The State of Play Headed into New Hampshire

Clinton is a virtual lock for the Democratic nomination. Rubio is the most plausible Republican winner in a messy field.


The results from Iowa’s caucuses were only announced yesterday morning but already they’ve led Martin O’Malley, Mike Huckabee, and Rand Paul to drop out. I wouldn’t be shocked if Rick Santorum joined them, given that he’s currently at less than one percent in the RealClearPolitics average and did so poorly in the Hawkeye State after carrying it last cycle.

O’Malley was the Democratic candidate that I’d have most preferred win the White House. Given that I’ve historically voted Republican, that’s probably not a good sign. Regardless, he was such an afterthought in the contest that his dropping out is essentially irrelevant. It’s now a two-person race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and, like my colleague Steven Taylor, I see Sanders’ candidacy imploding once non-whites start voting in significant numbers with South Carolina’s primary. Barring an epic scandal—and neither Benghazi! nor the email mess are enough—or tragedy, Clinton will be the Democratic nominee and likely sooner rather than later.

The Republican race remains the hardest to call since I’ve been paying attention—going back forty years.

Trump maintains a sizable lead in the national polls but I don’t think that holds once the field narrows.  Still, the other “outsider” candidates, Carson and Fiorina are toast.  I doubt either stays in after New Hampshire.

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are obviously in a very good position coming out of Iowa.  Cruz, typical of Iowa winners, is the leading Evangelical candidate.  The gatekeepers have been pushing Rubio as the best Establishment choice for some time and his much-stronger-than-expected showing in the caucuses helped boost that narrative.

I think one of the Establishment governors—Chris Christie, John Kasich, or Jeb Bush—will get a boost coming out of New Hampshire. If they don’t, Kasich and Christie will be toast and likely drop out.

If he doesn’t, Bush will likely be toast as well but he has the money and organization to hang around for a long time. South Carolina comes February 20, Nevada is three days later, Super Tuesday comes March 1st, and then a string of primaries and caucuses in rapid succession the next two weeks. Given the polling and his performance in multiple debates so far, I don’t see how Bush breaks out. But there’s no obvious reason for him to drop out between now and March 22nd. 

While my preferred presidents in the field are Kasich and Bush, in that order, with both Christie and Rubio (the order depends on the day) as acceptable alternatives, Rubio strikes me as the guy with the best shot at attracting a winning coalition.  The state-level polling thus far is largely meaningless. Most primary voters don’t start paying close attention until Iowa and New Hampshire winnow the field.  It’s looking like the field will be Cruz, Trump, Rubio and a Governor to Be Named Later.  Cruz and Trump will ultimately alienate too many voters.  Bush, Kasich, or Christie would likely be acceptable to most Republicans but excite few of them. Rubio is the only one who combines charisma and likability.

And, yes, I’m quite aware that there has been no mention of policy at all in the post thus far. While I think the issues, notably immigration reform, will matter on the margins, party nominees—especially on the Republican side—are those best at coalition building, not those with the best white papers and talking points.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. CSK says:

    I agree that Trump and Cruz would alienate most voters apart from the followers each already has. To be blunt, Cruz is a creep and Trump is a buffoon/charlatan, making it a choice between a televangelist and a carny barker.

    Trump fans hate Cruz fans, and Cruz fans hate Trump fans. Both groups utterly despise all the other candidates, particularly Rubio and Bush. I don’t think they regard Kasich and Christie as any particular threat any longer.

    Given the extreme fracturing, and the stated refusal of Cruzites and Trumpkins to vote for any person but their man, I can’t see a win for the Republicans in November.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    Trump is crying like a little baby going off on a twitter rant and accusing Cruz of fraud and calling for the Iowa Caucus to be nullified. All very Presidential.

    Whaaaa!!! (sound of feet stomping) I’m Donald; look at my hair…I always win!!! Whaaaa!!!
    How is possible people as batshit crazy as Trump and Cruz and Rubio are even in this thing? And everyone just accepts it, as if nothing is wrong???
    Gadzooks…what has become of the GOP?

