Granite State Preview: A GOP Debate Recap and Predictions for the New Hampshire Primary

By: Guest Writer Dominic Moore

I consider myself a fairly immersed political observer, or as immersed as a college sophomore can be. I keep abreast with politics and current events, and for fun do my best to predict the results of upcoming elections.

Saturday night marked the last Republican debate before the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. Rather than rank their debate performances – which I thought were all over the map – I decided to rank the candidates by how I think they will finish when Granite Staters go to the polls and vote on Tuesday. Full disclosure: I am a Marco Rubio supporter, but I tried to keep my personal bias out of this analysis.

  1. Donald Trump seems to have regained his footing after his underwhelming finish in Iowa last week. Inexplicably, he was barely attacked at the debate last night, except for his exchanges with Jeb(!). I think Trump will underperform his current poll numbers again, but I also think he remains the favorite to win going into Tuesday. A Trump win would set up a Trump-Cruz battle royale in South Carolina on February 20. I suspect that only one candidate will survive.
  2. This was Marco Rubio’s worst debate. There’s no denying that. He definitely was the loser in the early Christie-Rubio exchanges, and his responses played right into his opponents’ critiques that he was too scripted and robotic. Personally, I think the controversy is overblown. Every politician repeats his lines over and over- even the self-righteous Chris Christie. (Don’t believe me? Search “telling it like it’s scripted” on YouTube). Candidates get in trouble for what they AREN’T supposed to say, not what they are. Could I be wrong? Definitely. But count me skeptical that this is going to be a serious impediment to Rubio’s chances. If he gets second place anyway on Tuesday, we probably won’t hear much about this again. His later responses on abortion and the meaning of American Conservatism got much higher internet spikes and fundraising spikes than the Christie exchanges, so I think that Rubio managed to recover somewhat as the debate continued. I think Rubio is the likeliest guy to finish second, and if he gets enough separation from the three Establishment governors, he should manage to knock them out of the race.
  3. John Kasich had one of his best debates of the cycle, and that was partially because none of his rivals attacked him. He seems to be running the Jon Huntsman campaign of 2016, running for the nomination from the left and performing well in New Hampshire but no where else. IMHO, his chances at winning the nomination depend on a New Hampshire win or on a close second. Anything less, he won’t be able to justify continuing- much like Huntsman in 2012 (he got third).
  4. Jeb(!) Bush had a strong debate, but it may be too little, too late. The three governors teamed up against Rubio, and Jeb(!) also managed to score a clean hit against Trump on eminent domain. He’s gotten better as the campaign as worn on, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be enough. Jeb(!) has insisted that his campaign will go to South Carolina and beyond, but if he finishes outside of the top 3 (not impossible, but I find Trump, Rubio and Kasich more likely to end up there), there’s going to be serious questions about how he can continue.
  5. Ted Cruz had a rough opener, as he got attacked for his so-called “dirty tricks” against the Carson campaign in Iowa. NOTE- Carson outperformed his Iowa poll numbers so his dirty tricks didn’t seem to have worked very well. Once he got past that, he had a fairly solid debate, and I thought his story about his half-sister’s struggles with drug addiction was his best debate moment of the campaign. Cruz, the Iowa winner, isn’t a natural fit for New Hampshire, and he’s making the smart play by moving on and focusing on the upcoming South Carolina primary.
  6. Chris Christie came out swinging last night. He repeatedly hit Rubio for being scripted and robotic, and was the first person to really land a punch on the Florida Senator. Unfortunately for Christie, he’s one of the least popular guys on the stage and his support is lagging in the mid-single digits, so he seems unlikely to benefit from any of the punches he threw. They may have had the effect of slowing Rubio’s momentum and helping Jeb(!) and Kasich more than they will actually help him. He’s almost out of money and if he finishes out of the top 3- like I am predicting- it will be the end of his campaign.
  7. Carly Fiorina was wrongfully excluded from the debate. She would have brought a needed perspective to the debate, and she earned her spot by doing better than Christie and Kasich in the only poll that has mattered so far, which was the Iowa Caucus. I didn’t think she had a chance to do well in New Hampshire, but her exclusion has basically cemented it. Her campaign won’t survive New Hampshire.
  8. Ben Carson’s campaign has been in a death spiral for weeks. He seems to be hanging on solely to attack Cruz for “stealing Iowa.” After hitting Cruz early in the debate for his dirty tactics, he faded as the debate wore on- a common occurrence. New Hampshire is not a state very friendly to the Christian-conservative campaign Carson has been running, and I think it’s more and more likely that he won’t make it past South Carolina.
  9. Jim Gilmore sits in a dimly lit office park in Alexandria, Virginia. He looks at a whiteboard with seventeen names on it. Eight have been crossed out. “Eight down, eight to go.” He chuckles softly to himself.

Though this the order I suspect the candidates to finish on Tuesday, polling and the New Hampshire electorate are so volatile I more likely than not will get a few or all of these guesses wrong. The most likely sources of predictive failure are as follows: I think Trump is the favorite to win but not by much. Should he be upset, I think only Rubio or Kasich can do it. Rubio and Kasich are neck and neck for second and third. I think Rubio is the slight favorite to finish second but I would not be surprised by a second-place Kasich finish at all. Bush could outperform, but I have a hard time imagining him finishing higher than third. Christie is even more of a longshot for finishing in the top 3, but it wouldn’t be unheard of. If Fiorina finishes above any of the men I ranked higher than her, it will be Chris Christie- which would certainly be the death knell of the Christie campaign.

On the Democratic side, I think Bernie Sanders remains the favorite over Hillary Clinton, and I think it’s likely he’ll pull out a strong finish somewhere in the realm of an 8-12 point victory. Anything more than that would be absolutely crushing, and if Clinton were to somehow win New Hampshire that would be the end of the Sanders campaign.

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