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GOP Deathmatch: Three Men Will Enter. The Winner Will Probably Lose To Trump Anyway.

For this week’s 2016 Slack chat, we try to clean up the mess New Hampshire voters made of the Republican primary’s “establishment” lane. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

Check out our live coverage of the Republican debate.

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micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Now that we’ve left the Granite State, let’s start this Slack chat by thanking the good people of New Hampshire for muddling the hell out of the 2016 presidential primaries, particularly the Republican race. And that’s what we’re here to talk about: Thanks to John Kasich finishing second in New Hampshire and Marco Rubio finishing fifth, we have a mainstream Republican logjam — Jeb Bush, who finished fourth, is also jammed in there, but it’s not clear to me why. So … why does this logjam exist, and how will it be resolved?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I bet so many people in New Hampshire make their own jam, political and otherwise.

But the political logjam exists because Rubio screwed up, people didn’t feel like they could put their up-in-the-air votes in his hands, and Kasich had basically just been in their heads and so they went with him. He just posted up in the state and ground-gamed the living daylights out of it. He won the war of attrition. And his campaign basically told me on primary night that he had just kinda gotten in people’s heads, and that was the strategy — Kasich was their familiar face.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I think the muddle exists for three main reasons: 1) As Clare said, Rubio blew a big opportunity; 2) Bush’s super PAC is too big to fail; and 3) the Republican Party and the national media did not do a good job of vetting the GOP candidates because of the singular focus on Donald Trump.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Let me add a few more reasons: Rubio is too conservative for many in the mainstream lane, so despite being a gifted pol, he leaves a lot to be desired ideologically. Also, the candidate with the best infrastructure (Bush) is disliked by a higher number of voters than the other mainstream candidates. And finally, I’m not sure Kasich is much of a player outside of New Hampshire, but by running a strong campaign up there he helped to keep either Bush or Rubio from breaking out.

Oh, and that whole “dispel” moment for Rubio definitely played a role.

clare.malone: To Harry’s point, it’s still a bit of a puzzle to me why people in New Hampshire didn’t like Bush more. I don’t actually think of him as that unlikable.

And on Kasich, I think it very much remains to be seen if he can translate his homey town hall schtick to other states. But he’ll get some $$$ out of this.

micah: All right, let’s focus on Jeb for a second, then we’ll get to Kasich.

harry: I mean, Jeb is easy to me. Voters aren’t buying the sauce he’s selling at this moment, but the super PAC keeps him in the game.

micah: But is Jeb’s place in the logjam entirely attributable to him finishing 0.4 percentage points in front of Rubio? So the media has resurrected him?

clare.malone: For the record, Jeb and friends spent $36 million in New Hampshire.

natesilver: I mean, this talk about how Bush “beat expectations” is pretty ridiculous. So far, Jeb! has replicated Rudy Giuliani’s numbers almost exactly. Rudy got 4 percent and finished in sixth place in Iowa. Bush got 3 percent and finished in sixth place. Rudy got 9 percent and finished in fourth place in New Hampshire. Jeb got 11 percent and finished in fourth.

Giuliani is widely regarded as having run one of the most embarrassing campaigns in presidential history. You can certainly say that Rubio blew it, and when we see reporting suggesting that some Republican party elites think that too, that’s valuable to know.

But you can’t credibly say that Jeb’s campaign has been anything other than a miserable failure so far.

micah: Tell us how you really feel, Nate.

clare.malone: I agree. And I think he will drop out after South Carolina. Heard it here first, folks. Maybe.

micah: PREDICTION!

clare.malone: That’s right, as the non-numbers hack of this group, I’m going out on a limb.

harry: This has been a weird campaign, but Jeb’s war is one of attrition. He wants to get into a one-on-one with Trump. If he can do that, he feels he can win. And the truth is he might be able to. … The problem is I don’t think most of us think Jeb will get to that one-on-one.

clare.malone: I think he runs through his Lindsey Graham connections in South Carolina and then someone takes him out back and metaphorically shoots him.

micah: There’s a lot standing between Jeb and a one-on-one with Trump.

clare.malone: I also disagree, Harry, that he might be able to handle the aforementioned one-on-one in the unlikely event it would happen.

natesilver: I also don’t get talk about a one-on-one race that doesn’t involve Ted Cruz.

