It's been a few weeks since I surveyed the Republican presidential field, but recent developments seem to indicate it's time to take another look. Mostly this is because the mainstream media all seem to be ignoring an actual story (even a horserace story!), to instead focus on an artificial narrative imposed by Fox Business Network (the host of tomorrow night's GOP debate). While much attention has been paid to Fox's reshuffling of who will appear on which debate stage, virtually nobody's talking about the complete collapse of Carly Fiorina's polling. She can't even now be considered a plausible Republican nominee, when not that long ago she was solidly in third place in the polls. This is a pretty major development, and it has resulted in the field of Republicans with any sort of believable shot at winning the nomination shrinking from six to only five.
Carly's collapse was predicted by few, and now that it's happening it is also being noticed by few. She became a media darling after solid performances in the first two debates, which pushed her Republican voter support up to 11.8 percent (behind Trump and Carson). Since then, however, she failed to make any waves in the third debate and now teeters on the brink of being disinvited to future main stages, standing overall in a three-way tie for sixth place, at only 3.0 percent in the polls. But again, while her quick rise got a lot of coverage, her "what goes up, must come down" fall hasn't attracted much media attention.
As before, I'm going to split the horserace up into four groups, depending on what sort of chance they have of actually winning the Republican nomination, based on their nationwide polling averages (all data from Real Clear Politics, I should mention). I should also mention that my previous column used data from October 19th, so when you see "since last time" below, that's what I'm talking about. And, as before, I'm going to present these groups in ascending order of possibility.
The Fox Business Network set some rather strange guidelines for inclusion into both of their upcoming debates (for both the main event and the "kids' table" undercard debate). I mean, I do applaud them for beginning the winnowing process, but at the same time I wonder why they set both of their inclusion division lines right in the middle of two groups of candidates, instead of in the gaps between the groups (which would make more sense). There are five candidates with virtually no chance of becoming the Republican nominee at this point, but for some reason only three of them were cut from the kids' table debate. Jim Gilmore didn't even get to go to the last undercard debate, so it's no surprise he won't be appearing this time either. George Pataki and Lindsey Graham also didn't make the Fox Business Network cut. Maybe the three of them can get together to watch the debate, and issue angry tweets all the while, or something.
Now, it certainly makes sense to cut Gilmore, Pataki, and Graham. Their campaigns are all, obviously, toast. But it also makes perfect sense to cut Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal, both of whom are polling at a mere 0.8 percent right now. Does anyone in their right mind really think Jindal or Santorum are suddenly going to catch fire and rocket upwards in the polls? Me neither.
This category was also bizarrely split up, this time between the main debate and the kids' table debate. The bar for inclusion on the main stage was seemingly designed to be an arbitrary split among a group of candidates whose polling is almost completely identical. The current polling difference between all five of these candidates is only a total of 0.8 percent, after all. That's a pretty tight range. So why split them up? All five of these candidates should have been relegated to the undercard (after booting Jindal and Santorum out completely, to make some room).
Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee both got downgraded to the undercard. They're polling at 2.2 and 2.4 percent, respectively. So the undercard will have two candidates (Santorum and Jindal) who are at 0.8 percent alongside two candidates at 2.2 and 2.4 percent. Makes no sense to me.
The other three candidates -- all teetering on the brink of demotion to the kids' table -- are all tied for an overall sixth place in the Republican race, at 3.0 percent. They include the previously-mentioned Carly Fiorina as well as John Kasich and Rand Paul. They'll all have at least one final shot in the main debate, so look for all three of these candidates to be absolutely desperate to make some news. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how they handle it.
Kasich, Paul, Huckabee, and Christie have all been roughly consistent in the polls for the past few months. They slowly jockey for position with each other, rising to as high as 4.0 percent at times. Christie, this time around, stayed flat. Paul and Huckabee drifted downwards, Kasich drifted upwards.
The big news, though, was Fiorina's dramatic fall. She can't even argue it was one bad poll, as the past five polls have all pegged her at exactly three percent support. Her only chance, at this point, is to have a spectacular debate performance which pulls her numbers back up above five percent. It's a slim chance, but it's probably the best of this bunch, the rest of whom have shown no recent significant movement whatsoever (up or down).
These are the guys in the middle of the Republican pack, far enough forward that they could benefit from a good debate or even from the collapse of a competitor in front of them. There was quite a bit of movement in this category, from the last time I took a look. The range the category covers has widened, as two of the three candidates went up and one went further down. The overall standings didn't change at all, but the gaps between them got bigger.
