Once again, it's been a month since I last took a look at the Republican presidential field as a whole, and in the intervening time two further candidates have dropped out, bringing the total to an almost-manageable 12 candidates (11 if you don't count Jim Gilmore... and at this point, many don't). Even an even dozen, though, is better than trying to keep track of 17 of these folks.
A few technical notes before I begin. All data comes from the Real Clear Politics Republican nomination poll-tracking page, and where I say "since last time" below, I'm referring to the numbers from my December 7th article. It's been a month of some major polling movement, so it's important to define this baseline. Last month, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson were all essentially tied for second place, but this is no longer true. Also, one candidate finally rose from the morass at the bottom to actual viability.
As always, I'm dividing the candidates into four arbitrary categories: No Chance, Slim Chance, Decent Chance, and Great Chance (all referring to winning the nomination, of course). This time around, however, I'm paying much more attention to polling in the first two states to vote (Iowa and New Hampshire). Up until now, I've mostly been relying on national polling, but the first two contests of the primary season have an outsized influence on the race as a whole, so they've got to be taken into consideration. OK, that's enough of an introduction, let's get on with the rankings.
I'm widening the criteria for this category, because otherwise it would have been pretty small this time around. George Pataki and Lindsey Graham both woke up to the fact that they weren't going to win, and dropped out in December. This leaves Rick Santorum and Jim Gilmore from last time, neither of which has caught any sort of fire in the meantime. But to this pair we have to now add Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, and Mike Huckabee. None of these people will win the nomination, it can now be said with a high degree of certainty.
Mike Huckabee's national polling went from 2.0 percent last month all the way to 2.0 percent (OK, that was snarky, sorry about that). Carly Fiorina's polling sank a half a point, from 3.0 down to 2.5, continuing her slide into obscurity. Rand Paul actually improved, from 1.8 to 2.8 percent, but he's not even in the top six candidates in either Iowa or New Hampshire, so his chances have shrunk to zero of winning even a single state.
This is the widest category, poll-wise. We have four candidates here, ranging from 1.8 percent all the way up to 8.8 percent. The bottom outlier is John Kasich, who has always been slated to be this year's Jon Huntsman -- the candidate the pundits all loved to love, but who fell flat with actual voters. Kasich's 1.8 percent national rating should really land him in the "No Chance" category, below Paul, Fiorina, and Huckabee. However, Kasich's campaign has gone all-in on New Hampshire, pretty much from the start of the campaign -- and it is finally paying off a bit. Not much, but enough to give him at least a slim chance of using it as a springboard to bigger and better things. Kasich is currently polling at 9.7 percent in New Hampshire, which puts him in fifth place in the state, two points ahead of Jeb Bush and two-and-a-half points in front of Ben Carson. Even picturing a fifth-place finish somehow causing Kasich to catch fire with other states' voters is a stretch (but not beyond the realm of the possible), so for now Kasich gets included here in Slim Chance.
The other outlier also needs some explanation. Ben Carson is polling fourth overall, at 8.8 percent, which is a full four points higher than the rest of this category and less than three points behind the third-place candidate up in the next category. However, I truly feel Carson's day in the spotlight is over and nothing at this point is going to get him back into the top ranks. His polling has fallen off a cliff over the past two months, and the outlook is that it will continue to slide. From briefly besting Trump as the frontrunner (at around 25 percent), Carson fell to 15.8 percent last month and then he lost another seven points in December. It is incredibly rare for a candidate to fall this sharply in the polls and convince the voters give them a second chance (Newt Gingrich briefly pulled this off in 2012, but it's rare to see). So Carson at this point has to be considered a longshot, at best. Last month, he slipped from second place down to fourth overall, and he's likely going to continue his downward path. About the best he can hope for at this point is a fourth-place finish in Iowa, before his campaign becomes completely irrelevant.
Between Kasich and Carson in the polling for this category are two other candidates. The most surprising trend over the last month has been the rise of Chris Christie, who is the first candidate to break out of the truly dismal group at the bottom since Carly Fiorina managed the feat, many months ago. Christie is now polling at 4.8 percent nationally, up from 2.8 percent last month. More importantly, Christie's at an impressive 11.3 percent in New Hampshire, which puts him in fourth place there. Nationally Christie is in fifth place, which is especially noteworthy for the candidate he bumped out of this position.
Which brings us to Jeb Bush, of course. Bush's woes just seem to endlessly continue. He's spent a mountain of money, and he even still has another mountain of money to spend, but this just doesn't seem to matter at all to the voters. For all the money Bush has spent, he is now at a dismal 4.3 percent in the polls, up only 0.3 percent from last month. This puts him in only sixth place overall, down from fifth place last month. Not exactly a very good return on investment, eh?
