Convention wisdom says we’re about to enter into a dead period of the primary season. The Washington Post outlined the following calendar, starting with Thanksgiving: “Christmas is four weeks after that. A week later, it’s New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day. Suddenly, it’s Jan. 4, and the [Iowa] caucuses are only 28 days away.” During this period, “People, including Iowans and New Hampshire types, start paying much more attention to go how to stuff their turkey and what’s under the Christmas tree than they do to politics.” As a result, “TV ads, stump speeches and even debates tend to get lost — or plain ignored — in the holiday maelstrom.”
I find it hard to believe that a primary with Donald Trump as its leader will truly fall off the front page, and we mustn’t forget that there’s a December 15 debate in Las Vegas that will attract attention, but if we accept that there will be this “holiday freeze,” how will our race look on January 4, the first Monday of the New Year?
For starters, exactly four weeks before the February 1 Iowa caucuses, Donald Trump will still be entrenched as the leader of the Republican Primary. This will be a surprise to everyone, including yours truly, who thought his summer surge was a transient moment of the 2016 campaign. The latest national polls, released Sunday from Fox and ABC News, show Trump with, once again, double digits leads. After a couple weeks of trading the lead with Ben Carson in late October, Trump earned November margins of 3, 4, and then 7 points over him before this weekend’s pair of 10-point leads. Like his investment portfolio, it’s been steady growth for the billionaire, who now sits at a 27.5 RCP average. He’ll almost certainly be in the lead when we turn the calendar.
Three candidates will appear to be his chief competition. Ben Carson (19.8 average), Marco Rubio (12.5), and Ted Cruz (11.3) are the only other candidates in double digits, and just as Trump leaves them in his dust, they leave the field in theirs. (Fifth place Jeb Bush is at a mere 5.5 RCP average.) Each of the three are experiencing different narratives, however.
Carson’s star seems to be setting. Below are Trump’s rolling average in red and Carson’s in blue dating back to mid-September (from the Huffington Post collection of polls):
After Carson’s average approached Trump’s in late October, the two have since diverged. For a handful of polls, Carson was doing just as well as Trump, polling in the mid-to-high 20s while leading three out of five polls. In November, however, Carson is down to the lows 20s and high teens. The “holiday freeze” might save him from continuing to fall. On the other hand, inertia might prolong his descent due to the freeze not allowing him to effectively pull up on the stick.
Meanwhile, Rubio’s narrative continues to be as the establishment’s best hope to block Trump from the nomination. Below are the rolling averages of Rubio (light blue?), Bush (dark blue), Fiorina (orange), Christie (light purple), and Kasich (dark purple):
Bush and Fiorina are trending down, while Christie and Kasich continue to run incessantly stagnant campaigns. Rubio is the only establishment candidate trending up. By the time the freeze is over in January, other establishment candidates will have only a few weeks before it becomes decision time — do they continue to fight for a miracle but potentially help Trump’s nomination, or do they take the selfless route, suspend their campaigns, and endorse the leading establishment candidate before Trump takes a delegate lead? Dramatic decision-making awaits us in January.
Finally, there’s Ted Cruz. Loyal readers of this blog know he has long been my sleeper candidate to make a deep run. In fact, when I ran that post, I noted that most betting websites had him at 25:1 to win the nomination, odds about the same as Mike Huckabee’s, which I thought was absurd. (Huckabee has become a more appropriate 50:1 long-shot.) He is now either 6:1 or 7:1 and ranked third by most oddsmakers after Rubio and Trump (though second by Presidential Politics For America).
For Cruz graphs, I’d like to share four. Here are his national, Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina polls since the end of June (click to zoom):
With trends like those, it’s unsurprising that the oddsmakers eventually caught on. While other candidates have either seen turbulent poll numbers or polling in outright decline, Cruz has slowly built a base of supporters so loyal that they don’t jump ship from week to week. Trump and Carson’s up-and-down numbers mean some people ditch them, others climb on board, old supporters might come back, etc.. I don’t love that as a winning strategy. When someone signs up for Team Cruz, it seems to be a commitment. Even in New Hampshire, which seemed to be the weak point of his campaign in early October, Cruz now runs third, ahead of Iowa rival Ben Carson.
Meanwhile, as of the last FEC report, he was top three in fundraising, and, importantly, he had the most cash on hand of all the candidates, a crucial advantage for January and February as unpredictable developments force candidates to improvise. His Super-PAC strength also seems to be second only to Wall Street darling and imminent footnote Jeb Bush. Heading into the holiday freeze and beyond, Ted Cruz continues to be in excellent position. Winter is coming, and he couldn’t be happier.
Ultimately, when we do return from the freeze, four weeks is still plenty of time left for movers and shakers. It might seem like a blink of an eye compared to the previous six months of campaigning, but the final four weeks is also the most volatile. Who can forget Rick Santorum, who, just four weeks before Iowa 2012, was polling low single digits but then went on to win the Iowa caucuses and run second overall to Mitt Romney? This time around, Chris Christie looks feisty, Jeb Bush’s supporters are still sitting on a mountain of money waiting for the slightest bit of momentum to come his way, and a few other candidates are still waiting for their big break.
In other words, we’ve got plenty of campaign left, PPFaholics. Thanks for reading. I’m grateful for your readership. Happy Thanksgiving!