Marco Rubio is the clear winner here, as his poll average went up a solid three points, from 8.8 percent to 11.8 percent. Rubio is now polling steadily above 10 percent, a feat few Republicans have managed throughout this campaign. He got a big bounce out of the third debate, after besting Jeb Bush on stage. He is now positioned as the top candidate to reap the aftermath, should the two no-experience frontrunners ever actually collapse. As such, he's now drawing a lot more heat from the other candidates, so he'll probably have a pretty big target on him in the upcoming debate.
Ted Cruz is still in fourth place, and he also received a bounce from the last debate, although much smaller than Rubio's. Cruz rose from 8.4 percent to 9.6 percent, and has seen some double-digit polling (though not as consistently as Rubio). Cruz, however, continues a slow rise in the polling that has lasted for the past few months. He has always positioned himself to reap the biggest benefit if Trump or Carson ever do fall, by attempting to appeal to the voters who are currently supporting Trump and Carson. Their fall hasn't happened yet, but he's still got a great shot of corralling their voters (greater even than Rubio, most likely) -- should such a collapse ever actually happen, of course. Cruz has been targeting Rubio of late, so this will be an interesting dynamic to watch in the debate.
While Rubio and Cruz got a debate bounce, Jeb Bush continued to falter. Bush fell from 7.0 percent to 6.0 percent in the past few weeks, and his trajectory looks downright grim. In fact, he's now flirting with following Carly into the ranks of the below-four-percenters. Two of his latest polls showed Bush at just four percent support, a new low for Jeb. If he does continue his polling slide, it's likely his donors will flee when he can't even manage to hit the five percent mark. For now, Bush still remains viable -- he definitely still deserves to be on the main stage -- but only for now. If he falls much further, he'll likely never recover.
Finally, we have the two frontrunners. It's been amusing to watch the media (left, right, and center) take on the phenomena of Donald Trump and Ben Carson. First, Trump was dismissed out of hand and Carson wasn't even mentioned. Then, Trump was ridiculed and the conventional inside-the-Beltway belief was: "He'll fall hard, and he'll fall fast." This morphed into: "He's going to fall, it's inevitable." Then: "It's a summer fling, it'll evaporate when voters start paying attention." Finally, it dawned on even those inside the Beltway that these predictions were based on nothing more than hopes, and there was no evidence that Trump's numbers were going to collapse any time soon. There are still die-hards confidently predicting: "It simply can't last," but most are slowly beginning to wrap their minds around the possibility that Donald Trump might just become the Republican nominee for the highest office in the land. Ben Carson has received similar treatment, but his storyline has lagged Trump's (as his poll numbers, while rising, also lagged Trump's).
Sooner or later, the data must be believed, though. There are only two candidates who have caught fire with the Republican base, and they are Trump and Carson. No other candidate has gotten anywhere near where these two have been comfortably polling, for the past month or two. Could one or the other of them stumble badly and see their numbers collapse? Anything's possible. So far, however, neither shows any signs of doing so. Call them the Teflon candidates, because nothing seems to stick to them.
This time around, the race between the two frontrunners closed to a neck-and-neck statistical tie. Trump fell back a little bit, and Carson surged forward, to meet in the middle. Part of this was due to the last debate, where Trump wasn't as bombastic as usual and Carson held his own. Since the last time we took a look at the race, Trump went down 1.4 points, from 26.2 percent to 24.8 percent. Carson rose 3.2 points, from 21.2 percent to 24.2 percent. That's a separation between the two of only 0.6 percent, but what's more significant is that Carson has been beating Trump in some individual polls (while Trump beats Carson in others, to be fair). Carson's average even briefly rose above Trump's for a few days, and now they are virtually tied. Trump's shown a greater willingness to directly attack Carson, so the next debate should be interesting to watch as the two of them struggle for the lead.
The four divisions within the Republican presidential nomination ranks continue to be clear, whether the debate hosts notice it or not. Trump and Carson are way out in front of the pack -- both men have more than double the third-place contender's poll numbers. Rubio, Cruz, and Bush occupy the heart of the pack, all polling between six and 12 percent. These are the five who should appear next to each other in the headline debates. There used to be six candidates in these two groups, but the media seem to have missed the utter collapse of Carly's numbers.
The third division should be the undercard debate. Fiorina, Paul, Kasich, Huckabee, and Christie are all roughly in the same position -- below four percent -- and have roughly the same chances of breaking out and having an actual chance of winning. And, finally, the has-been division (who struggle to even reach a single percent in the polls) should be shoved off television entirely on debate nights. Santorum and Jindal have precisely the same chance (zero) of winning the nomination next year as Pataki, Graham, and Gilmore. They've had their shot, now it's time to show them the door.
Chris Weigant blogs at:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant