David Herdson on why he’s yet to be convinced
Ted Cruz can feel a little hard done by. It was he, after all, who won the Iowa caucus, beating Donald Trump, the reports of the pollsters, and indeed everyone else. Normally, that would be enough to fire him into the media spotlight as the man with the momentum. Not this time. The ‘momentum’ badge has instead been awarded to Florida senator, Marco Rubio.
Although he finished only third in Iowa, he’s made good headway in the polls since the caucus result, leading Cruz for second place in the five New Hampshire surveys conducted at least in part since Tuesday, as well breaking back into the twenties in one national poll for the first time since November. The question is whether that’s a ‘push’ reaction away from two not very appealing leading candidates with voters alighting on Rubio as the nearest convenient alternative, or a ‘pull’ effect where voters are genuinely attracted to what he stands for.
My instinct is that it’s the former. If voters were keen on him for his own merits then he would have been polling much more strongly before now. In a sense, he got lucky by being in the right place at the right time: he was the leading alternative conservative candidate to Cruz when Trump went negative to good effect against the Texan. In another, simply being in that right place takes skill: a lot of other candidates spent a lot of money to far less effect.
That matters but it’s not decisive. What is clear is that the public are willing now to give him a hearing. Even if he did back into the spotlight, he now has the chance to make the most of it. By the same token, he will now likely be the focus of relentless attacks from his fellow candidates well beyond what he’s experienced so far.
Indeed, that’s already happening. Bush, Kasich and Christie, all of whom need good results in the granite state to kick-start their campaigns, are all competing with him (as well as each other) for the mainstream vote – not that Rubio is particularly mainstream but he’s more so than Cruz or Trump are and if the establishment candidates can’t find traction their support has to go somewhere. Likewise, Cruz is competing with him for the conservative vote and providing he can avoid getting too drawn into a row with Carson over his campaign’s Iowa tactics, should also be gunning for Rubio, probably over immigration. They have their best opportunity tonight, in the last debate before the primary.
How well will he stand up? Former candidate, now Rubio-backer and Senate colleague Rick Santorum didn’t exactly help when asked to state Rubio’s top Senate accomplishments couldn’t name any.
This is an extremely difficult race to call. Rubio has undoubtedly moved forward since Monday but is that poll rise a still-ongoing trend, a one-off step change or a bubble ready to burst?
He still trails Trump in the NH polls and if the Donald does win on Tuesday then Rubio’s record of a third and a second won’t look too hot against Cruz and Trump with a state a piece, another likely Trump win (in that scenario) in South Carolina and a Cruz-friendly Super Tuesday; Nevada would then be Rubio’s last best hope. On the other hand, if he wins in New Hampshire then he really does take the momentum with him, probably all the way to the White House. What’s clear about 2016 is that no potential president has broad popular appeal; the least worst will win. Rubio has the potential to be everyone’s second favourite, picking up transfers as Christie, Kasich, Bush, Fiorina and Carson drop out. He also has the potential to be everyone’s second favourite and so miss out in New Hampshire as people vote for their first preference.
All of which is to say that whoever takes New Hampshire for the GOP is strongly odds-on to take the nomination with it. I just wish I could see who is going to take New Hampshire.