Less than four weeks before Iowans kick off the 2016 presidential contest with their Feb. 1 caucuses, the early road to the White House appears to be shaping up as a slippery and uncharted one for the Republican Party.
Since the 1970s, no Republican candidate has won the nomination without winning in either Iowa or New Hampshire, which holds the first primary election of the campaign on Feb. 9. But based on recent polling, which shows U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas with a lead in Iowa and businessman Donald Trump with a substantial lead in New Hampshire, the Republican establishment's only hope for producing an alternative to those insurgent candidates may require defying history and coalescing around a candidate who loses the traditionally crucial first two contests.
On the Democratic side, the nomination is Hillary Clinton's to lose.
To help readers track what's likely to be a chaotic and idiosyncratic start to the nominating season, Bloomberg Politics handicapped the leading candidates.
HOW TO WIN: Do well in Iowa, win New Hampshire, start racking up delegates and force rivals to drop out
The New York reality TV star has built a campaign tapping into populist disdain for the political class while fashioning himself as a rebel and a winner. Now, he has to prove himself by winning actual contests. That possibility is not far-fetched. Trump is atop national polls and leading in every early contest except Iowa, where he's second to Cruz. But if there's a voting bloc that may buy a forget-Iowa message, it's New Hampshire.
HOW TO LOSE: Fail to turn out supporters at the polls, lose New Hampshire, and see his support vaporize
While Trump continues to tower over the field, many of his admirers aren't typical voters. While one study suggests they might turn out in bigger numbers than polls indicate, it's impossible to know for sure whether they will, and Trump is sufficiently concerned to have added a new line to his stump speeches, urging audiences to vote.
If New Hampshire voters, who like to joke that they pick presidents while Iowans pick corn, don't deliver Trump a victory after he's led the polls there for so long, it would raise doubts about his candidacy ahead of South Carolina. And weak performances from Trump in both New Hampshire and South Carolina would give the rest of a Republican field an opening that would be, to borrow a phrase, huuuge. Could a man who has made success such a crucial part of his story recover from failure?
HOW TO WIN: Win Iowa, deliver a strong performance in New Hampshire and consolidate conservatives
The Tea Party firebrand from Texas is uniquely well-positioned for the battle ahead, with a lead in Iowa, second place nationally, a variety of endorsements from evangelical and Tea Party leaders, strong field organizing and fundraising (boosted by a nearly $20 million fourth-quarter haul) and a quartet of well-funded super-PACs. He kicked off 2016 with a six-day tour across more than two dozen counties in Iowa this week.
HOW TO LOSE: Under-perform in Iowa and South Carolina, cede votes to Trump or Marco Rubio and fail to unify the right
A loss in Iowa, a state that is practically tailor-made for Cruz, could be deeply damaging and threaten to split the conservatives who have been unifying behind his candidacy. From there it's a slippery slope to oblivion if a viable conservative alternative to Cruz emerges. One way to stanch the bleeding would be to win South Carolina, but it's hard to recover after two losses when you're widely expected to win at least one.
HOW TO WIN: Exceed expectations in New Hampshire, unify the establishment and siphon conservatives from Cruz and Trump
Running third nationally and polling behind in early states, Rubio's path to the nomination is murky. His prospects may be made or broken in New Hampshire—if he wins there, he becomes the establishment favorite; if he places a strong second behind Trump, it could create pressure for competitors for the center-right vote like Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich to clear the lane. From there Rubio needs to cut into conservative support for Trump and/or Cruz, which is plausible given his deeply conservative voting record and high favorable ratings with GOP voters.
HOW TO LOSE: Finish behind an establishment candidate in New Hampshire, fail to win South Carolina or Nevada and fade away
Rubio may be the only Republican candidate who's well-liked by both the establishment and conservative wings. But in a contest with Trump and Cruz, his path requires consolidating the establishment. Finishing behind Christie, Bush, or Kasich in New Hampshire would be a potentially decisive blow that could push Rubio into the second-tier, preventing him from gaining any meaningful traction.
Unlike the three establishment-backed governors, Rubio's national focus and ability to appeal to both the establishment and conservative wings of the Republican Party could give him staying power even if he loses New Hampshire, but as the most untested national campaigner in the establishment field, he needs to prove his mettle by notching up strong performances early.
HOW TO WIN: Win New Hampshire, become the establishment front-runner and carry a burst of support into delegate-rich March states
Christie is trying to follow in the footsteps of John McCain circa 2008. Both campaigns had tanked the summer before the early voting. As McCain successfully did eight years ago, Christie is betting it all on New Hampshire, hoping that a victory there gives him the boost he needs in news coverage, fundraising, and polls across other states. Christie's challenge is similar to Rubio's: clear the establishment lane and consolidate center-right votes and money to become the clear alternative to Trump and Cruz.
HOW TO LOSE: Lose New Hampshire to an establishment rival
Given his limited organizing and lack of innate appeal in more conservative states, it would be difficult for Christie to recover from a loss in New Hampshire. Without Bush's deep pockets or Rubio's crossover appeal, it's hard to see how Christie makes a case that he's the establishment alternative to Trump if he fails to win the early state that seems particularly well-suited for him.
HOW TO WIN: Hope Trump, Cruz and Rubio disappoint, and unify the Republican establishment
Here's what Bush is hoping for: Trump loses, or barely wins in the first three states; Cruz disappoints after Iowa; Rubio finishes outside the top two or three in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina; Bush finishes ahead of Kasich and Christie in the early states.
