The Iowa caucuses take place on February 1, and by this time three weeks from now we'll have a much better idea of what the primary season will look like. The stakes are high. A Trump win in Iowa followed by an nearly gimme victory in New Hampshire (according to polling) will probably see Trump with the necessary momentum to take Nevada and it may all be over. If Ted Cruz wins Iowa and pulls a second place showing in New Hampshire, it is a two-man race. There is zero evidence that Rubio has a "Nevada firewall," in fact, the last Nevada poll had Rubio in a distant third place:
Trump 33, Cruz 20, Rubio 11, Carson 6, Christie 5, Bush 5, Fiorina 5, Paul 1, Santorum 1, Kasich 0, Huckabee 0
he was also in a distant third in the last South Carolina poll:
Trump 28, Cruz 21, Rubio 12, Carson 10, Bush 10, Paul 3, Christie 6, Fiorina 5, Graham 2, Kasich 1, Huckabee 2, Santorum 1, Pataki 0
Then comes the SEC primary. To make matters worse, the last Florida polls showed Rubio also in third place there:
Trump 30, Cruz 20, Rubio 15, Bush 13, Carson 8, Christie 6, Paul 3, Fiorina 3, Kasich 1, Huckabee 0, Graham 0, Santorum 0, Pataki 0
To put it bluntly, if Rubio doesn't finish at least second in NH and NV he is not going to be in the race in any perceptible way when the "moderate" states vote. As an aside, there is really no evidence that GOP primary voters in Blue and Purple states outside of the Northeast and New England are any more moderate than GOP primary voters in Texas.
Unless Jeb Bush finishes third in Iowa, he is a non-entity. A third in Iowa could get him a third or second in New Hampshire where the polls show Rubio, Cruz, Christie, Bush, and Kasich clustered and often within the margin of error. If he finishes fourth or worse in Iowa and fifth or worse in New Hampshire, he will suspend his campaign sometime in late February or early March. Hope is not a method, but it is the only method available to Bush.
At this stage, anyone placing their hope in Trump's followers not coming out to vote should be dismissed out of hand. That may turn out to be the case but hoping your opponent doesn't show up is not a strategy.
The general situation:
The key takeaway here is Ted Cruz's strong lead of only a week ago is now within the margin of error with Trump.
Trump vs. Cruz
Evidence indicates that Trump's birther attack is drawing blood. Cruz knows it. Trump knows it. This has effectively ended the truce that Cruz and Trump have observed. By the way, there is an old saying that "them that do, do, and them that don't teach." One could add to that "them that don't and can't write about it." For instance,
Smart play by Cruz to go soft on Trump. Geez. These guys and their too-clever tactics. https://t.co/ntzop82kw2
— Jay Cost (@JayCostTWS) January 13, 2016
Not to put too fine a point on it, unless you've actually been a campaign manager or run for office you really don't have the credentials to make pronouncements like this an not be laughed at to your face. Yesterday, RealClearPolitics reported that either the Cruz campaign or a Cruz super PAC was testing lines of attack against Trump:
Although Ted Cruz has insisted he will not personally attack Donald Trump as the race for the Republican nomination heats up, supporters of the Texas senator appear to be weighing how best to target Trump in Iowa, where Cruz holds a narrow lead. ... One potential attack noted Trump’s recent remark “to a Christian audience in Iowa that he has ‘never asked God for forgiveness.’” Another depicted Trump as “a New York liberal pretending to have conservative values.” Two potential attacks targeted the billionaire businessman’s loyalty to the GOP — one noting that he had changed his party ID, the other mentioning his Reform Party candidacy for president in 1999/2000 and his prior financial support for Democrats. Three other attacks cited Trump’s stances on eminent domain, abortion and single-payer health care, respectively. Although calls of this nature cannot be definitively traced to a campaign or outside group, the content typically hints at the sponsor. In this case, following the series of potential attacks on Trump, the call posed an open-ended question about Cruz’s support in Iowa, asking whether any message recently has made Cruz more or less favorable to the respondent.
Yesterday, Leon posted on Cruz finally responding to the birther nonsense based on this tweet:
— Patrick Svitek (@PatrickSvitek) January 12, 2016
Bush vs. Rubio and Cruz vs. Rubio
Yesterday the Jeb Bush super PAC, Right to Rise, unleashed a couple of attacks on Rubio. One of them, on immigration, is probably going to hurt Rubio even though it doesn't seem to help Bush a lot. The other was epic silliness that simply beclowned Jeb Bush to the extent he was associated with it. At the same time, Ted Cruz super PAC, Keep the Promise, unloaded on Rubio for his starring role in the Gang of Eight amnesty plan.
The Cruz attack is logical. Even though some facile Rubio defenders fall back on saying that immigration is 5th (fill in your number here) most important issue, the fact is that even in 5th place, 59% of the voters consider it one of the most important issues. Gallup says 27% of Republicans consider immigration to be the most important issue and a total of 56% say it is one of several important issues they will weigh. Cruz and Rubio are very similar in most respects and prying those voters worried about immigration away from Rubio means they will only go one place.
