With Republican front-runner Donald Trump regularly posting double-digit leads in the New Hampshire polls, Tuesday’s GOP primary looks increasingly like a race for second place.
Anyone with at least 10 percent of the vote will pocket delegates. But the real competition is for control of the narrative. With most of the rest of the field jumbled within the margin of error in polls, there are many plausible scenarios for the results we’ll see on Tuesday night. The order of finish will matter enormously for the race as the campaign heads south for the Feb. 20 South Carolina primary and then other contests in Dixie.
Here are five potential outcomes worth considering:
1. John Kasich Snags Second
No candidate has seen his poll numbers swing as wildly as the Ohio governor. In polling since the Iowa caucuses, Kasich has registered a low of 7 percent and a high of 17 percent in the Granite State. No one has put in more face time New Hampshire — and he has spent heavily on TV ads.
All of that makes second place possible for Kasich. That outcome would give him a rationale to continue a campaign that otherwise almost certainly will end with a poor finish in New Hampshire. If he can hang on until his home state primary on March 15 — a winner-take-all contest — he could scoop up 66 delegates. But his more moderate views, his lack of campaign organization and his so-so campaign war chest make him a long shot in the southern primaries that take place first.
2: Ted Cruz Tops the Establishment
Reaction to the Texas senator’s strong win in the Iowa caucuses must have left him feeling a bit like the Rodney Dangerfield of politics — he got no respect.
Much of the post-caucus analysis focused on Rubio’s stronger-than-expected third-place finish and Trump’s disappointing second. A second-place showing in New Hampshire likely would bring Cruz a more favorable reaction, since conventional wisdom holds that the more moderate New Hampshire is a tough fit for him.
If Cruz consolidates New Hampshire conservatives, he could defy expectations and come in second.
But Cruz is third in the latest Real Clear Politics polling average, just a hair behind Rubio. If he consolidates the New Hampshire conservatives, it is not out of the question he could defy expectations and come in second. That would go a long way toward aiding his case that he is the prime alternative to Trump. And with Cruz-friendly terrain coming up in South Carolina and the southern-dominated Super Tuesday primary on March 1, Cruz could rack up delegates and turn the race into a head-to-head showdown with Trump.
3: Rubio Recovers
Most political experts believe Florida Sen. Marco Rubio hurt himself badly with a poor debate performance on Saturday night. But voters may care less about this than the pundits do. Rubio has been second in many New Hampshire polls since Iowa. A second-place finish likely would accelerate a move toward him by elected officials and certify him as the Establishment standard-bearer moving forward.
The result would ramp up pressure on the other Establishment-friendly candidates to drop out and could set up a long and bitter three-way fight to the convention along with Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
4. Jeb Rises from the Dead
Trump has spent months mercilessly pillorying former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as weak and “low energy,” so it is a bit ironic that the billionaire developer might be rooting for Jeb to have a strong finish.
Trump’s clearest path to the nomination is for the field to remain crowded as long as possible. Disappointing finishes by Bush and the other Establishment candidates would turn up the pressure on them to quickly drop out of the race. With a relatively high percentage of Republican voters rating the polarizing Trump negatively, a two- or three-candidate race could spell trouble.
A second-place finish for Bush would guarantee he stays in the race. And he and his supportive super PAC have the resources to last deep into the primary calendar. Best of all for Trump, Jeb has even higher negative ratings among likely GOP primary voters than Trump.
A second-place finish for Bush would be a surprise, but not outside the realm of possibility. His 9.8 percent average in the RCP roundup of recent polls is within 5 percentage points of Rubio, who is in second place.
5. Chris Christie Shocks
There was a time in December and January when the New Jersey governor was polling in double digits and building momentum as a possible New Hampshire dark horse. He has receded since then and now stands as a long shot. But his well-regarded debate performance, coupled with New Hampshire’s famously fickle primary electorate, keep him in the conversation.
Using the RCP averages as a baseline, if Christie poached 2 percentage points from Rubio, Cruz, Kasich and Bush, he would finish second. Doing so would bathe Christie in a new wave of positive press. If he could get Bush and Kasich to quickly exit, he’d have a chance to consolidate the Establishment vote. But even a disappointing finish probably won’t knock Rubio out of the race.
And with $1.1 million on hand at the beginning of the year, Christie would have to raise large amounts of cash fast. What’s more, his record as a blue state governor is rich with targets for candidates pursuing more-conservative voters outside of New Hampshire. Both Trump and Cruz probably would cheer a finish by Christie — and Bush or Kasich, for that matter — over Rubio.