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:
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.