The Bush attack seems counterintuitive. Bush's real competitors are Christie and Kasich. As I pointed out yesterday, Bush's own past statements on amnesty for illegals doesn't give someone who is shaken from Rubio by the Gang of Eight much hope. So why is Bush going after Rubio. Let's go to Erick Erickson at The Resurgent and Trump and Cruz Are Neck and Neck. No One Else Has a Chance.
I have talked now to several people from several campaigns and super PACs. They have all come to the same conclusion. Trump may not be beatable if he is not beaten in Iowa. One of the managers of a non-Cruz super PAC decided to hold fire against Cruz because his data shows attacking Cruz only helps Trump.
In Iowa, the race is close and I’m told that several campaigns are seeing internal polling looks very much like Quinnipiac’s polling that just came out. The race is exceedingly close between Trump and Cruz and Trump may have a very slight lead. In that case, it comes down to turn out. Cruz’s campaign is working overtime to identify caucus voters and get them to the caucuses on February 1st.
Every day that goes by, another campaign begins attacking Cruz. Millions are being spent to stop him right now. They have seventeen days to do it. They think they can take out Trump after Iowa. More and more data suggests otherwise, but right now the emotional angst over a Cruz nomination is clouding a lot of thinking and judgment.
Considering this insight, the Bush attack is logical. If you believe a Trump victory is game over, stopping Trump in Iowa is critical and only Cruz can do that. Attacks on Rubio on his immigration record will send his supporters to Cruz who will beat Trump. As Dan McLaughlin points out
When you include first and second choices – a particularly important metric given the dynamics of a caucus, where voters gather and listen to closing sales pitches before casting votes – Cruz is in the running with 48% of caucus-goers, followed by Trump 33, Rubio 28, Carson 19, and nobody else in double digits (Jeb is fifth at 8).
A weakened Rubio will fall from third to fourth or worse. Bush finishing third in Iowa would be virtually the equivalent of a win for him.
This strategy is going to play out in New Hampshire, too. The very fact that you have been able to view three anti-Rubio ads in this post indicates that New Hampshire voters have as well.
Prelude to Cruz vs Establishment:
The Bush strategy to stay in the race has less to do with stopping Trump, per se, than it does with keeping Bush in the race, and, if I were uncharitable I'd say it gives Right to Rise the ability to keep sucking cash from donors who are hoping the Jeb can be the "comeback kid." By targeting Rubio, Bush is actually destroying a candidate that could unify Cruz voters and Bush/Kasich/Christie voters and present a very strong alternative to Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. If this strategy plays out the way I think it will, by the time the dust settles in Florida we will be in a two-man, Trump and Cruz, race and then the establishment has to choose sides. Back to Erick:
Republicans in Washington are taking a real gamble on Trump. They hate Cruz enough that they are willing to cut a deal with Trump. That may be problematic for them given Trump’s history. But right now he has an unshakable coalition of pissed off voters ready to use Trump to throw the bums out. That Republicans in Washington think they can compromise with that anger is more proof they are out of touch with what is going on in the country.
GOP consultant Alex Castellanos agrees:
However, Donald Trump continues to grow both as a candidate and a leader. He has demonstrated a brilliant ability to renew his campaign when many suspected he would exhaust himself. Increasingly, Trump makes other contenders look unimportant.
Mr. Trump’s assault on the Clintons for their “War On Women,” for example, has elevated him into a general election-style battle matchup with Hillary Clinton. More importantly, Trump has again shown GOP voters he is the only Republican candidate with the fortitude to take on the Clintons at their own game and give as good as Republicans usually get. For a Republican Party maddened at seeing an inbred Washington establishment rationalize decades of failure, reward itself for the same, and then wipe the floor with those who object, Trump is a righteous avenger — and he still has room to grow.
Republicans are progressively more comfortable with Mr. Trump, not as a Republican or a conservative, of course, because he is neither. Instead, Republicans see Trump as a turnaround CEO, coming to save their near-bankrupt company.
If Ted Cruz and not Donald Trump were to become the Republican nominee, there is increasing concern among the GOP Washington establishment, in which I confess card-carrying membership, that he would lead the GOP to ruin.
Should Hillary Clinton be favored to beat Donald Trump? Not necessarily.
Donald Trump is above all a salesman. He is, as he constantly reminds us, the “Art of the Deal.” Trump would adapt, pivot, and do anything to make his next deal; winning the general election.
The Trump whom we see today would not be the Trump in November. Mr. Trump is not opposed to more big, old, top-down government in Washington. He is a corporatist who thinks the only thing wrong with Washington is that losers and morons, not Donald Trump, are running the place. Trump is little constrained by party or ideology. Unlike Senator Cruz, Mr. Trump would run left of Hillary Clinton when he found an opening.
Additionally, many swing and minority voters, seduced by Mr. Trump’s “tell-it-like-is” strength, make allowances for his over-heated rhetoric. They know he is saying what he finds necessary to close a deal. His hyperbolic declarations as mere “opening bids” in his political negotiations. Many voters have grown comfortable with Trump in their homes, as a man who has inhabited their televisions for decades.
When -- when -- this does come down to a Cruz vs. Trump fight, the GOP establishment is going to pull out all the stops to nominate Trump because ultimately Trump is one of them and they believe his populism is only an act.