It's complicated must-happen list, but nothing there is completely implausible. The toughest thing to envision for Bush may be the most important all: He needs victories or near-victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina to establish himself as a credible contender.
HOW TO LOSE: Run out of excuses in February
When Bush dropped the lead to Trump, his super-PAC promised a flurry of ads that would turn around the polls by Thanksgiving. When that didn't happen, a number of wait-and-see arguments erupted from Bush headquarters in Miami (voters don't pay attention until after the holiday; the Bush campaign has the strongest operation in March states; early state voters will sign-up once a campaign surrogate speaks with them). But without a strong performance in New Hampshire and South Carolina, it will become increasingly difficult to justify the campaign costs to donors.
HOW TO WIN: New Hampshire, New Hampshire, New Hampshire
Kasich is one of several Republicans in the party's establishment lane who must exceed expectations in New Hampshire to have a chance to continue. A poll from American Research Group two weeks ago showed Kasich was in the mix for second place in the state with 13 percent support. If the Ohio governor can pull off an upset in New Hampshire, and leverage the moment in South Carolina, he'd be in position to win the delegate-rich primary in his home state on March 15.
HOW TO LOSE: Limp into South Carolina
That ARG poll? It was the first in two months that put Kasich in double-digits.
HOW TO WIN: Catch lightning in Iowa and South Carolina
Carson captured the imagination of the party's evangelical wing with an inspiring story of his rise from childhood poverty to become a renowned neurosurgeon, a climb he attributes to his Christian faith. It struck a chord with plenty of voters; we witnessed one veteran of Republican politics in Florida weep when she touched Carson at a November event in the state. But his climb—he was ahead in a Bloomberg Politics national poll in November and the top choice among evangelical voters in South Carolina—was followed by a quick fall as national security took center stage in the primary battle.
HOW TO LOSE: Continue stumbling on foreign affairs, fail to solve the infighting within the campaign, and keep fading
Those problems have drastically cut—if not eliminated—his chance to win the nomination, and Carson's poll numbers have been tumbling since Thanksgiving.
The campaigns of U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania are on the bubble. Chronically lagging in the polls, each requires a surprise breakout performance in one of the early states to prevent a complete collapse of momentum, and the campaign donations that go with it.
HOW TO WIN: Don't screw up
For Clinton, the name of the game is to keep it slow and steady and avoid unforced errors. She's leading by about 20 points nationally. She's also dominating the race for super delegates, endorsements, and fundraising and is the only candidate with crossover appeal to the various factions and interest groups within the Democratic Party. She's arguably the strongest candidate in the modern primary era, and the overwhelming favorite for the nomination.
HOW TO LOSE: Get crushed in both Iowa and New Hampshire, commit a variety of blunders and hemorrhage support
Clinton can survive a loss in New Hampshire and perhaps also Iowa as they both predominantly white and more liberal primary electorates that favor rival Bernie Sanders. The primaries then move to South Carolina and Nevada. Both states have larger and more diverse Democratic electorates (read: blacks and Hispanics) which overwhelmingly favor Clinton. But if she's decisively routed early, the wave of negative coverage and expectations shift could spell danger.
HOW TO WIN: Outperform in Iowa, win decisively in New Hampshire, put Clinton on defense and hope the stars align
Sanders needs a major boost from the early states—he leads in New Hampshire but trails by 12 points in Iowa—to damage Clinton and establish himself as a viable alternative before the calendar moves into more hostile territory for the Vermont senator. Since launching his campaign in May, he has been focused on boosting his credibility with large rallies, competitive fundraising totals and a record breaking number of small donors for a non-incumbent this early in the race. Despite his early bursts of strength, Sanders has failed to show significant growth in the polls over the last two months.
HOW TO LOSE: Fail to broaden appeal beyond white liberals and watch Clinton dominate after Iowa and New Hampshire
To become a real threat to Clinton, Sanders has to prove he can appeal to other segments of the party, including black voters in South Carolina, Hispanic voters in Nevada and more moderate Democrats that, together, tend to decide primary contests. Sanders' current course isn't likely to achieve that feat, although not for a lack of effort. He has aggressively reached out to African-American and Latino voters.
HOW TO WIN: Vastly exceed expectations in early states and hope both Clinton and Sanders have to unexpectedly drop out
Unless aliens abduct both Clinton and Sanders, or another unforeseen event forces them to quit the race, O'Malley's prospects are slim. If he doesn't vastly out-perform expectations in both Iowa and New Hampshire—he's struggling in the low single-digits everywhere—his candidacy is toast. O'Malley's strong résumé, generational appeal and progressive credentials have had little impact with Democratic voters who long ago came to view the primary as a two-person race. Unlike Sanders, O'Malley lacks the charisma and grassroots appeal to make up for weak name recognition against the towering candidacy of Clinton.
HOW TO LOSE: Fail to enjoy a sudden and massive amount of good luck
O'Malley's problem isn't a lack of hard work. He has held 43 more events in Iowa than Sanders and 80 more events than Clinton, according to the Des Moines Register. He has held 79 events in New Hampshire (15 more than Clinton's 64 and 12 more than Sanders' 67), according to the New England Cable News. But the candidate who shakes the most hands isn’t guaranteed to win, or even elevate to double-digit support. The current course won't do much for him. Unless some unlikely event forces both Clinton and Sanders out of the race, it’s hard to see a path forward for O’Malley.