At least four newsy takeaways here. Five, if you want to count Trump continuing to maintain a lead he’s had for months in NH into December.
The newsiest, of course, is the Christie comeback, assuming it’s actually happening and this isn’t some freaky outlier. As things now stand: Trump 27, Cruz 13, Rubio 11, Christie 10.
The clear momentum candidate in New Hampshire is Chris Christie. In mid-October he was in 9th place in the state at just 3%. Now he’s moved all the way up into the 4th position with his 10% standing. Most remarkably though he now has the best favorability rating of any of the candidates in New Hampshire, with 61% of voters seeing him positively to only 22% who have a negative opinion. To put those numbers in perspective Christie was at 35/46 when we polled the state in August, so he’s had a 50 point net improvement in his favorability over the last three months. That’s a good reminder of how early it still is in this race and how much things can change in a short time. Christie is the most frequent second choice of Bush and Kasich voters so if either of them doesn’t make it to New Hampshire he’ll be well positioned to further gain.
No other poll of New Hampshire has had Christie as high as 10 percent but two polls taken three weeks ago had him at eight. This is also the first survey conducted in the state since before Thanksgiving, so maybe it’s picking up movement that other pollsters haven’t had a chance to detect yet. Christie’s got lots of room to grow as his centrist lane of the race narrows. Kasich, for instance, seems to be slipping, probably because of his mind-bogglingly obnoxious performance at the last debate. If Christie, a natural second choice for fans of a centrist governor like Kasich, picks up most of his support eventually, he’ll be polling in the teens — maybe even within 10 points or so of Trump for the lead. And remember, Christie’s been camped out in New Hampshire for weeks with no intention of leaving. He’s going to give voters there all the attention they could want. Candidates like Trump and Rubio, who are competing in Iowa and South Carolina, can’t do that.
That brings us to the second newsy bit: Jeb Bush is now down to eighth place with just five percent in his must-win state. He’s the flip side of Christie in that no other recent poll has him sunk that low, but if there really is a Christie surge happening, it stands to reason that it comes partly at Bush’s expense. He too is a centrist governor with about 1/100th of Christie’s charisma. The more New Hampshire center-righties feel that Christie has at least as good of a chance as Jeb to win, the more willing they might be to tilt towards Christie on pure retail appeal. Bush’s strategy in New Hampshire so far has been to somehow nudge past Rubio, trust that Kasich will collapse under the weight of his own unlikability, and count on Christie to remain an asterisk candidate; if all of that happens, then NH voters may see the race as a binary “Trump or Bush” choice and maybe that’s enough to give Bush a surprise win, if only because of his supposed electability. The problem is, not only is he not nudging past Rubio, he’s now fading behind a surging Christie. It’s almost impossible to see him becoming the “centrist choice” if Rubio and Christie are serious players in the state. According to PPP, Bush’s favorables are now 38/45, the worst of any serious Republican contender. (Worse even than Kasich.) And this is after Jeb did a campaign overhaul to “project confidence,” show off his foreign policy strength or whatever, and so on. If this poll is accurate, he’s done.
The third newsy element here: Ted Cruz is in second place in New Hampshire, which is sort of hard to believe but also sort of not. He finished second in Gravis’s poll of the state last month and has been hovering at around 10-11 percent in several surveys since, just a few points behind Rubio. It’s been a long time, though, since a true right-winger won New Hampshire. You have to go back to Pat Buchanan in 1996, past Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush (unopposed), and McCain again — and unlike Cruz, no one thought Buchanan had a serious shot at the nomination. Imagine, though, that Cruz wins Iowa and a surprisingly strong, straight-talkin’ establishment centrist like Christie keeps rising and eventually takes a few votes from Trump. Rubio will be a factor too, meaning that the “moderate” vote could split three ways between Trump, Rubio, and Christie, effectively holding them all to something like 70 percent of the vote collectively. If the other 30 percent consists of conservatives and tea partiers unified behind Cruz, a not-crazy possibility if he wins Iowa, then suddenly there’s a real chance that Cruz wins both early states and becomes a prohibitive favorite for the nomination. He’d be a heavy favorite in South Carolina, and if he won there, he could be a juggernaut in the “SEC primary.” The establishment would probably turn to Rubio, who’d be expected to win Florida, as the last chance to stop Cruz, but at that point I don’t know if he could.
Which brings us to the last newsy bit from the poll: Marco Rubio should be more than a little worried about a Christie surge here, no? His campaign will tell you that none of these early states are must-win for him so long as he finishes well, which is kind of true in the sense that he’s still got Florida in his back pocket. If worse comes to worst, the theory goes, he loses Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and most or all of the SEC states, then wins a big one at home and starts to mount a comeback in the blue-state primaries. You’re risking a lot, though, if you think Rubio’s going to survive loss after loss early on, with the media clobbering him with “Is Marco Rubio a paper tiger?” stories, and then somehow beat Trump and/or Cruz in Florida. If I recall correctly, in the past 40 years the GOP has never nominated a candidate who lost both Iowa and New Hampshire. Early momentum is important. And if Rubio is now behind Cruz with Christie closing in, he’s in real trouble of not just losing the state but conceivably finishing out of the top three. We’re going to nominate that guy? How?
Exit question: Christie’s trying to win New Hampshire despite being a guaranteed also-ran in Iowa. Not only won’t he finish in the top three there, he may end up in the low single digits. When was the last time a Republican won NH despite being a complete non-factor in IA? McCain finished fourth there with 13 percent in 2008, just behind Fred Thompson. Christie’s in eighth place in RCP’s poll average with just 2.3 percent. How can a serious candidate for the nomination win one key state while being a total zero in another?