With Donald Trump far in the lead and Ben Carson in second (and moving up) in national and early state polls, oddly that means plenty of good news for the rest of the pack.
▪ First, candidates who were once thought to be improbable but are more serious and knowledgeable than Trump and Carson look strong by comparison. Compared with them, Carly Fiorina seems like an establishment figure. A freshman senator may not be seen as unqualified compared with someone with no elective office experience.
▪ Second, aside from the top two, the rest of the pack has flattened out. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is not in a much different position than, say, former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who some critics have said has not engaged enough in the early states, is even with candidates such as Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), who have been at practically every cattle call and GOP gathering in the early states. Former Texas governor Rick Perry might get a new lease on life by getting 2 percent to 3 percent in Iowa. In other words, the rest of the field is essentially tied, the contest among them effectively resets and starts from a new, level starting place (in low single digits).
▪ Third, especially with proportional early states, the distance between the candidates will be negligible until we hit the winner-take-all races. Carson could win the Iowa caucuses and not be more than a few delegates ahead of whoever comes in seventh or eighth. The proportional system (which goes through mid-March) gives candidates with wider appeal, better organization and adept fundraising operations plenty of opportunity to outlast the summer favorites, Trump and Carson.
▪ Fourth, as the debate qualifying percentage goes up (to 3 percent or 5 percent) a bunch of candidates will literally disappear from view for the voters who get most of their primary information from the debates. With candidates so closely bunched, the line between inclusion and exclusion in a debate may be paper thin. A candidate with, for example, 3.1 percent may make it in, but a candidate with 2.9 percent won’t. Which polls are selected and what minimum level of support needed will be critical to determining the fate of some candidates.
▪ Fifth, as the debates become more subject-specific and the number of attendees shrinks (both because a higher percentage of support is needed to qualify and because candidates drop out), it is going to be harder to bluster one’s way through a debate. If the answers go from one minute to two minutes, candidates will find it hard to rely strictly on soundbites, and opponents will have more time to plan a rebuttal. Likewise, if moderators or opponents can follow up, candidates who know the material will have the advantage over those with a series of one-liners.
▪ Sixth, with Hillary Clinton in free fall and Vice President Biden uncertain about entering the race, it makes less sense for candidates to spend time attacking Clinton. Meanwhile, as we get closer to actual voting, candidates will throw more elbows at one another, run comparative (some call them “negative”) ads and try to attack adversaries in the debate. Candidates with more money, more self-discipline (to sustain a line of attack) and more equanimity will have an easier time of it.
Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.
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