A one-on-one race between Bush and Trump doesn’t really have a conservative candidate. And the GOP is a conservative party, even if we’ve learned that modern American conservatism is a lot more complicated than people give it credit for.

harry: Well, I’m not disagreeing, but I think you’ll see all sorts of people coming out against Trump once it becomes a one-on-one. That’s especially the case if the non-Trump is Bush. Again, though, I don’t think we get to that point.

It’s the Bush thinking, though.

micah: Let me play devil’s advocate: Whether Jeb deserves the “beat expectations” narrative or not, he’s getting it, and he has the resources to capitalize on it. Moreover, in the Jeb-Kasich-Rubio triumvirate, Kasich doesn’t really have the infrastructure or appeal to compete in most upcoming contests, and Rubio remains somewhat of a question mark — his chief argument was electability, and falling on his face cut against the core of that argument. Process of elimination: Jeb. That doesn’t mean he’ll win the nomination, but couldn’t he be the last leg left standing as the mainstream stool is cut down?

natesilver: I’m not sure that Rubio’s chief argument is his electability. He’s also a lot more conservative than Bush and Kasich. That becomes muddled in all the talk about the “establishment lane.”

clare.malone: OK, Micah, that’s a fair point re: infrastructure that’s better than Kasich’s, but I think that Bush has been emasculated to voters in this way you can’t really go back on (thanks to Trump). Rubio screwed up, but he’s not totally done for. I would say Rubio has the most staying power of the three still.

harry: Rubio has multiple arguments. 1. He has electability (sells to the center). 2. He’s not as conservative as Cruz (sells to the center). 3. He’s got a conservative record (sells to the right).

natesilver: To take one important constituency: Talk radio’s never going to get on Bush’s side in a one-on-one race with Trump. It might get on Rubio’s side.

harry: We already heard it get on Rubio’s side after the debate. Mark Levin was blasting Chris Christie and defending Rubio. Rush Limbaugh was defending Rubio against Trump!

clare.malone: Low energy.

natesilver: Bush can win the “Morning Joe” Republicans, but Rubio can win the Rush Limbaugh Republicans. There are a lot more Rush Republicans than “Morning Joe” Republicans.

clare.malone: And Kasich wins the Charlie Rose Republicans.

micah: Is that true? You got numbers to back that up, Mr. Silver?

harry: Well, for one thing, “Morning Joe” is on MSNBC. I don’t know many Republicans watching that.

clare.malone: According to The New York Times, all the Washington Kingmakers are watching “Joe,” at the very least.

harry: I know one guy watching “Morning Joe” who is a Republican. His net worth is in the millions, and he’s a postgraduate living in NYC.

clare.malone: Can I have his number, Harry?

natesilver: Rush has a huge audience. About 13 million people per week. And most of those are red-meat Republicans rather than RINOs.

“Morning Joe” gets something like 500,000 viewers per day, by contrast, so maybe in the range of 1-2 million per week, depending on how much overlap there is in their audience from day to day?

clare.malone: I don’t even remember what we’re talking about now, what with all this “Morning Joe”-ness.

natesilver: Yeah, we’ve gotten diverted here. The key part of the story is that there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for Bush among actual Republican voters. As we’ve seen by his lack of ability to get actual Republican votes.

micah: All right, cue John Kasich …

clare.malone: O-H-I-O!

micah: The Anti-Trump.

clare.malone: Indeed. Both in rhetoric and numbers. I saw him a couple of times in New Hampshire, and while he’s a bit unpolished and loping in the town hall format, he did have a couple of lines that really connected with audiences about being in the struggle together, and how Americans need to share their joys and sorrows more — sounds corny, but it was actually quite touching, especially in a state that’s facing such a huge drug crisis. And the Kasich team has been big on the notion that they’re a positive campaign — so, anti-Trump in their messaging.

