Oh yes: Romney leads Trump 31/15 in New Hampshire poll

Given that the deadline to file for the New Hampshire ballot was three days ago, I’m not sure why the Globe felt this was necessary. Maybe they wanted to show people how soft Trump’s support in the state really is, despite all of the polls there showing him leading?

If so, it would have been nice to make that point when Romney was still viable as a potential candidate. Right now, looking at Rubio’s relative weakness in New Hampshire, I’ll bet a lot of establishmentarians who are worried about Trumpmentum would think hard about Romney 3.0 as a last-ditch bid to stop him.

Romney, who said as recently as last week that he is not interested in running, did not file for the New Hampshire primary ballot by the deadline last Friday. He would have the support of 31 percent of Granite State Republicans compared with 15 percent backing Trump, the poll indicates.

With Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, out of the picture, Trump continues to dominate. Trump has 22 percent support, double that of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who ran second in the poll, with 11 percent.

“Donald Trump’s loyal 22 percent goes a long way in New Hampshire,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston. “As long as the remaining 78 percent is split relatively evenly among the six or seven major contenders, we’re getting close to ‘Trump-mate’ in the Granite State.”

Yup, and realistically, there’s every reason to think that split will persist. If you want to stop Trump in New Hampshire, you need center-right voters there to coalesce behind the strongest candidate from that lane. Right now that appears to be Rubio. The problem is, Rubio’s only a few points better than everyone else: He’s at 11 percent here versus nine for Kasich, eight for Jeb Bush, and four each for Christie and Carly Fiorina. What incentive do any of those people have to quit the race and unite behind a single Trump-killing competitor before New Hampshire votes? Jeb Bush could run well into the spring if he wanted to given the war chest his Super PAC has built. Kasich’s own Super PAC is planning an anti-Trump ad blitz in order to clear some space for other “moderate” Republican candidates. Christie seems convinced that if he just keeps at it, holding townhalls day after day, he can eventually talk himself into a surge inside the state. And given how well Fiorina did at the second GOP debate, she probably believes (not necessarily wrongly) that she’s one more stellar debate performance from being right back in the hunt. The more convinced these people are that their moment in the top tier is coming, the less likely it is that anyone will consolidate the 25-30 percent needed to stop Trump.

In fact, even if one of them did consolidate the center-right vote, they still might not be able to stop Trump. Here’s what RCP’s polling average looks like right now in New Hampshire:


If Bush, Kasich, Christie, and Fiorina all dropped out and all of their votes went to Rubio, he’d be at 36.8 percent, 10 points ahead of Trump. But of course, not all of those votes will go to Rubio; some, in fact, will go to Donald Trump, a guy who appeals more strongly to “moderate” center-right voters than he does to rock-ribbed conservatives. So assume that Rubio “only” wins two-thirds of the Bush/Kasich/Christie/Fiorina voters and the other third splits various ways; that would leave Rubio just shy of 29 percent overall, perilously close to (albeit slightly ahead of) where Trump is now. How many of those remaining one-third of center-right voters would break for Trump, padding the 26.6 percent he has now? How many Cruz or Carson voters, deciding that their man has no chance to win New Hampshire, would switch at the last minute — and if they did switch, would they break for Rubio or for the “outsider” Trump? What about the undecideds? Are they all going to break for Rubio too or will those be evenly split with Trump? The point here isn’t that Trump can’t be beaten, the point is that he’s built up enough support there — seemingly durable support after so many months in the lead — that he’s still in the hunt to win even if center-righties do unite behind one candidate. And as I’ve just argued, there’s no reason to think that they will. Maybe Christie and Fiorina will run out of money and have no choice but to quit, but Jeb won’t. Kasich, who’s all in on New Hampshire, won’t go easily either. With those two on the ballot on election night, it may be impossible for Rubio to pull the votes he needs to edge past Trump.

But wait, says Nate Silver. Trump critics shouldn’t lose hope yet. When it comes to the early primaries, it’s the final week that decides things:

These exit polls find that voters take their sweet time. In Iowa, on average, only 35 percent of voters had come to a final decision before the final month of the campaign. And in New Hampshire, only 29 percent had. (Why is the fraction lower in New Hampshire than in Iowa? Probably because voters there are waiting for the Iowa results before locking in their choice. In fact, about half of New Hampshire voters make up their minds in the final week of the campaign.)

If you believe the exit polls, fully 71 percent of New Hampshirites waited until the final month to decide in 2008 and 2012, meaning that everything written about the state before January of next year is close to meaningless. Great news for Rubio fans, then — there’s still a perfectly fair chance that his numbers will rocket past Trump as Republicans in NH get serious about the race after New Year’s. The problem is that that’s also great news for Bush fans and Kasich fans and Christie fans and Fiorina fans, all of whom now have another argument for why their candidate should hang in there to the bitter end. Maybe we’re all set for a Christie surge after all circa January 15th or so; why on earth would he drop out before finding out? And the more hope there is among these lower-polling candidates, the worse Rubio’s problem gets in trying to scrape together the center-right votes he needs to edge past Trump.

Of course, it could be that most of the late-breakers end up breaking for Trump himself, rendering all of this moot. More likely, though, precisely because the GOP leadership is so keenly aware of how split the establishment favorites are, I think there’ll be tremendous pressure on the lower-polling candidates in late January to get out and endorse whoever’s ahead in that lane. Jeb Bush doesn’t want his political legacy to be “I helped Donald Trump win the nomination by holding onto votes that would have helped my friend Marco.” I think you’ll also see enormous heat on Romney in January to endorse whichever center-righty is polling the best in the name of beating Trump, even though he’d clearly rather not take sides between friends like Rubio and Christie. Today’s poll and Silver’s piece suggest that he’d have some meaningful late influence on the outcome there if he chooses to exert it. If his pals, in refusing to drop out, force him to choose among them, I think he will make that choice — but only if he thinks he can stop Trump by doing so.

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