  3. gVOR08 says:

    Lawyers, Guns, and Money had a good post yesterday snarking David Gergen and making the excellent point that there is little or no difference between GOP “extremists” and “moderates”. On a list of 20 key issues, Cruz and Rubio agree on 18. On the odd two they split who’s more hard core. But Gergen, and most of the supposedly liberal MSM, see Rubio as moderate. Because of tone and general dislike of Cruz? It ain’t policy. Unless you assume Rubio is lying.

    My point is, as I’ve said before, it’s a given that Cruz, or the essentially interchangeable Bush, Rubio, Kasich, Christie, would be a W style bloody disaster. Trump is at least a crap shoot.

  4. An Interested Party says:

    This idea that Rubio is “the most plausible Republican winner” sounds a bit like wishful thinking by establishment Republicans like James…many Republicans seem to be in an anti-establishment mood this year so it seems sketchy that Rubio could benefit from that…

  5. CSK says:

    This is going to get sillier, folks. Trump just accused Cruz of committing fraud to win Iowa.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    @CSK: The headline on POLITICO is that Trump is calling for a “new Iowa election”. In the article, it turns out he called for it in a Tweet, so meh. But how does his “winner” image survive this avalanche of whining?

    One of Trump’s charges is that Cruz was responsible for a reporters Tweet during the Caucus that Carson was pulling out. “The Cruz campaign then alerted its leaders to the tweet from the CNN reporter but, as Cruz explained in an apology on Tuesday, neglected to send the follow-up tweet in which Moody clarified that the Carson campaign had told him that the retired neurosurgeon was not dropping out of the race but rather just picking up fresh clothes. On Monday night, Carson accused the Cruz campaign of “dirty tricks” but accepted its apology.” I can hardly wade through the schadenfreude this morning.

  7. CSK says:


    Well, it becomes “news” by virtue of the fact that the press reports every one of Trump’s Tweets.

    But I see two possibilities here:

    1.Trump said he’d go third party if he wasn’t treated fairly, so this could be an excuse.


    2.He’s falling like a rockslide in the NH polls, and needs to put the brake on the decline somehow.

  8. Mikey says:

    Trump, quoted in the Politico piece linked by @C. Clavin:

    The caucus system is a complex system that I was never familiar with. I mean, I was never involved with the caucus system. Don’t forget, Joe: I’m doing this for the first time. I’m like a rookie.

    This guy wants to be President of the United States, but didn’t do the MOST BASIC homework necessary to learn how the caucus system works in Iowa? “I’m a rookie?” This has to be the lamest excuse a Presidential candidate has ever made.

    And yet his supporters are sucking it up, repeating and amplifying Trump’s stupid allegation Cruz somehow “stole” Iowa. What a whiny boob Trump is.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Mikey: Remember, Hillary lost in 2008 mostly as a result of Obama having the better ground game and understanding of the rules of the game. There were multiple instances where she “won” the primary or caucus but got fewer delegates because his team understood the rules better than he did.

    Trump’s main problems in Iowa are that (1) he’s singularly unsuited to win there, given that he’s the farthest thing from an Evangelical Christian and (2) he’s running a national reality show campaign but the first two contests favor candidates who essentially move there for a year and eat pancakes and kiss babies.

  10. Mikey says:

    @James Joyner: He could have won in Iowa, though, had he put in the necessary ground work. (OK, that’s a bit tautological, I know, but my point is he had the responsibility to at least study up on what was necessary.) He didn’t go in trying to lower expectations, he trumpeted his poll numbers until he found out there’s more to winning in Iowa than spending a million dollars on embroidered baseball caps.

    Now he’s trying to blame-throw at Cruz for whatever. It just makes him look like a guy who wants to avoid responsibility for his campaign’s blunder. He chose the campaign’s priorities, and in Iowa he chose poorly. He should own up to that but he’s just out there blathering on about “fraud.”

