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Eye On Candidates
November 30, 2015

Is Republican Race Narrowing to 3 Candidates?

In nine weeks the Iowa caucuses will kick off the first official nominating event for both Democrats and Republicans. While a lot can happen in that time frame, some are already predicting that the GOP nomination fight will have three main contenders: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and businessman Donald Trump. Here is Ron Brownstein of National Journal offering his thoughts on the race:

Republicans May Face Three-Way Fight for Nomination

In a meas­ure of the cross­winds buf­feting the party, more Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers are bra­cing for a uniquely frag­men­ted nom­in­at­ing con­test that di­vides the GOP among three vi­able can­did­ates well in­to 2016….

[M]any Re­pub­lic­an strategists now see a path­way for three can­did­ates to ad­vance deep in­to the pro­cess, each draw­ing from dis­tinct pools of voters. “His­tor­ic­ally we have had two lanes: a cen­ter-right lane and an ideo­lo­gic­ally right lane,” said Tom Rath, a long­time New Hamp­shire-based GOP strategist.  “Now, we seem to have a third lane: the angry, non­tra­di­tion­al lane.”

The pro­spect of a three-way Re­pub­lic­an race is rising partly be­cause the party’s rules re­quire the states hold­ing early primar­ies to dis­trib­ute del­eg­ates pro­por­tion­ately, mak­ing it tough­er for any­one to es­tab­lish a de­cis­ive ini­tial lead. But the odds are grow­ing mostly be­cause the party’s biggest groups of voters are di­ver­ging in ways that crys­tal­lize the GOP’s shift­ing demo­graph­ic and ideo­lo­gic­al bal­ance—and the ten­sions strain­ing its co­ali­tion….

Multiple candidates are vying in each of those three “lanes,” and some have crossover appeal. Here’s his assessment of who is likely to emerge:

The can­did­ates filling the “ideo­lo­gic­ally right” lane, like Mike Hucka­bee in 2008 and Rick San­tor­um in 2012, usu­ally have drawn heav­ily from evan­gel­ic­al Chris­ti­ans. … Ben Car­son es­tab­lished an early lead with these voters, but his re­cent struggles have cre­ated an open­ing for Ted Cruz.

In a Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity Iowa sur­vey this week, Cruz nar­rowly passed Car­son among evan­gel­ic­als there. Most GOP strategists ex­pect that tra­ject­ory to con­tin­ue and Cruz to emerge as the evan­gel­ic­al fa­vor­ite in Iowa, the South, and bey­ond.

The out­sider, or non­tra­di­tion­al, lane re­lies heav­ily (though not ex­clus­ively) on the party’s grow­ing bloc of work­ing-class white voters. Par­tic­u­larly as Car­son stumbles, Don­ald Trump is dom­in­at­ing this com­pet­i­tion….

More sec­u­lar and af­flu­ent than Iowa, New Hamp­shire usu­ally christens the ma­na­geri­al cham­pi­on; but cen­ter-right voters there are closely di­vided among Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Carly Fior­ina, and Marco Ru­bio (the can­did­ate most now ex­pect to ul­ti­mately emerge from that group). Evan­gel­ic­al fa­vor­ites like Cruz and Car­son usu­ally struggle in New Hamp­shire, but that cent­rist splin­ter­ing could al­low Trump to win there by di­vid­ing the voters most res­ist­ant to him….

If Cruz wins Iowa and Trump beats a splintered cen­ter in New Hamp­shire, the GOP lead­er­ship will ap­proach a col­lect­ive nervous break­down. The pres­sure would enorm­ously in­tensi­fy on “ma­na­geri­al” can­did­ates to quit and con­sol­id­ate sup­port be­hind one al­tern­at­ive to Cruz and Trump. But if New Hamp­shire doesn’t pick a clear fa­vor­ite among the cen­ter-right con­tenders, that con­sol­id­a­tion may not hap­pen quickly—and the chances will im­prove for Cruz or Trump to seize the nom­in­a­tion, al­though much of the party lead­er­ship still con­siders them un­able to win the gen­er­al elec­tion next fall.

Other recent analysis also suggests a Cruz/Rubio/Trump final showdown is expected by others as well. On Friday the POLITICO Caucus, featuring the assessments of leading political operatives in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, weighed in on who they thought best positioned to win the crucial early states:

After months of waiting for Donald Trump’s decline, Republican insiders now concede the poll leader could take two of the first four early voting states, though they caution his hold on Iowa is weak….

Roughly three-in-four GOP insiders in New Hampshire and South Carolina, many of whom have been repeatedly and consistently skeptical of Trump’s chances, now say he would win their states if their primaries were held today….

But his hold on Iowa and Nevada is more tenuous, according to insiders who note those states’ caucuses require significant organizational muscle to produce a win.

GOP insiders now have Cruz nudging Trump out of the lead in Iowa. That prediction came even before a Quinnipiac University poll this week showed the Texan running neck and neck with Trump. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson was the only other candidate to register significantly on this question. It’s the first time Cruz has led on this measure — after months of Trump and, briefly, Carson in front….

In Nevada, insiders were divided between Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has an organization in the state built somewhat on his appeal among Mormon voters, who made up about a quarter of the electorate, according to entrance polls. Rubio has consistently polled second in Nevada among GOP insiders since The POLITICO Caucus expanded there in early October.

But it’s probably too soon to be penciling in this trio for the finale, for a variety of reasons. It’s almost a certainty that at least one candidate, and possibly more, will somehow be the “surprise” of either Iowa or New Hampshire by finishing much stronger than expected. Among the possibilities for a surprise finish that could resurrect a faded candidate’s hopes or launch someone into contention is New Jersey Gov. Christie, who just snagged the coveted endorsement of the New Hampshire Union-Leader, as Bloomberg Politics reports:

The New Hampshire Union Leader late on Saturday endorsed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for the state's first-in-the-nation Republican presidential primary, saying the candidate “is right for these dangerous times.”

“Our choice is Gov. Chris Christie,” Union Leader publisher Joseph W. McQuaid wrote. “As a U.S. attorney and then a big-state governor, he is the one candidate who has the range and type of experience the nation desperately needs.”

The influential newspaper's endorsement comes about 10 weeks before the state holds its primary, and could give a boost to Christie's campaign. Nationally, Christie is running in about eighth place among Republicans, although Christie has made many trips to New Hampshire and has polled higher there.

With nine weeks to go, there are at least a half-dozen candidates who are unlikely to win or even finish in the top three in Iowa or New Hampshire but who could capture significant media attention by finishing better than expected. And it’s entirely possible that one of the current frontrunners could falter, opening up space for another candidate to move into the top tier before then. The bottom line is, nobody can predict what’s going to happen, especially this time around.