What are my numbers based on? Nothing, really, except a few hunches translated into plausible-ish vote totals.
Hunch one: Trump wins comfortably. This doesn’t even count as a hunch, I think, given that he’s led in every poll of New Hampshire tracked by RCP since … late June. No foolin’. Every single one for seven months, and in all but a handful his lead has been double digits. Trump finishing second tonight would be so devastating that no one will trust another poll that has him ahead for the duration of the campaign. He’d get one more shot to win a state in South Carolina and, failing that, he’d be done, I think.
Hunch two: Trump will underperform expectations. The polls have him reliably north of 30 percent, but the lesson of Iowa is that his ground game really is materially weaker than other top-tier candidates’. If you believe the Times, it’s weaker in New Hampshire too. But his lead is so, well, yuge that even a weak ground game can’t deny him victory, I assume. Seems safe to think he’ll miss his polling target again but still win easily.
Hunch three: Kasich will do well. Rich Lowry has a smart way to think about Kasich’s support: Since he’s basically re-running Huntsman’s campaign from 2012, replete with some of the same advisors and an intensive focus on New Hampshire, we can guesstimate that Kasich will pull a similar level of support. Huntsman finished with 17 percent. Neither Bush nor Christie has laid a glove on Kasich over the last few months because they were so focused on blowing up Rubio, so New Hampshirites who like him have little reason to reconsider. If anyone surprises tonight by cracking 20 percent and threatening Trump, he’s probably the guy.
Hunch four: Rubio’s ground game will save him from disaster. In this case, “disaster” would be finishing at, say, 12 percent instead of 16 percent, since that would threaten to push him into fourth or even fifth place behind (gasp) Jeb Bush. A man who’s well-organized enough to surprise the world in Iowa shouldn’t be underestimated in New Hampshire, although obviously the dynamics of GOTV are different in a statewide primary than they are in a caucus. Rubio’s the only one of the top five in NH, in fact, who I think has a shot at finishing much better than his polling suggests, partly because of his organization and partly because no one can tell how much his debate “malfunction” matters. What if voters didn’t really care and there’s some critical mass of undecideds who have bought the spin (which happens to be true) that Rubio’s the only one of the four center-righties in NH capable of beating Trump and Cruz over the long run? Wouldn’t surprise me if he pulled mid-20s tonight. It would surprise me if he faded to low double digits.
Hunch five: Jeb will do better than everyone thinks. There are signs of a strong finish for Bush out there, from multiple polls showing him creeping up into the teens to Rubio’s Super PAC targeting him more heavily to Jeb’s own team beginning to raise expectations.
A Bush aide says internal tracking shows movement from Rubio to Bush pic.twitter.com/xmt2jAgJbd
— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) February 9, 2016
A tie for fourth place with Cruz would be enough to keep Jeb going to Bush-friendly South Carolina. Kasich will obviously keep going too. Christie finishing in the mid- or low single digits should be enough to knock him out, but he may be on a mission to blow up Rubio now. He’s already claimed that he’s headed to South Carolina too. I made this point yesterday but it bears repeating: Barring a shockingly strong finish by Rubio tonight beating all expectations, we already know “the outcome” in New Hampshire even without knowing the exact results. The outcome is that Rubio failed to knock out his competition on the center-right, creating an unholy mess for establishmentarians in South Carolina, Nevada, and the SEC primary on March 1st. Ross Douthat titles his column about that today, “A Party on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”
A Rubio-Cruz-Trump race, as I’ve pointed out before, would already be the most ideologically consequential primary battle the G.O.P. has featured in decades if not generations. But at least it would be a relatively orderly battle, in which most of the party leadership would end up behind the Florida senator, rather than turning the knives on one another. If Rubio can’t consolidate things, though — if he falls into a tie with Jeb, let’s say, while Kasich is alone in second place — then we’re in a situation where Jeb might stick around till Florida and Kasich till Ohio, both on March 15th, an eternity away. Meanwhile Trump would have an actual win under his belt and Cruz would have running room in the SEC primary, meaning that the delegate leaders a month from would be all-but-guaranteed to be a candidate running on increasingly Bernie Sanders-ish rhetoric and a candidate feared by G.O.P. elites (on reasonable grounds) as the Barry Goldwater of 2016.
I do not believe, to quadruple (or whatever) down on my not-Trump predictions, that in this scenario the party leadership would eventually resign itself to the Donald, and especially not given the way he’s running now. But if Rubio drops back into the pack and Kasich emerges as the clear New Hampshire winner on the moderate/establishment flank, setting up a Trump-Cruz battle for South Carolina, then we might be starting to approach a universe with only two genuinely plausible scenarios: Either a contested convention with Trump as some kind of kingmaker, or yes, Republican nominee Ted Cruz.
He’s not exaggerating about tonight’s outcome raising the odds of a brokered convention substantially if everything breaks badly for Rubio. Dave Wasserman makes the same point, and it’s hard to disagree given the math. Per Sean Trende, roughly a third of the total number of delegates will have been awarded by the time the SEC Primary is over on March 1st. If the outcome in New Hampshire runs the way I expect, there may be no less than five candidates still competing and divvying up shares of the electorate in a month. I don’t think it’s a exaggeration to say that Team Rubio would rather have Bush fail spectacularly tonight, even if that somehow required Rubio to fare badly too, than to have both of them beat expectations. Rubio needs Jeb out more than he needs to succeed this evening himself. I don’t think it’s going to happen.
Long story short, the theme of the past eight months has been chaos. That’s what I’m betting on tonight. More chaos. While we wait for polls to close, here’s Ben Carson suggesting that he’s open to being VP for a guy who compared his “pathological” temper as a kid to an incurable compulsion not unlike what a child molester feels. Trump/Guy Who Trump Compared To A Child Molester 2016?