What Early State Polls Reveal About Later States

Due to the upcoming holiday break, polling averages are about to be locked in until the first Monday in January, which itself is just four weeks from the Iowa caucuses. Yesterday, the CBS/YouGov team released polls from the first three states of the 2016 Republican primary: Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Their results were pretty congruous with what we’ve been seeing in other polls and trends for the last couple weeks, which validates the Real Clear Politics voting averages of each state. I considered how this consistency might help us learn about the big picture of the Republican Primary.

And what I’ve discovered is very, very important.

But first, here are the RCP averages for each state:

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What can we infer from these numbers and recent polling trends across these states?

In Iowa, we note that Ted Cruz has a four-point lead over Donald Trump. Cruz’s success there is enormously important in Trump’s containment, but there are other trends just as relevant.

  • Cruz and Trump combine for 56 percent of Iowa’s support and growing. In the CBS/YouGov Iowa poll, the only one conducted since Tuesday’s debate, the two combine for 71 percent, 40 to 31 in favor of Cruz.
  • Moreover, Cruz has more momentum in the state, as that poll’s 9-point gap confirms, but Trump is doing just fine. Trump’s numbers have never been stronger in the Hawkeye State; it’s just that Cruz is in a midst of an Iowa super surge. His 40 points is the first time any candidate other than Trump has hit 40 in any national or state poll.
  • Carson has fallen to 10 points on average, and the CBS poll had him down to 6. He hadn’t seen single digits in an Iowa poll since August. His nosedive continues. He might not even make it to Iowa.
  • Just like in national polling, Marco Rubio is the only establishment candidate with a respectable number.
  • All told, by about 2 to 1 Iowa voters are supporting antiestablishment candidates. It’s clearly a two-man race here.
  • It’s worth noting, however, that the importance of early states lie more in how results are perceived than in actual delegates earned. Iowa and New Hampshire account for a combined 53 of the 2,470 delegates at the Republican National Convention, or two one-hundredths of a percent of the total. So it’s not the delegates earned that really matter, but how candidates do relative to expectations. That’s how they earn the “Iowa bump” in polling. Perception is king. Expectations might be raised so much for Cruz and Trump in Iowa that one of them will not get an Iowa bump by finishing in second. If an establishment candidate can beat Carson for third and earn a better than expected percentage, they might benefit just as much, if not more, than the second place disappointment.

I’d like to skip New Hampshire for the moment, because South Carolina gave us similar results.

  • By the RCP average, 53 percent of South Carolinian Republicans prefer either Trump or Cruz, and another 11 percent still support Carson. Combined, that’s 64 percent. In the CBS poll alone, which had Trump at 38, Cruz 23, and Carson 9, that number is up to 70. Once again, the establishment is in a 2 to 1 hole.
  • Carson appears to be hanging strong, but his numbers have steadily fallen here, too. His 9 is his first single digit poll in the state since April.
  • Rubio is again the only establishment candidate with any traction.

But in New Hampshire, where there’s some superficial similarity to these other two states, a deeper look not only reveals a measurably different race, but, more importantly, we can use its trends to learn about the primary’s destiny as a whole. In New Hampshire:

  • Yes, Trump is winning big again, up 16 points here as he is in South Carolina.
  • And yes, Cruz is in the top two with him again.
  • Or is he? Not only is Cruz actually locked in a tie at 12.0 with Rubio, but the rising Christie has essentially matched them at 11.3. All three of these guys have been between 10 and 14 in the last three New Hampshire polls taken over the last two weeks.
  • Crucially, the establishment is faring much better in the Granite State than the other two primaries. Whereas Trump and Cruz were earning upwards of 70 percent of voters in Iowa and over 60 percent in South Carolina, here it’s only 40. Also note that Carson, who pushed the antiestablishment group even higher in the other two states, didn’t even make the top six in New Hampshire.

What some pundits hypothesize is that if the establishment clears the field before New Hampshire to rally around a candidate, they can block Trump or Cruz before one of them builds up too much momentum. However, considering all four of the competitive establishment candidates in New Hampshire — Rubio, Bush, Christie, and Kasich — are banking on New Hampshire to save their campaign and are almost equally strong there, that’s decidedly unlikely. Each will probably hang in through this primary, barring a collapse in their polling between now and then. It will be up to one of them to earn their late surge to rival Trump. (Of course, if Cruz beats Trump in Iowa, Trump’s numbers will fall back to the field and allow him to be caught by someone else much more easily.)

Where things get interesting is the long game after New Hampshire.  I predict that whichever one of the four establishment candidates finishes best in New Hampshire — assuming it’s not by a contestable point or two — will earn the supporters of the other three when they drop out before South Carolina. It might not be enough to win South Carolina, where Trump and Cruz are so popular, but it could mean a great deal moving forward into other primaries.

Remember, after these three states, there will still be 47 states and six territories to cast their ballots, and in many of them the Republican electorate is more moderate like New Hampshire than conservative like Iowa and South Carolina. Really, the number of delegates that live in the Midwest and the Deep South are significantly outnumbered by those everywhere else. Indeed, FiveThirtyEight wrote about the disproportionate strength of blue state Republicans in their party’s primary. After New Hampshire, when the establishment really does clear, the surviving establishment candidate will have not just have a lot of party and financial support the rest of the way, but he’ll (sorry, Carly Fiorina) also have a lot of voters.

Meanwhile, there will be a decent enough chance that Cruz and Trump are limiting each others’ ceilings across the Midwest and South. Combined they can outperform the establishment, but separately, due to each others’ presence, they won’t rack up insurmountable numbers. The establishment candidate can therefore win in moderate states and finish respectably in conservative ones to hang in the game.

You know what this is looking like? (You’re darn right I’m going there.) A brokered convention. I’ve mentioned its possibility in passing many times this political season, but I haven’t written a post on it for fear of the jinx. But it’s time. It’s never looked more realistic.

See you next time.

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