We’re now two months out from the Iowa Caucus, the first presidential nominating contest of 2016. In the past few weeks, there has been plenty of chatter about a Ted Cruz surge in Iowa, a Chris Christie moment in New Hampshire, and a Donald Trump self-immolation nationally. Here’s a look at where things actually stand in the Republican race.
The Unexpected Constant: Donald Trump
Trump has offered one head-scratching surprise after another this year, yet despite that—or, more likely, because of it—the Donald has been the one constant in a chaotic GOP nominating contest dominated by anger at the establishment and fear of the other. The real estate tycoon currently sits at 28.7 percent in the RealClearPolitics national average, 9 points ahead of second-place Ben Carson and about 16 points ahead of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.* It’s a similar story in the states that hold the first nominating contests of 2016: Trump leads in Iowa by an average of 6.7 points, in New Hampshire by 13.5 points, and in South Carolina by 6.3 points. (Meanwhile, Carson, the GOP’s other unlikely insurgent, is starting to show signs of fading both nationally and in Iowa, where he briefly led earlier this month but now trails Cruz in the most recent surveys.)
More troubling for a Republican establishment desperate for Trump to disappear, the former reality TV show star has actually seen his numbers climb in most polls taken since the Paris terrorist attacks, which many observers thought would force voters to rethink their affection for candidates with no government experience. Trump appears to have a ceiling of about 30 percent in national polls, making it difficult to imagine a situation where he wins the nomination. But he also appears to have a polling floor of about 20 percent, meaning he won’t be knocked from his perch atop the field until it winnows and voters finally consolidate around someone else—particularly since his rivals remain locked in a staring contest over who should spend to try to tear him down. The usual rules of politics still suggest that Trump can’t win. Those same rules, though, told us Trump’s candidacy was unlikely to survive the summer, let alone this fall.
The Expected Primary: Ted Cruz vs. Marco Rubio
Trump and Carson have been 1–2 in national surveys for more than three months now, but a potentially more consequential clash has been ramping up slightly further down in the polls. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are currently battling it out for third place in the national polls, well behind Trump and Carson but well ahead of Jeb Bush and the rest of their more traditional rivals. The two men trail only Bush when it comes to campaign and super PAC fundraising, and both have been picking up key endorsements of late. Cruz and Rubio’s best chances to capitalize on their current momentum would be to snag an early victory next year. Cruz will get his chance in Iowa, where he’s emerged as a favorite of the Evangelical voters who make up a disproportionate amount of the GOP electorate in the state. The Texas firebrand currently sits in third place in the RCP average of state polls, but the most recent major state survey shows him in a statistical tie for first-place in Iowa with Trump. Rubio, meanwhile, is looking increasingly strong in New Hampshire, where he’s now alone in second place—albeit with less than half of Trump’s support.
Cruz entered the race as a long shot but has outperformed expectations on almost every front. In a normal year, he would have been considered too extreme to win the nomination; in the year of Trump, he’s found a way to present himself as something of a compromise candidate, in posture if not in policy. Rubio, meanwhile, entered the race as everyone’s second choice and, while he’s yet to cobble together the type of coalition he’ll need to win, has emerged as the first choice among the demographic that has historically been the most influential in the GOP race: the establishment. In a normal year, that would be enough to make him the odds-on favorite to be his party’s nominee. This year, though, it remains to be seen if it will be a blessing or a curse.
The Establishment Lane: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich
Rubio may be the newly anointed establishment favorite, but heavy is the head that wears that crown, as both Scott Walker and Jeb Bush can attest. As everyone’s new favorite target, Rubio will need to prove he can withstand an onslaught of scrutiny and criticism from both his Republican rivals and Democrats who see him as Hillary Clinton’s biggest general election challenge. If he wilts in the spotlight, it’s unclear which of his establishment rivals would take his place.
Bush was largely left for dead following a disastrous debate performance in October, but a John McCain– (or John Kerry–)style comeback isn’t entirely out of the question, particularly given the millions his super PAC has stockpiled to tear down his rivals. Since laying an egg on the CNBC stage, Jeb’s polling numbers have slipped a point or two, but his support hasn’t completely evaporated: He remains in the top half of the field both nationally and in the early states. Outside of Bush, the only other semi-plausible candidates the Republican Party could rally around would be Chris Christie and John Kasich, both of whom are doing better in New Hampshire than they are elsewhere, though neither is polling in double digits despite spending heavily in the state. Of the two, Christie has the edge in both fundraising and endorsements—and is currently riding a wave of increased media attention—though Kasich still holds a narrow edge in the polls.
Recent history suggests that the Granite State will be key for this crew. In the past two cycles, John McCain and Mitt Romney were able to use wins there to rebound after losses in Iowa and ultimately outlast their more conservative challengers in protracted primaries. The problem for the establishment candidates this time around is that there are so many of them currently camped out in New Hampshire that they risk splitting the vote. Which brings us back to this race’s one constant: Donald Trump, who currently leads the field in New Hampshire by nearly 14 points over Rubio—and by about 20 points over Kasich, Bush, and Christie—with roughly a quarter of the vote.
*Correction, Dec. 1, 2015: An earlier version of this post mistakenly reported that Ted Cruz was in third place in an average of national polls. Cruz is in fourth place, 0.7 points behind Marco Rubio.