Is this a good poll or a bad one for Marco Rubio? The good news is he’s up four points and remains in second place in the state with a bunch of big endorsements no doubt set to happen later this month. The bad news — terrible news, really — is that the “moderate” lane is more jammed up than ever. Kasich is also up since last month, from eight points to 11. And don’t look now but Jeb Bush has crept back into double digits, tied with Ted Cruz. Between them, Rubio, Christie, Bush, and Kasich combine for 47 percent of the vote, but because each of them is showing signs of promise, none of them has an incentive to scale back or drop out in order to clear the lane for one of the other four.
There’s every reason to believe this RINO logjam will persist right up to election day unless a major endorsement somehow shakes something loose. Without that, it’s difficult to see how Trump loses New Hampshire. He has the highest percentage (68 percent) among top-tier candidates of voters who say they’re firmly committed to voting for him, which stands to reason given that he occupies his own distinct niche vis-a-vis the rest of the field. I think the donor class can tolerate Trump winning NH so long as some establishmentarian like Rubio or Christie finishes a strong second. Increasingly, though, it seems like not even that consolation prize will happen; we might end up with Trump taking 30 percent of the vote next month while Rubio, Christie, and maybe even Bush or Kasich carve out 12-18 percent apiece. That’s the true establishment nightmare scenario, where everyone moves on to South Carolina with Cruz having won Iowa, Trump having won New Hampshire, and the moderate niche still unsettled and divided. I still think Rubio will emerge from that pack, but the longer it takes, the weaker he’ll look and the longer it’ll take him to catch up in delegates.
The establishment split is what’s keeping Trump in such a good position. In a pared down field of the candidates generally viewed as the top 3 in the overall race Trump would lead Rubio by just 2 points, 36/34, with Cruz back at 19%. And Trump trails Rubio 52/40 and Cruz 46/39 in head to head match ups while leading Bush just 46/45. But as long as Rubio and Christie and Kasich and Bush are all in the race they’re splitting the vote enough to let Trump’s passionate base give him a big lead.
The candidates with the biggest gains since our last poll in early December are Bush (up 5 points from 5% to 10%), Rubio (up 4 points from 11% to 15), and Kasich (up 3 points from 8% to 11%). Bush and Kasich have also had notable gains in their favorability ratings. Bush has gone from negative territory last month (38/45) to positive ground (44/42). It may not sound like much but it’s been a long time since we found Bush with an above water favorability anywhere. Kasich’s improved from 38/35 to 46/30.
How tough would things be for Trump in New Hampshire if he had to face Rubio — or Cruz — head to head? Pretty tough:
Both Rubio and Cruz win the support of every other candidate’s voters against Trump except for Rubio losing to him among Cruz supporters — but only narrowly, and he still wins overall by double digits. There’s no doubt looking at those numbers that Trump is benefiting tremendously from a divided field in NH. In light of that, I’d be curious to see some head-to-head polls between him and Cruz in blue-state primaries that will be held later this spring. The going theory is that Trump, with his coalition of “radical moderates,” might clean up in more moderate states, but I’m not so sure looking at this. If every other candidate’s supporters prefer Cruz to him, why wouldn’t that also be true in states beyond New Hampshire? And don’t forget, if it does eventually come down to Cruz and Trump, Cruz will benefit as establishmentarians grudgingly come around to backing him as the least bad choice for nominee. That’ll affect some centrists who otherwise might be cool to him. It’s hard to imagine Trump easily defeating Cruz head to head, but I can sort of imagine Cruz easily defeating Trump.
In fact, in lieu of an exit question, have a look at this new NBC/SurveyMonkey national data on who wins the race for second choice among various candidates’ supporters. Among Trump’s fans, it’s Cruz in a landslide over Rubio. Among Rubio’s fans? Cruz by double digits. Among Carson’s supporters? Cruz tied with Trump. Among the combined supporters of Christie, Bush, and Fiorina? Cruz by two over Rubio. He’s very well positioned to build support as other candidates drop out, especially if Trump folds up his tent. In the past I’ve questioned whether Trump fans, who aren’t dogmatic conservatives, will really break for Mr. Tea Party as a second choice, but that’s clearly the case in New Hampshire per PPP’s data. No contest here, with Cruz topping Rubio among Trump fans, 37/10:
The only sure thing about the primary right now, it seems, is that Ted Cruz is going to be in this race for many months to come. I’m not sure that’s true of anyone else in the field, Trump included.