  11. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @CSK: Sillier than that. Cruz apologized for the fraud.

  12. anjin-san says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s worth noting the parallels between Trump and Romney, supposedly both brilliant executives – except that it seems like neither is very good at strategic thinking, tactical planning, assembling a strong team, delegating authority, failure mitigation & disaster recovery, etc.

    Both men seem to have spent too much time reading their own PR.

  13. charon says:

    to drop out. I wouldn’t be shocked if Rick Santorum joined them,

    Santorum is out, too.

  14. James P. says:

    The polls said Trump woudl win Iowa.

    Cruz won.

    Yes,. Trump will probably win NH, but it will be closer than expected.

    Cruz will win South Carolina (on the strength of Evangelical support) and that will propel him to a slew of victories on Super Tuesday. Cruz will win Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas,

    States become winner take all starting 3/15. Cruz wins Florida and takes a huge lead in the delegate scorecard.

    Liberals dislike Trump more, but Cruz scares them more. They know that Cruz means it when he says he’s going to deport the illegals, closed PP, and put the fudge packers back in the closet where the belong.

  15. Grewgills says:

    @James P.:
    I was a little worried, but now that I have read your prediction I feel much better. I’m now feeling much better about the prospect of Cruz being toast after super Tuesday.

  16. PJ says:

    I think one of the Establishment governors—Chris Christie, John Kasich, or Jeb Bush—will get a boost coming out of New Hampshire. If they don’t, Kasich and Christie will be toast and likely drop out.

    New Hampshire has a 10% threshold, currently RealClearPolitics has Trump at 33.0%, Cruz at 11.7%, Kasich at 10.7%, Rubio at 10.7%, Bush 9.8%, and Christie at 6.2%. Kasich, Bush, and Christie are all a bit to close to the threshold (I’m assuming that Cruz and Rubio and both getting boosts from the Iowa results.)

    Not really up to date if there are states where Rubio is strong and Bush isn’t and vice versa. There are a number of states on Super Tuesday with either 20% or 15% thresholds and some states only give district delegates to the winner and runner up in the district. Could end up with a Super Tuesday where Bush fails to meet the threshold in some states and Rubio fails to meet it in other, further boosting Trump and Cruz.

    And since the plan for both the Bush and Rubio campaigns seems to be to wait for either Trump or Cruz to implode and get their votes, I don’t see either Bush or Rubio dropping out until it’s too late. So the establishment vote will be split between them and unless either Trump or Cruz drops out, I don’t see this ending with a Rubio win, or a Bush win for that matter.

  17. PJ says:

    I’m starting to think that the thresholds will get very important…

    States with at-Large-thresholds >= 10%

    Super Tuesday, March 1
    Alabama 20%
    Alaska 13%
    Arkansas 15%
    Georgia 20%
    Minnesota 10%
    Oklahoma 15%
    Tennessee 15%
    Texas 20%
    Vermont 20%

    March 5
    Kansas 10%
    Louisiana 20%
    Maine 10%

    March 6
    Puerto Rico 20%

    March 8
    Idaho 20%
    Michigan 15%
    Mississippi 15%

    March 12
    Washington DC 15%

    And after that we get Winner-take-all states…

  18. An Interested Party says:

    Liberals dislike Trump more, but Cruz scares them more. They know that Cruz means it when he says he’s going to deport the illegals, closed PP, and put the fudge packers back in the closet where the belong.

    This has to be satire, right? “Fudge packers” gives it away…meanwhile, who are these liberals who are supposedly “scared” of Cruz? If Republicans want to make it easier for Hillary to win the general election, yes, please nominate this creep from Texas…

  19. al-Ameda says:

    @James P.:

    Liberals dislike Trump more, but Cruz scares them more. They know that Cruz means it when he says he’s going to deport the illegals, closed PP, and put the fudge packers back in the closet where the belong.

    Actually, liberals dislike Ted more than they dislike the blustery buffoonish Trump.