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Some Questions Before Iowa and New Hampshire Vote

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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We’re only three weeks from the Iowa caucuses and four from the New Hampshire primary, but even at this late date there are more plausible scenarios on the Republican side than can fit into one column. Voters in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Concord and Manchester are now being bombarded with advertising, candidate visits and phone calls. 

Here’s what to watch over the next month, concentrating on the known unknowns -- the crucial points we can see from here, but can’t tell which way they will turn. 

Now through Jan. 31

Watch the polls for Iowa and New Hampshire.  But look at the polling averages (such as HuffPollster and Real Clear Politics); with lots of surveys out there, we’re going to hear plenty of noise.

The polls in Iowa have been stable for the last few weeks. Ted Cruz holds a slim lead over Donald Trump. Marco Rubio is well back in third place. The rest of the field is under 10 percent and showing no signs of moving up. 

Yet plenty of chances to shake things up remain. Thursday’s GOP debate in South Carolina and one on Jan. 28 give the candidates one opportunity to break out. Cruz’s surge makes him a natural target, whether in the debates or in ads. Will candidates pile on? Will Rubio’s heavy spending on TV advertising and his continuing trickle of endorsements give him a boost? 

Iowa caucuses, Feb. 1

The big if is whether Trump’s supporters will show up. My strong guess is he won’t do as well as the polls would indicate. But there’s no way to predict his turnout, since many of his voters don’t fit the profile of regular caucus attendees. Ted Cruz appears to have the strongest organization. Will that give him more of a leg up in the final polls, not only helping him to win but also to beat expectations? Will Rubio’s strategy -- dominating pre-caucus advertising at the expense of on-the-ground organizing -- leave him short of his final polling?

From Iowa to Feb. 8 New Hampshire primary

Currently, the polls show Trump with a large lead in New Hampshire, and four mainstream conservatives -- Rubio, Christie, Kasich and Bush -- all bunched closely for second, along with Cruz. Small changes can set off late surges and collapses, which are common in New Hampshire. In part that’s because media attention for a candidate, perhaps after a good showing in Iowa, builds momentum when people suddenly learn more about him or her. In addition, voters who want to block Trump or Cruz will shift rapidly to anyone who appears likely to be able to do that. 

After the vote in Iowa, Trump will get attention, no matter what. Rubio, Christie, Kasich and Bush should pray for a Hillary Clinton blowout, because if Bernie Sanders beats her or comes close, that will steal reporters’ attention from whichever one of the four mainstream conservatives does the best.  

If Republican leaders finally roll out endorsements, the press won’t cover the individual announcements for the most part, but a candidate receiving new backing would seem more worthy of attention -- and, again, that can have an effect.  

Feb. 8 and beyond

Some losers in New Hampshire and Iowa will drop out, reconfiguring the race in South Carolina and beyond. Granted, most of those likely to exit -- Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul and perhaps Ben Carson -- have little support at this point anyway.

The real shakeout will be in the mainstream conservative group: Rubio, Christie, Bush and Kasich. One of them will surely be gone after New Hampshire, and probably two and possibly three. Here’s where splitting the vote among multiple candidates playing to the same group of voters can make a difference.

Of course, there’s still time for a shuffling of the deck on all of the above. 

  1. National polls matter to the extent that party actors and the media pay attention to them. So they can have effects even when they dont predict anything.

  2. Cruzs position is more complicated. The press may play him up if he wins in Iowa; after all, voters just tuning in now barely know who he is. But given his current lead in the polls there, they may treat a Cruz win as expected and not interesting. 

  3. Ive said for a while now that Marco Rubio is the most likely Republican nominee, and he still has several advantages. His support among party actors allows him more leeway to survive a bad day or two. And his strategy of running a coalition-style candidacy puts him in position to pick up voters from candidates who drop out.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net