Why New Hampshire Is Code Red for the GOP Establishment

Their candidates probably can’t do better than third place, and it could get worse from there. 

Republicans New Hampshire GOP.
As the New Hampshire primary approaches, what’s the best Mark Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, or Jeb Bush can hope for?

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images and Robyn Beck/Getty Images,

The polling out of New Hampshire continues to get worse for the GOP establishment—also known as the “people interested in winning the general election.” The poll numbers themselves aren’t getting worse by the day. Instead, the polling is staying just the same, which is to say awful for the establishment, while the clock continues to tick. With each passing day that this status quo remains, the likelihood of Donald Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz becoming the Republican presidential nominee increases.

New Hampshire is now a code-red situation for the party leaders who intend to propel a winning candidate into the general election. As they surely know. And as they also surely know, it’s not clear what they can do about it. Can they do anything about it?

Each New Hampshire Republican poll looks the same nowadays. Trump has roughly 25 to 30 percent of likely primary voters locked down. Trailing him by about 15 percentage points are Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Gov. Chris Christie, while Gov. John Kasich and Jeb Bush are holding their share of the high single digits. There are enough votes out there for one of the four “establishment” candidates—Rubio, Christie, Bush, and Kasich—to take down Trump. This weekend’s CBS/YouGov poll puts their combined tally at 38 percent; the Boston Herald’s survey pins it at 41. Even though it’s clear Republican candidates are working with a much more conservative, outsider-friendly primary electorate this year, the votes are still there in New Hampshire for a candidate more in line with a traditional Republican nominee to take the first primary. But not if it’s split four ways.

The camps for both Bush and Rubio, the two establishment candidates who right now have enough resources to compete for as long as they’d like, have been spinning away the importance of the early primaries. Mike Murphy, the head of Bush’s Right to Rise super PAC, recently argued that nothing really matters until March. Rubio is better at politics than Bush, but no one can really explain which early state he wins. Perhaps the Nevada caucuses? He is certainly trying. But even if he can win there, it’s a relatively minor part of the GOP nominating process. It gives way soon thereafter to the wave of “SuperDuper Tuesday” Southern states favorable to Cruz and Trump, who by then will likely have a few combined victories under their belts.

Rubio and Bush are each, by necessity, relying on the middle to back end of the primary calendar. We’re talking about big winner-take-all states up for grabs beginning March 15: Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, New Jersey, et cetera. If neither Rubio nor Bush can win Florida, then … yikes! I don’t know what to tell them in that case, except that they would finally be liberated from the daily grind of losing presidential campaigns.

Which brings us back to the importance of New Hampshire. It’s going to be exceptionally difficult for an establishment candidate to play catch-up through the Southern contests that dominate the schedule from Feb. 20 (South Carolina) through mid-March after losing New Hampshire. Recent Republican nominating history, indeed, would suggest that it’s impossible to win the nomination after losing both Iowa and New Hampshire. As MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki pointed out last week, no Republican has ever done it in the modern primary system going back to the 1970s. One Democrat has—Bill Clinton in 1992—but only because he was going against two regional candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his surprise second-place finish in the latter set him up neatly for a run through his more natural territory in the South and beyond. If Bush or Rubio placed second in New Hampshire, they’d be doing so in friendly territory before going into enemy territory—the precise opposite of Clinton.

It looks like this is how it will have to go down, nevertheless, if an establishment candidate is to become the nominee. It will involve some carefully spun expectations. As things stand, it looks improbable that one of the Establishment Four would fare better than third in the state. Cruz will likely win—trounce, really—in Iowa, which could give him enough of a jolt to place a solid second or, if he’s lucky, first in New Hampshire. Rubio would do well to finish a strong second to Trump’s first and Cruz’s third in New Hampshire: placing high enough to breathe life into his campaign, applying pressure on Bush, Christie, and Kasich to drop out immediately, blunting Cruz’s momentum out of Iowa, and hoping that Cruz and Trump cancel each other out well enough in proportional Southern states so that Rubio can storm the eventual winner-take-all blue states toward a majority of delegates. 

It really does have to be Rubio, by the way. He’s been considered the leading establishment candidate for some months now and, sure, that hasn’t propelled him ahead to the degree that some imagined it would. But it doesn’t change the calculus. Conservatives like Rubio but hate Bush, Christie, and Kasich; Rubio is also relatively well liked by the general electorate. Pundits did not make up Rubio’s potential.

So how can Rubio do what he needs to do in New Hampshire? Parking himself there and doing several town halls per day would help. As would successfully convincing Kasich to pack it in right now, or urging the New Hampshire Union Leader to retract its Christie endorsement and endorse him instead.

And, as the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein pointed out today, there is one notable piece of intrigue to Sen. Lindsey Graham’s departure from the race beyond the dispersal of his 7 or 8 total voters: It liberates Sen. John McCain, a two-time winner of the New Hampshire primaries, to make a fresh endorsement. As Kornacki tweeted, if both McCain and the winner of the most recent New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney, endorsed Rubio ahead of the primary, Rubio might be granted the sort of deus ex machina he—and the Republican establishment—need to turn this race around. 

Or … nothing will happen, and either Trump or Cruz will become the nominee.