Three Lanes to the Finish of the Republican Race

Trump attracts blue-collar support, and Cruz pulls in evangelicals, but can any one candidate lock down college-educated, non-evangelical voters?

Randall Hill / Reuters

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire—The Republican presidential race was in the process of consolidating when it hit a jarring speed bump in a debate on Saturday night.

After last week’s Iowa caucus, a growing number of Republican strategists had expressed hope that mainstream conservative voters would coalesce behind Florida Senator Marco Rubio in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, allowing him to join Ted Cruz and Donald Trump to form a new top tier in the race.

But Rubio’s dizzyingly unsteady performance under sharp criticism from Chris Christie in Saturday night’s debate has thrown those hopes into question. With Rubio staggering, and not only Christie but also Jeb Bush and John Kasich delivering strong showings Saturday night, the odds increased that the GOP’s mainstream conservative lane will remain fragmented—providing an edge to Cruz and Trump, the candidates relying most on disaffected and more ideological voters. “The rush to coronate Marco Rubio is off,” Mike DuHaime, Christie’s long-time chief strategist, exulted after the debate. “I think it’s more likely after tonight that more people come out of New Hampshire [as viable] than people anticipated.”

Heading into the debate, many Republicans saw a pathway developing for a three-way race between Cruz, Trump and Rubio, the top Iowa finishers.

That by itself was unusual: Since 1976, the first race fought in a primary system broadly similar to today’s process, Republican contests have almost always quickly consolidated into a two-person competition. As I’ve written before, in almost every race since then, only two can­did­ates gen­er­ated enough sup­port to carry as many as three states or more. The sole ex­cep­tions came in 1988 and 2008. And even then, the “third man” in the race (tel­ev­an­gel­ist Pat Robertson in 1988 and Mitt Rom­ney in 2008) fizzled far short of vic­tory.

But this year’s Iowa results etched the outline of a possible race shaped by candidates drawing on three distinct pools of demographic support. In Iowa, Cruz led among evangelical conservatives, while non-evangelical voters divided along class lines: Trump carried those without a college degree while Rubio lead among those with a four-year degree or more.

Rubio’s tough night in Saturday’s debate, which left him literally sweating under pressure, was a reminder that for all his gifts, the Florida senator has often struggled on the field to match the expectations of his boosters. Rubio inexplicably repeated a sound bite criticizing President Obama four times—even as Christie was deriding him as overly scripted. It was a moment nearly as dramatic as when Walter Mondale in the 1984 Democratic race staggered Gary Hart, another polished younger rival ascending in the polls, with the withering question: Where’s the beef?

Heading into the debate, almost all Republican analysts believed that Rubio was better positioned than the three governors to emerge as a top-tier competitor to Cruz and Trump. Yet Rubio’s erratic performance is sure to rekindle fears among GOP leaders that no one will sufficiently consolidate the party’s center-right block, leaving Cruz and Trump as the favorites.

The possibility of a rare three-way Republican race is rooted in the limits of the appeal that all of the major candidates have displayed so far.

Cruz won Iowa behind the model that worked for Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee in the past two Republican caucuses: consolidating evangelical Christians and maximizing their turnout. In Iowa, Cruz carried 34 percent of evangelical Christians, according to the entrance poll conducted on caucus night. That placed him about even with Santorum’s total in 2012 and behind Huckabee’s 46 percent in 2008. Cruz swelled evangelical turnout even beyond the levels seen in 2012 and 2008. That augurs well for Cruz’s ability to compete for evangelical voters elsewhere—and to become the candidate to beat in Southern and border states where evangelicals comprise a majority of the GOP electorate. That list that ranges from Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi, to Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.

But just like Santorum and Huckabee, Cruz failed to win voters in Iowa who were not evangelicals. Cruz only carried 18 percent of those voters—actually not much better than the 14 percent of non-evangelicals that Santorum and Huckabee each attracted in their victories, according to entrance polls. In each case, those results foreshadowed the inability of each man to expand beyond his evangelical beachhead: in all the states that followed Iowa, Santorum won fewer than one in five voters who were not evangelicals and Huckabee only one in ten, according to the cumulative analysis of exit polls results from each race conducted by ABC pollster Gary Langer. Although Santorum and Huckabee each emerged, in effect, as the principal runner-up in their contests, that wasn’t enough to seriously compete for the nomination.

Most analysts believe Cruz has a more comprehensive message and broader reach across the GOP coalition than either man. And he certainly has much more money than either.

But the big test Cruz faces on Tuesday in New Hampshire is demonstrating that he can appeal beyond evangelicals, who will likely constitute only about one-fifth of the vote here. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist Institute New Hampshire poll released last week found Cruz making very limited progress on that front: It showed him carrying just 10 percent of New Hampshire non-evangelicals with a college degree, and only 17 percent of those without one. The most recent NBC/WSJ/Marist Poll in South Carolina, although conducted before his Iowa win, showed Cruz not performing any better there among voters who are not evangelicals. Until the Texas senator demonstrates that he can reach beyond evangelicals, he will have difficulty moving much beyond the 11 culturally conservative states that Santorum won, or the eight that Huckabee carried.

In Iowa, both Trump and Rubio demonstrated a more balanced appeal across religious lines than did Cruz. But it was the results among the roughly two-fifths of Iowa voters who were not evangelicals that showed the distinct pools of support that could support Trump and possibly Rubio in a lengthy race.

