Lindsey Graham tossed in his (presumably tear-soaked) towel on Monday, becoming the fourth Republican presidential hopeful to call it quits before a single primary vote has been cast. The South Carolina senator’s departure wasn’t a shock—he was polling at less than 1 percent nationally, and just as poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire—though his timing was a bit of a surprise given he’d stuck around this long.
So, which GOP hopeful will be the next to give up on their White House dreams? Political predictions can be a fool’s errand (see: Trump, Donald), but I can still make some educated guesses based on polling data, campaign cash, and secondary motivations. With that in mind, here’s how I’d group and handicap the field.
Who Knows/Who Cares: George Pataki and Jim Gilmore
Pataki and Gilmore are the only two Republicans currently polling below the since-departed Graham, neither have any major endorsements to speak of, both reported entering the fall with less than $100,000 in their campaign bank accounts, and both have been largely MIA on the campaign trail. Gilmore hasn’t even been able to qualify for a GOP debate since Fox News’ undercard event back in August, meaning many voters probably don’t know what he even looks like. Pataki, meanwhile, has been a mainstay in the JV contests—providing him a modicum of coverage to feed his political ego—though his time as a debate understudy will come to an end soon enough when the networks finally do away with those opening acts. Also, many voters probably don’t know what he even looks like either. (Hint: He’s the tall one.)
Neither man, then, should have much motivation to prolong the inevitable any longer. The only reason they might is that neither had much of a credible reason to jump in the race in the first place, so it’s unclear what could finally convince them to drop out.
Prediction: Either or both could call it quits tomorrow; either or both could stick around past New Hampshire. Neither will matter.
Already Feeling the Pressure: Rand Paul
If any candidate were going to pack it in before February, Paul would be my bet. He’s currently polling at less than 3 percent nationally and is doing only marginally better in Iowa, a state his father almost carried four years ago and one that was at the center of Rand’s 2016 strategy. Things have gotten so bad for the senator, who entered the campaign cycle as “the most interesting man in politics,” that he found himself standing on the main stage in Las Vegas last week only because of the grace of CNN, which had to fudge its polling math to justify sending him an invite.
What separates Paul from his fellow Republican also-rans, though, is that he has a compelling reason to get out sooner than later: his own self-interest. The Kentucky senator is up for reelection this fall—something that has already caused him plenty of political headaches—so he’ll want to redirect his time and efforts towards protecting what he has instead of continuing to pour his resources into a White House run that looks more doomed by the day.
Prediction: Paul will stick around as long as he’s still qualifying for the primetime debates—the next two are on January 14th and January 28th—in order to provide a dovish counterweight to the bomb-the-shit-out-of-them conversation that has been dominating the Trump-led GOP since the Paris terrorist attacks. But if Paul were to be bumped from the stage next month, expect him to shut things down soon after.
Waiting on Iowa: Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson
This group is most likely in a holding pattern until the Iowa Caucus, which officially kicks off the 2016 nominating contests at the start of February. Huckabee and Santorum have both won Iowa before—Huckabee in 2008, Santorum in 2012—and it was only last month that Carson topped the Hawkeye State polls. It’s hard to imagine that any of the three will give up the ghost before they have another chance at Iowa glory, even though Huckabee and Santorum are polling at about 2 percent and neither have much money to spend. (Santorum, in particular, will have an easy time convincing himself that it’s not over until it’s over since four years ago he went from the low-single digits to caucus winner in a matter of days.)
Still, an eleventh-hour, come-from-behind victory seems all but impossible this time around now that the same evangelical voters that fueled Huckabee and Santorum’s previous victories and pushed Carson to the top of the polls this fall have begun to rally around Ted Cruz.
Prediction: Assuming Cruz doesn’t collapse, all three will call it quits not long after the final caucus numbers are tallied. Carson’s the biggest wildcard of the bunch given his polling numbers and better-than-you’d-expect fundraising, so a strong performance in the caucus could convince him to press his luck. The more likely outcome to my mind, though, is that Carson performs well—but not too well—in Iowa, and then bows out to return to his never-ending book tour and the lucrative motivational speaking circuit on a high note.
Waiting on New Hampshire: Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie, and Carly Fiorina
While a strong performance by Cruz in Iowa would be a death knell for his evangelical rivals, the establishment-minded candidates in the field will have every reason to stick around for another eight days until New Hampshire’s more moderate voters have their say. While Marco Rubio has emerged as the most likely establishment alternative to Trump and Cruz, this group still has legitimate reasons to believe Rubio will stumble, given his lackluster ground game and ongoing failure to turn his strong debate performances and establishment support into a polling lead. Bush, Kasich, and Christie, meanwhile, aren’t all that far behind Rubio in the polls. The newly anointed one is sitting in a tie with Cruz at 12.0 percent in RealClearPolitics’ rolling New Hampshire average. Meanwhile, Christie’s at 11.3 percent, Bush is at 8.0 percent, and Kasich is at 7.7 percent.
Prediction: If Rubio wins New Hampshire—or even just bests his establishment rivals by a considerable margin—the GOP powerbrokers will start leaning on these candidates to drop out so the party can rally around the Florida senator. Fiorina and Kasich would likely heed those calls without much of a fight. Christie, though, is on the upswing and could use a solid performance to justify fighting on. Bush has the super PAC cash and the family to stick around as long he wants.
Don’t Ask Me: Donald Trump
Prediction: If Trump fails to win either Iowa or New Hampshire, it’s hard to imagine his winners-win-and-losers-lose ego would be able to survive. At the same time, it’s equally difficult to imagine that same ego would allow the Donald to admit defeat.