GOP Field Shrinks to Four as Jeb Fades

It's been a month since I last took a look at the Republican presidential horserace, and there have been a number of dramatic developments in the meantime. So it's time once again to cast an eye over the Republican field.
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It's been a month since I last took a look at the Republican presidential horserace, and there have been a number of dramatic developments in the meantime. So it's time once again to cast an eye over the Republican field.

Before I begin, a few technical notes are in order. First, data comes from the Real Clear Politics Republican poll-tracking page. The last column I wrote used the data from November 8th, on the RCP graph (every time I say "since last time" below, this is what I'll be referring to). And my own categories, as before, are divided into four levels: those with no chance of winning the nomination, those with a slim or longshot chance, those with a decent shot at winning, and those with a great chance of becoming the nominee. These are fairly arbitrary divisions, but they're what the race has so far seemed to require.

In the past month, there has been notable movement from a number of candidates, two of whom actually dropped into a lower category. Three candidates headed upwards in the polls, and all the rest stayed the same. Without further ado, let's take a look at the categories, from worst chance to best chance.

No Chance

There was a change in this list, but only because Bobby Jindal threw in the towel and doesn't have to be listed anymore. Other than that notable development, there are four Republican candidates who struggle to even get a single percent in any individual poll. They are: George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, and Jim Gilmore. Not a whole lot needs be said about any of them, since none of them will become the nominee.

Slim Chance

Last month, the big story was that Carly Fiorina had dropped down into this longshot category. This month, the big story (one that few others are even admitting yet) is that Jeb Bush has also now dropped down to longshot status.

This is a stunning development, because it comes after Jeb's super PAC just spent almost $30 million on ads. For this expenditure, Bush has sunk from 7.0 percent all the way down to 4.0 percent. He's below five points, and falling. Bush's last two national polls both had him at three percent. After spending more than every other Republican candidate combined.

What this means is that even though Bush still has an estimated $60 million or more to spend, it's not going to do him any good. When the voters just aren't buying what you're selling, it doesn't matter how many times they hear the pitch, in other words. Jeb, like Hillary Clinton in 2008, had one simple plan to win the nomination: be inevitable. Unlike Clinton, however, all Bush's money and all his inevitability might not win him even a single primary. After spending a fortune, he's fallen under five percent in the polling. That's a pretty dismal return-on-investment, folks! Because there's no easy answer for Bush ("throw more money at the problem" has definitely not worked yet), he can't even be considered a contender for the prize any more. Bush is now merely "at the forefront of the absolute longshots." That's it. How the mighty have fallen.

There are really three mini-tiers in this category, and Jeb can indeed claim to be the only one in the clear lead. All of these candidates, however, all only separated by a margin of 2.2 points, so these really are micro-divisions. Forming the middle of this pack are Carly Fiorina (3.0 percent) and Chris Christie (2.8 percent). Carly finally bottomed out of her own spectacular fall in the polling, and now gets a pretty steady three percent, down 8.8 points from her high point. Christie, on the other hand, has been polling in the two-to-three-percent range for months. He drifts up a point, then down a point, and recently is on an upswing which places him with Carly in the middle.

The lower micro-tier has John Kasich and Mike Huckabee tied at 2.0 percent, and Rand Paul who fell to a new low of 1.8 percent. All three of these guys are drifting downward, and all three are bordering on falling into the "no chance whatsoever" category entirely.

Decent Chance

Other than the news of Jeb stumbling so badly, most of the real action took place in this category. None of these candidates are frontrunners, but they're all in a strong position to leap into frontrunner status by becoming "the best alternative" to the current frontrunner. Each of these candidates saw significant movement in their polling last month, but this news was only good for two of them.

Ben Carson is in the midst of a campaign collapse. There's just no polite way to put it. His numbers are headed down, and they're headed down in a big way. Last month, Carson was giving Donald Trump a real run for his money, and Carson had even led in the polling briefly (a feat no other candidate has come close to achieving). This month, he's dropping like a stone. Currently, he's at 15.8 percent, down from 24.4 last time around. That's a falloff of 8.6 points in a very short time. Nobody quite knows why Carson fell when he did -- his numbers got worse even before the Paris terrorist attacks refocused the race on foreign policy. He said a few outlandish things, but then he's been doing that for the entire race, while his polling went up, not down. But for whatever reason, Carson seems to be fading fast. He won't disappear altogether, as I think he's got a certain level of core support that won't abandon him for a while, but as an actual contender for the nomination I think he's headed towards being the best longshot (the position Bush now occupies). He could surprise everyone and recover, but that's pretty rare for any candidate who has been near or at the top and fallen so far. The only silver lining for Carson right now is that he's still leading the other second-tier candidates -- but that will likely last only until the next few polls come out.

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have certainly benefited from Carson's collapse. While Carson was falling, Cruz and Rubio were rising on an almost-identical climb to each other. So far, it's been a slowish climb, but a significant one nonetheless. Cruz went from 9.6 percent last month to 14.8 percent now -- a jump of 5.2 points. Rubio rose as well (but not by as much), from 11.8 percent to 14.3 percent. The two seem to be in a neck-and-neck race for second place (or will be, after Carson falls a bit further). Rubio has, so far, led this race by a nose, but in the past few days Cruz pulled ahead for the first time since they both began climbing. Interestingly, Cruz has jumped considerably in Iowa, while Rubio has stayed fairly stable. This could become an important dynamic the closer we get to the first caucuses, because a Cruz victory there might shift the public's perception in a big way.

Great Chance

For now, the Republican race has to be seen as a four-way contest. Carson still has better numbers than anyone but the frontrunner, and Cruz and Rubio are climbing steadily. But, of course, one name continues to stand out. Donald Trump has also benefited from Carson's fall, and his poll numbers rose from 24.8 percent last time around to a whopping 29.5 percent. That is roughly twice the support of any of the other main contenders.

Last month, Trump was in a real race for first place with Ben Carson. This time, he alone leads the pack -- way out front and pulling away. Carson's collapse means there is nobody even close to Trump in the polling, and all the terrorism and foreign policy focus seems to have actually helped Trump's numbers (as, ever modest, he himself pointed out recently).

Donald Trump is not exactly inevitable as the Republican nominee, but he sure is looking like the best bet, at this point. People have been predicting his collapse since the day he got into the race, and it has just not happened yet. Only one candidate (Carson) has even briefly challenged him in the polling. Nobody else has come close. Everyone else has struggled to even reach double digits.

I've been saying it all week: we are officially through the looking glass. Donald Trump is the sole frontrunner of the Republican nomination race. He shows no signs whatsoever of fading. He insults audiences to their faces, and his numbers go up. In fact, while I was writing this article (I've since been informed), Trump said something completely outrageous today -- but I bet it won't hurt him in the polls, no matter how crazy. Choose your metaphor: bulletproof, Teflon, water off a duck's back. Unless the race gets more competitive as Republican voters start flocking to Carson, Rubio, or Cruz (and, crucially, also start ignoring the other two), Trump may be untouchable. For now, at least, he is the only person worthy of the label of "frontrunner."

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