I’ve spent the past several days on the ground in Nashua and Manchester trying to get a feel for the direction the primary is going.
Last week, I correctly predicted the #Marcomentum coming out of Iowa. The polls didn’t show it yet, but the feeling from speaking with voters in Iowa was that Rubio would have a big night.
I also pointed out the lack of transparency that caucuses have, and alas—the Democrats have been embroiled in a kerfuffle over whether Hillary Clinton really won or whether Bernie Sanders was shorted delegates either intentionally or unintentionally by a party infrastructure broadly supporting Clinton. Regardless, he will dominate in New Hampshire tonight.
What can we expect on the Republican side? The ground has completely shifted in one week’s time.
All the momentum Rubio had last week has been lost to a terrible debate performance on Saturday. It was an event that raised the alarm for supporters, donors, and party leaders, who have now had to picture what would happen in a general election debate matchup between Rubio and Clinton. The debate played perfectly into the long-running narrative pushed by detractors, including some tag-team coordination between the Bush and Christie campaigns, that Rubio is not ready to be president.
New Hampshire voters have taken notice, and there is a good chance tonight that the Granite State pushes an alternative “establishment” candidate ahead of Rubio. Could be Bush or Kasich. Polling offers little insight.
I generally believe advertising is a terrible way to influence votes, but about $100 million has already been spent in New Hampshire. Right to Rise, the super PAC supporting Bush, has owned the airwaves with anti-Rubio ads every time I turn on the TV or radio. As I stood in a Christie rally on Monday, I saw constant ads in my Twitter feed from Team Bush attacking Rubio’s lack of accomplishments. I clicked an ad and it started blaring at max volume as Christie spoke.
Kasich has also faced TV attacks for being an “Obama Republican.” I cannot recall seeing a pro-Kasich ad yet. And as unscientific as that sounds, campaigns often try to gauge the effectiveness of their advertising by whether they’re seeing the ads themselves.
The bigger question is ground game. New Hampshire and Iowa are very different states. New Hampshire has less than half the population of Iowa, but we can expect substantially higher turnout by voters, and that’s because it’s a traditional primary, where a voter simply casts a ballot. The Iowa caucuses are time consuming. I attended a caucus last Monday that lasted a full two hours and included a long discussion of the party platform. That discourages all but the most-dedicated voters from turning out.
The challenge for campaigns is that 4 in 10 voters may change their minds today. This is especially bad for Rubio. And it means that it can be very difficult for campaigns to create a statistical model of the voters they most want to turn out.
While the outcome tonight is uncertain from second place on down, Donald Trump appears set to win. He is dominant in the polls and has been for months. At his rally Monday night, supporters were fired up to go vote. The Donald instructed them that he didn’t care if they had a car accident on the slippery roads getting there; they must get to the polls.
Of course, there is a reason for the Trump phenomenon. I was not at the Trump rally to report on Trump. I was there to observe the media. I have never seen such a circus. Several hundred reporters were on hand for the spectacle of it all. Or did they make it a spectacle?
I have wrangled media for the late stages of a general election presidential campaign. I have never seen so much press covering a single campaign rally. I waited an hour in line outside in a snow storm at the media entrance to Trump’s rally last night. No other campaign events I attended this year have had lines for press.
Any of the other candidates are lucky to receive a fraction of the free media given to Trump. Even Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were on hand as honored guests Monday.
The media loves the high ratings for any coverage of Trump. How many nights in the past six months has Trump been the lead story for the evening news? How many times has Trump called into a show and been put on air because he had some random thought he wanted to discuss? How many times have those same shows ever allowed another candidate to do the same thing—even for serious policy proposals?
Yes, Trump has been the frontrunner since last summer, even when most in the media remained in denial. But Trump’s staying power is not his message or his experience, it’s that the media has covered him as a ratings boon rather than a presidential candidate.
If Trump wins, we all need to be clear why.