By Jennifer Rubin
One take on new polls from New Hampshire, Florida and South Carolina is that "The crowded GOP field is harming Marco Rubio and helping Donald Trump." Well, sort of.
The crowded field is not going to be crowded for very long, and it is Rubio (or New Jersey Gov. Christie, who is surging in New Hampshire) who stands to gain the most when others drop out. Donald Trump - with 100 percent name recognition and high unfavorables - is about topped out. No one who likes Trump is not with him now. As for Sen. Ted Cruz R., Texas), he is pilfering votes from Trump (tied in South Carolina at 27 percent, behind by 8 in New Hampshire and 11 in Florida). However, he too has a limited upside as the candidate, increasingly, of the shrill, anti-establishment, anti-immigration throng. It is Rubio, in this analysis, who has room to expand his reach.
For example if South Carolina goes to a three-person race, Rubio doubles his support and zooms up to 24 points while Cruz picks up only 5 percentage points. In a three-man race in New Hampshire, Rubio leaps over Cruz into a statistical tie with Trump (and with Cruz at 26 points).
It is easy to see why, as National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru points out:
"In the primaries, Rubio's strategy is to assemble a coalition more akin to those of previous Republican nominees, one that includes elements from every part of the party. In the general, he is signaling that he will employ a strategy like that of past election winners: Like Cruz, he will seek to mobilize the base; more than Cruz, he will attempt to persuade non-ideological voters that his agenda will make a positive difference in their lives. Rubio seeks to modernize the Republican party, Cruz to purify it."
Cruz is relying on a mythical model of the GOP in which his tea party fans predominate. He's increasingly narrow-casting in their direction. That leaves him unable to compete with Rubio for voters who will be up for grabs when others leave the field. Cruz is also assuming that he will inherit Trump's voters, who may or may not show up at the polls and may not transfer their loyalty to him.
Theses polls also confirm Jeb Bush's problem, namely, he not only remains in single digits in all but Florida (where he inches up to 10 percent) but has high unfavorables (39/48 in New Hampshire, 42/49 in South Carolina). In addition, these surveys confirm the collapse of Dr. Ben Carson, who is not in a position to win any of the three states. Finally, Christie is very much in the hunt in New Hampshire at 13 percent, in a statistical tie with Rubio and Cruz. His favorables (66) are nearly as high as Rubio's (69 percent).
If Christie wins New Hampshire, or at least finishes ahead of Cruz and/or Rubio, he too becomes a force to be reckoned with. His favorables in New Hampshire and other early states, a complete reversal from earlier in the year, suggest he has room to grow. No wonder Christie told the panel on Morning Joe, "You cannot wait to do well because momentum will run over people who wait to do well. So we're hoping to create momentum in Iowa and New Hampshire and then be able to work that momentum and do what we do, which is to give two-hour town hall meetings where people get to ask whatever questions they want whenever they want, and to be stunned that a politician actually answers their question." That's his formula for victory, as it was Sen. John McCain's.
Unless you think the field is going to remain very large for a very long time, the candidates who have an intense but smaller following (Trump and Cruz) don't look so strong. But candidate performance, the January debates, and outside events matter a lot as well. The race is far from decided, and indeed has not yet begun.