After a seeming eternity between Iowa and the first in the nation primary, the New Hampshire primary is upon us. Below is a quick set of predictions as well as a breakdown of what each candidate needs to achieve to stay viable as we move south to South Carolina and later the SEC Primary on March 1.
New Hampshire polling is notoriously unreliable, but given what we know, I would expect Donald Trump to win, though probably underperform his polling average. With a decent debate, Trump was able to stop the bleeding after Iowa and looks poised to win (thanks in no small part to Marco Rubio’s disastrous response to Chris Christie at the debate, which likely slowed whatever momentum he had). Slots 2-5 are incredibly volatile and could plausibly break any way; the rankings here are the most likely source of surprise and drama on election night. With a strong ground game and late momentum, John Kasich seems the favorite to come in second (Full disclosure: I have donated to the Kasich campaign), and I would look for Rubio to come in third, followed by Cruz then Bush. With independents making up ~40% of the electorate, and a similar number still open to switching candidates, each candidate could easily swing several percent, making this race for 2-5 very unstable. That is how I see it, but we could easily see different results. However with Kasich, Bush, Rubio, and Christie running solidly, it is hard to see anyone surpassing Trump, even if he comes in closer to 20% than 30%.
What each candidate needs:
Donald Trump: Trump needs a victory, simple as that. After the stinging loss in Iowa, the frontrunner can’t afford a second loss, especially when every poll shows him up 10% or more. Another loss would remove his aura of invincibility and leave him mortally wounded into South Carolina. Fortunately for Trump, it looks like he will get the victory he needs, giving him momentum as we head towards friendly territory down South. With an NH win in hand, Trump would continue to be the national frontrunner and would also be the favorite for the South Carolina primary the 20th (plenty of time for Cruz or Rubio to make a move).
John Kasich: To have a path forward, Kasich needs either a second place finish or very strong third given the 100+ town halls he has done in NH. Kasich has improved as a candidate but still has low national numbers and faces skepticism from the conservative wing. He needs a strong NH finish to raise money, build out his team, and get support in other states. If he can’t manage a strong third, these resources won’t be coming, and dropping out is a distinct possibility. Should he get the finish I expect, Kasich will have a path forward, though many states are not as clearly hospitable to him in the near term, and he needs to find a way to maintain momentum and amass delegates between now and Ohio on March 15 (when he should win the winner take all 66 delegates). That probably means getting to double digits in SC, and on March 1 doing very well in MA, VA, ME, and VT (which should be favorable to his message) while having solid showings in MS and AL where endorsements should help. Michigan on the 8th would also seem key to the Kasich strategy. It is a narrow, but doable path into OH, but it all starts with a strong finish in NH as a pre-condition.
Marco Rubio: Rubio really needs a second or strong third finish. After Iowa, second seemed within reach (if not a shot at first place), but the debate took some wind out of his sails. Second place would help monopolize establishment support, but a strong third still leaves Rubio with the best shot of unifying the establishment wing. Losing to Cruz or Bush as well as Kasich would jeopardize this and likely leave the establishment scattered for longer. Second is still possible, but anything below third would be a real disappointment for the Senator. With 3rd in hand, Rubio is in solid shape for South Carolina and Nevada (where he should win), though the Southern tilt on March 1 is not friendly. Rubio would benefit from both Cruz and Trump splitting the vote, opening the door to some Rubio upsets. With high favorables and broadly acceptable, he is a near-certain finalist for the nomination.
Ted Cruz: Cruz doesn’t need anything from NH; with only 22% of the electorate evangelical, it isn’t a good fit. As such, there is only upside. If he somehow finishes ahead of Rubio, that would do real damage to the Florida Senator’s campaign. Still, a showing north of 10% would be respectable for the Iowa winner and leave him in good shape for South Carolina. Cruz will be facing off against Trump for dominance in the South as each try to corner the anti-establishment lane. Cruz continues to be very well positioned for a prolonged delegate battle.
Jeb Bush: I remain incredibly bearish on Bush’s prospects, failing to see a path to the nomination for Jeb. His Bush name and low-energy demeanor are insurmountable hurdles this cycle in my estimation. Still, he has enough cash and the apparently the will to fight through South Carolina, and this race to stop Rubio seems increasingly personal for him. Given the time and resources the once-crowned frontrunner devoted to NH, Bush really needs to finish ahead of one of Kasich and Rubio to have a reasonable rationale forward, but a failure to achieve this is unlikely to deter Bush, though another poor showing there might mark the end of this underwhelming campaign.
Chris Christie: While Christie did damage to Rubio at the debate, it is unclear if he convinced voters to pull the lever for Christie on Election Day. Christie still seems mired in the single-digits despite spending almost all of his time in NH. To be remotely plausible, he really needs a top 4 finish, but 6th place seems more likely. If Rubio does poorly, he may try to carry on, but low on cash and with a weak result in a state he focused so much on, that effort would seem futile. Christie dropping out to endorse another Governor is a distinct possibility, and if Christie wants a Governor not a Senator to be the nominee (which seems to be the case), that is his best path forward.
Carly Fiorina: Apart from a brief bump in August after her debate performance, Fiorina has struggled to gain traction and is unlikely to make a move tonight. With cash running low and options lower, pulling out doesn’t seem out of the cards. If she carries on, she is unlikely to be a major factor. She has proven to be an adept debater and excellent at taking on Hillary Clinton, meaning she will be a useful surrogate in the General Election, and potentially a Cabinet appointee.
Ben Carson: NH is not favorable for Carson with its small share of evangelicals, and he did not campaign hard here. Having burnt through so much money and with questionable knowledge of foreign affairs, Carson has no plausible path to the nomination, and NH won’t change that. However, Carson has a devoted following, mainly among evangelicals. In Southern states, he could still pull towards 10%, mainly from Ted Cruz, making him a powerful spoiler. Carson seems intent on carrying on, if only to block Cruz after the Iowa controversy, and he can siphon off votes in South Carolina and on March 1.
So, that’s how I see NH. Given this perspective, here is how I see each candidate’s odds at getting the nomination before we see the NH results. Trump, Cruz, and Rubio are functionally co-frontrunners (I give Trump a slight edge given better national numbers and a likely win in NH, but a surprise loss would change this dramatically). Among the Governors, Kasich is top simply because he is most likely to have a big night in NH.
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