And then the exit poll numbers bore out his base of support as being quite divergent from Trump’s: more educated, more likely to see the “Muslims out of America” stance as being terrible for the party, but also, I will note, Kasich connected with people who are dissatisfied but not angry with the party — which ties into his TV/debate persona that’s a little crotchety.

micah: So why can’t Kasich, silver medalist in the Granite State, consolidate the mainstream/governing wing of the GOP?

natesilver: The calendar isn’t helpful to Kasich, what with the turn southward. So it’s not clear where his second act will be.

micah: The Kasich campaign is hinting it might come in the Midwest. Michigan, for example.

harry: Kasich strikes me as McCain 2000 at best.

micah: And Huntsman 2012 at worst.

harry: The funny thing is that Kasich has a strong record to run on, but the message has become all muddled.

natesilver: Except that McCain and Huntsman were running against more traditional front-runners than Kasich is.

harry: Go on, Nathaniel.

natesilver: To put it bluntly, Kasich’s argument is that all the other choices suck worse. Which is also Rubio’s argument and Jeb’s argument. It might be kind of a true argument!

But let’s do a little thought experiment. Suppose that Bush had dropped out in November, or something. Everything else is pretty much the same: Kasich took second place in New Hampshire and Rubio did disappointingly there after finishing well in Iowa. What do Kasich’s chances look like then?

clare.malone: A little better.

harry: Does Kasich have any money or any organization?

clare.malone: Maybe some of the people who were supporting Bush would have transferred allegiance over to him?

natesilver: Yeah, I think that’s right, Clare. Especially since Bush and Kasich are way more temperamentally and ideologically similar than either candidate is to Rubio.

clare.malone: Kasich’s campaign only has $2.5 million cash on hand. Cruz has $18.7 million, and Rubio has $10.4, by comparison.

natesilver: Yep, that’s a problem for Kasich. Especially because he doesn’t get a lot of “earned media.” He’s going to have trouble staying on people’s radar.

harry: I think Kasich is running an interesting campaign, and he’s an interesting political figure. The problem is that when you’re spending two days campaigning in Michigan a week before South Carolina, then you’re in deep trouble. Kasich can stick around for a while, but it’s really difficult to see how he wins.

clare.malone: Do we think he’s just sticking around to get a VP nod? Is that his end game?

natesilver: He’s an extremely realistic VP pick.

harry: I think that’s absolutely true. That’s especially the case if Rubio is the nominee. Or, dare I say, Cruz.

natesilver: But — I dunno. Suppose that Bush and Rubio remain in a stalemate. Or that they both flop — South Carolina is something like Trump 36 percent, Cruz 35, Rubio 10, Bush 10. At some point, does Kasich get a longer look out of desperation?

He does have some upside potential. He’s the governor of Ohio. Not a bad credential. He has a pretty conservative record.

harry: I think Rubio’s going to do a lot better in South Carolina than that indicates, but Kasich could indeed get a second look.

natesilver: SURE WOULD BE NICE IF SOMEONE TRIED CONDUCTING A PUBLIC OPINION POLL IN SOUTH CAROLINA

micah: All right, let’s wrap with a little consideration of Rubio. The debate clearly hurt him. Is that damage inherently fleeting, or does he need to work to rebound in South Carolina and beyond?

clare.malone: He needs to werk.

natesilver: Yeah, he’s got work to do. If I were Marco Rubio, I’d be spending every waking hour prepping for Saturday night’s debate.

harry: Rubio needs a strong third (mid-20s) or better in South Carolina. If he does that, we’ll forget about New Hampshire. If he doesn’t, there’s going to be talk.

clare.malone: He needs to work to rebuild his brand a little with voters, that he can be more … relaxed and confident. This Britney Spears song pretty much says it all:

natesilver: I think Rubio would be fine if he 1) has a good debate and 2) solidly beats Bush in South Carolina. Neither of which are easy! But I don’t think he needs to get into the mid-20s if he does those other two things.

harry: I think the problem is that if Cruz and Trump start running away with this thing, it could spiral away from Rubio. Granted, maybe Rubio only needs to get to the low 20s or mid-20s.

natesilver: Remember, though, unless any of Bush, Kasich and Rubio display more political acumen than they’ve shown so far, the “establishment lane” playoff could wind up being like the Eastern Conference finals: a race to see who will finish second.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

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