Smart pundits and data journalists spent much of last year calling for patience. They argued that the first votes wouldn’t be cast for months, and polls in August or October aren’t predictive of an outcome the following February.
Well, we’re now about a month away from the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. And while rapid changes in several candidates’ fortunes are still likely, as it stands now, we’re on a path towards two potential outcomes, Ted Cruz winning Iowa and Donald Trump taking New Hampshire.
A victory in Iowa for a Republican candidate driven by the evangelical wing of the party should come as a shock to no one. Just look at the recent history, which has seen Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum take the leadoff nominating contest. Now, a Cruz victory over more establishment candidates is almost expected and wouldn’t significantly alter the conventional wisdom about the race overall.
New Hampshire, on the other hand, can act as a springboard for more mainstream candidates to prove their mettle to big donors and more moderate voters. This year, Trump has thrown a wrench into the plans of many a candidate, and never more acutely as in the Granite State.
Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich want nothing more than to be the viable alternative to the runaway Trump train. Unfortunately for them, right now in public polling there’s a glut of challengers but none are separating themselves. Dividing the more establishment voters among these candidates does nothing but help Trump take valuable delegates — especially with a 10-percent threshold to be awarded delegates in the Granite State — and has the potential to prolong the Republican nomination process.
Our Trendency Research data, shows a similar picture for Trump as the public polling. As we’ve mentioned in earlier articles, Trendency Research doesn’t ask for binary responses to questions. Instead, we allow users to allocate their choice of candidate on a sliding scale. They can apportion all their support to one person, or divide it among several if they haven’t made up their mind.
In the analysis, Trendency utilizes Threshold Analysis to separate strong supporters from weak. Voters at higher Thresholds are more likely to cast a ballot for that candidate and less likely to switch their allegiance. As you move to lower Thresholds, voters begin to divide their support among more candidates who they may or may not end up voting for.
Since our last look at New Hampshire in December, Trump has gained 12 points at the 90 Threshold, which are strong backers, and is now up to an astonishing 68 percent support among voters at this level. At the slightly lower 75 Threshold, Trump increased his vote total by 11 points and sits at 58 percent. Keep in mind that these vote totals don’t represent all voters in the Republican primary, just those who are expressing strong support for a candidate. That being said, a base of strong supporters in a crowded field is invaluable and, assuming the support holds, would provide Trump the edge he needs in February.
The question now becomes, if this trajectory holds and Cruz wins Iowa and Trump wins New Hampshire, which candidate has the potential to become the establishment’s alternative to the far right and evangelical wings of the party?
To get a better sense of who indecisive voters might be toying with supporting in New Hampshire, we can examine the 25 Threshold. At that level, Trump still leads with 27 percent of the vote, but a host of other candidates are bunched behind him — Rubio (12 percent), Christie (12 percent), Cruz (11 percent) and Bush (11 percent). Rubio and Christie have doubled their support since our last look at this Threshold level. But it remains to be seen if anyone can put some daylight between them and their fellow establishment candidates.
If the campaigns just cancel each other out and we go into early February with the same dynamic, New Hampshire will likely produce two storylines: A strong Trump victory and mass confusion over who’s the best establishment rival to finally knock him off his perch.
Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based public opinion firm. Follow him on Twitter at @LPStrategies.