Trump, whose campaign from the outset has been built on backing from blue-collar Republicans, won a solid victory among the non-evangelical voters in Iowa who do not hold a college degree. Those are the voters who most fit the definition of working-class “Reagan Democrats” and in Iowa the blustery businessman won fully 37 percent of them, far outdistancing Cruz (at 21 percent) and Rubio (at 18 percent), according to figures from the entrance poll provided by the CNN polling unit. These blue-collar non-evangelical voters are especially prevalent across the big Midwest battlegrounds, like Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

New Hampshire will offer the next test of Trump’s connection with these blue-collar, non-evangelical, voters. The early indication is his hold remains strong: The NBC/WSJ/Marist poll showed him carrying 35 percent of those voters, about the same as his actual showing in Iowa, and more than Cruz and Rubio combined.

Because there are so few evangelicals in New Hampshire, the results here won’t say much about another critical question facing Trump: whether he can restore his beachhead in the evangelical community. Before Iowa, Trump consistently trailed Cruz in polls among evangelicals who hold a college degree—and the Texan, in fact, comfortably carried those voters in the caucus. But polls in January, not only in Iowa but also South Carolina and nationally, often showed Trump leading Cruz among evangelicals without a college degree. That’s where Trump appeared to lose critical ground in Iowa’s final days: After lacerating Trump’s “New York values” Cruz carried those blue-collar evangelicals by a solid double-digit margin, the entrance poll found.

Trump can remain a formidable candidate without the blue-collar evangelicals who apparently moved away from him in Iowa’s final stages. But if Trump can’t reestablish his advantage among those voters—the key to his pressing Cruz in the South—he won’t be nearly as towering as he was before.

Rubio’s position in the race’s top tier isn’t as solid as Cruz’ or Trump’s. But with almost no attention, Rubio in Iowa identified a potential foundation for his candidacy: He carried the non-evangelical voters there who hold a four-year college degree or more. (The Florida senator took 32 percent of them, compared to 24 percent for Trump and 16 percent for Cruz.) Those white-collar voters, who usually focus more on economic than social issues, loom as a critical Republican constituency in affluent big cosmopolitan states (from California and New York to Florida and Illinois). In both 2008 and 2012, they were also the single-largest block of voters in New Hampshire. Cruz has shown only modest appeal for those voters. Trump has run better with them than Cruz, but the New Yorker’s standing in polls with these voters is almost always weaker than his support among blue-collar Republicans.

The defining gamble of Rubio’s bid is that these mainstream conservative voters will ultimately consolidate around him, even though he has planted himself conspicuously to their right.

For both ideological and strategic reasons, Rubio has consistently struck more aggressively conservative and partisan notes than the herd of current and former governors—Bush, Christie and Kasich—running as relatively pragmatic problem-solvers able to reach across party lines. Rubio’s team is betting that those candidates will steadily fade after New Hampshire, and that that the voters drawn to them will view him as the only viable alternative to Cruz and Trump—even as he devotes most of his energy toward courting the disaffected and ideological voters who comprise the core of support for Cruz and Trump.

The risk to Rubio is that his repeated tilts to the right on issues from immigration to abortion will prevent him from attracting enough of those center-right voters to drive the other candidates from the race after New Hampshire. In the NBC/WSJ/Marist New Hampshire poll, he drew 20 percent of college-educated voters who were not evangelicals. That put Rubio ahead of Kasich (at 16 percent), Bush (at 9 percent), and Christie (at 6 percent). But that also placed the Florida senator vastly behind the roughly 43 percent of those white-collar professional-type voters that Mitt Romney and John McCain carried during their 2012 and 2008 New Hampshire victories, according to exit polls.

Rubio’s odds of winning the nomination will increase significantly if the New Hampshire result allows him to clear the field of competition for these center-right voters. The cascade of endorsements Rubio has received since Iowa was clearly designed to hasten that process.

But Saturday night’s debate meltdown diminished Rubio’s hopes of quickly achieving that consolidation. Not only did Christie bloody Rubio in their early exchanges over whether the Florida senator was overly scripted, but Bush and especially Kasich also turned in some of their strongest performances of the debate season. Rubio’s stumbles, and the persuasive performances by his rivals, both increase the odds that New Hampshire’s mainstream conservative voters in New Hampshire will remain divided on Tuesday.

If Bush, Kasich, or Christie, much less more than one of them, emerges from New Hampshire strong enough to remain viable in the race, they will continue to fragment the white-collar voters Rubio needs to grow. In particular, Bush appears likely to make a potentially final stand in South Carolina regardless of the New Hampshire result. There Bush, in a last act, could peel away enough white-collar voters to undercut Rubio—much the way Fred Thompson, on his way out of the 2008 race, siphoned off enough evangelicals to prevent Huckabee from beating McCain in South Carolina that year.

New Hampshire will fill in more of this picture. But after Saturday’s tumultuous debate, it may not provide as much clarity as many Republican strategists expected—or hoped. South Carolina, with its precarious balance between evangelical, white-collar, and blue-collar Republicans, might do more to determine who rises to the top of the thinning GOP field. Then again, this historically tumultuous GOP race could roll on into March not significantly more clarified than it is today.

2016 Distilled