If any of the three candidates currently leading the pack falls hard, there might be an opening for another candidate to quickly rise. But, at this point, it's only realistic to expect this to happen to John Kasich (the longest of the longshots), Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or Ben Carson.
Two months ago, when I wrote about the race, I had five candidates in the top ranks to win the Republican nomination. Last month, that shrank to four. This month, there are really only three candidates with a decent shot (or better) of actually winning the nomination.
The raw national polling numbers seem to argue for Ben Carson to still be considered, but as I explained his trajectory is so bad I can't see him pulling out of his tailspin. Furthermore, some might divide the top two categories differently. But, for the moment, this is how I see things.
Marco Rubio still has a decent chance of winning it all. He's the only candidate even remotely considered part of the Republican "establishment" who has caught on in any sort of way with the voters. Unfortunately for him, this only led to a mild rise in support, and it now seems like even that has evaporated. Still, he's holding steady in double digits, a feat few other Republicans have managed this election cycle. Rubio moves up in the rankings this time, from fourth place to third, but this is only due to Carson's collapse. Rubio's own poll numbers actually headed down in the past month. He reached a peak of just under 15 percent, after Carson started to collapse, but then the voters who had drifted to Rubio drifted back away. He's now down to 11.5 percent, which is actually lower than where he was two months ago. This falloff has leveled off recently, though, so it looks like he's still got a pretty solid grip on third place nationally. Rubio is currently polling third in Iowa and second in New Hampshire. A second-place finish in New Hampshire could give him the boost he needs to move his polling upwards again. Especially as some of the other candidates run out of cash and have to drop out of the race.
Ted Cruz is really somewhere between "Decent Chance" and "Great Chance" at the moment, which is why I mentioned that some might actually award him frontrunner status. Cruz has continually risen in the polls as Carson fell, capturing almost all the former Carson supporters. That's an impressive feat, because this was the Cruz campaign's master plan all along -- to quietly lurk in the background and wait for others to implode. He's pulled this trick off quite well with Carson, and he clearly hopes to do the same to the frontrunner, should the laws of political gravity ever start to apply again.
Cruz moved up from third place nationally to second, and his numbers continue to head upwards. Last month he was at 14.8 percent, and he's now added almost five points to that to land at 19.5 percent. Only two other 2016 GOP candidates have ever polled above 20 percent, to put this in some context. What's even more impressive is the fact that Cruz is now solidly leading the polls in Iowa, at 31.0 percent support. Cruz only ranks third in New Hampshire, but he'll be in good position to compete when many of the southern states vote in early March. Cruz has also been raising a pretty sizeable campaign chest, so he'll be around for the long run.
Once again, however, this brings us to the man who is clearly in a category by himself. Donald Trump is still the clear frontrunner of the Republican race, and his numbers went up once again in December. Last month he was at 29.5 percent support, and this month he has reached 35.0 percent, a 5.5 percent rise. So far his high point of support has been 36.5, which is (sorry) "huge," when compared to the entire rest of the field. As I said, only Ben Carson has ever gotten above 20 percent, and Trump is now solidly above 35 percent. Again, for context, the only candidate in 2012 to top 35 percent was Mitt Romney -- who then went on to win the nomination (Romney didn't hit this mark until the end of February, it's worth noting).
Trump said a lot of things in December that shocked the inside-the-Beltway set. His proposals were declared political poison by many. His fellow Republicans (some of them, at least) even tried to denounce him. And his poll numbers went up.
True, he has slipped a bit in Iowa. Ted Cruz has spiked there, up to 31.0 percent, while Trump has been pretty flat (now at 27.4 percent). It'll be interesting to see how Trump reacts if Cruz takes first place in the first state to vote, but Trump is still well-positioned for New Hampshire, with almost twice the support of his nearest competitor (Trump's 26.3 to Rubio's 13.3 percent). Trump is also in great shape for South Carolina, although he may not do as well in Nevada.
Still, everyone else's chances for victory require an early state victory followed by a swell of support in the polls. Everyone else's chances for victory also almost require Trump's support in the polls to suffer serious damage. If nobody else manages to break into the front rank, then Trump is the best positioned candidate to win the nomination -- hands down. Cruz or Rubio (or, conceivably, some other candidate) might manage an upset victory, but he'll have to defeat the clear crowd favorite to do so. That favorite is now -- as it has been for the past six months -- Donald Trump.
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