him. They don’t know him as well: he ranks 16th in unfavorables in New Hampshire, with just 9 percent, and 14th in Iowa, with 12 percent unfavorable among Republican caucus-goers. 

Several candidates fare poorly in both states. Among those worth mentioning, Chris Christie is well known and widely disliked. His unfavorables are the second highest in both New Hampshire and Iowa. Donald Trump, disliked by everyone, everywhere, saves the New Jersey governor from being the most disliked candidate in the field. 

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz carries a meaningful unfavorable, particularly in New Hampshire, and is not turning his high name recognition into votes in either state, mired in the low single digits in both. 

Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who fights for a similarly wacky constituency, fares better in both states. Indeed, in New Hampshire he is in a three-way tie for third, and he is second to Walker in Iowa by a single point. 

Then there are candidates who have different profiles in the two states. Most important among these is Jeb Bush, who leads in New Hampshire but languishes in sixth place in Iowa, where the presidential son and brother and former Florida governor is 1 point behind neurosurgeon Ben Carson! 

But the underlying situation doesn’t augur well for Bush in either state. Even as the candidate with by far the most distinguished pedigree, he only musters 17 percent in New Hampshire, where a large 33 percent hold unfavorable views of him. Tea Party supporters in the Granite State dislike him in overwhelming numbers and his “base” is among the relatively small group of Tea Party opponents who will vote in the primary. 

Iowa caucus-goers find him even more distasteful than New Hampshire primary voters, as his unfavorables are within just a few points of his favorables. 

Working in Bush’s favor in New Hampshire, however, is the fact that he has consistently increased his support there over the past year, while Paul and Christie have suffered falloff. And many Iowa Republican caucus attendees see both Bush and Christie as too moderate to carry their party’s banner. 

These two states will play a huge role in determining the GOP nominee. For now, keep an eye on Walker and recognize that Christie’s stock is overhyped. Bush and Paul have real work to do — others can still win it, but Trump won’t. 

You can take that last one to the bank.


Mark Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.

Tags Bill Clinton Donald Trump Rand Paul Ted Cruz Tom Harkin

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