In a spate of polls released on Sunday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sit at or near the top of the polls in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina. In the NBC/Marist polls: “In fact, seven different possible Republican candidates get double-digit support in at least one of the states. But only two candidates — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — are in double digits in all three states.” As we have suggested before, actual GOP voters are much more flexible than in accepting ideological deviations from conservative orthodoxy. In Iowa, for example 57 percent of Republicans find Common Core acceptable while 49 percent favor a path to citizenship. In New Hampshire, the numbers are 47 and 43 percent, respectively. In South Carolina, the figures are 47 percent and 46 percent. Those two issues may therefore not be nearly as determinative as right-wing media portray them. (Bush, it should be noted, in his book ruled out citizenship although during the Senate debate seemed open to it; Walker has been cagey in spelling out his exact position.)
In early states Bush is dominating among moderates (27 percent in Iowa vs. 7 percent for Walker) while among conservatives the numbers are reverse (Walker draws 20 percent to Bush’s 7 percent). In New Hampshire and South Carolina Bush crushes Walker among moderates, but comes within a few points of Walker among conservatives.
The issues of economic growth and jobs and the deficit remain at or near the top of the most important issues in all states. But the threat of jihadist terror is high on the list as well — which might explain why Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), at 7 percent in Iowa and South Carolina is doing so poorly, but better in the more libertarian New Hampshire (14 percent). (NBC/Marist tells us: “30% of adults in Iowa consider job creation and economic growth to be the most important issue in the 2016 presidential election. Deficit and government spending, 21%, military action against ISIS, 17%, and health care, 15%, follow. . . . South Carolina’s potential Republican electorate points to jobs, 29%, as the top priority for 2016. The issues of military action against ISIS with 28% and the deficit and government spending at 24% are also seen as important.”) Although neither has spoken about it at length both Walker and Bush seem to favor a hawkish foreign policy.
For now, on the strength of their media popularity Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson remain in a middle tier of candidates along with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (who may be heading down to an even lower tier after a spate of missteps and poor rollout). If one suspects these candidates lack a serious path to the nomination and have limited appeal outside the social conservative base the question becomes whether Walker can grab their supporters, or whether they drift to another candidate with unrealized potential, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
At present Rubio is in the middle of the pack in two of the three early states (Iowa and New Hampshire) at 6 percent and at only 4 percent in South Carolina. If he is to compete with Bush and Walker, he can pursue a few (not mutually exclusive) options. He can show himself to be better prepared on foreign policy than opponents. He can stress the growth and jobs aspects of his domestic agenda. And he can stress that while ideologically similar to Bush he has a different last name and represents a new, more diverse (and hence more electable) generation of Republicans.
The challenge one might see for Bush is to convince enough conservatives to support him while remaining dominate among moderates, continuing to siphon off moderates from Chris Christie whose prospects have been declining. For Walker the trick will be to consolidate his conservative support (poaching from Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson and Rand Paul as well as freshman Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is doing dreadfully in all three states with no higher than 6 percent and behind Texas Gov. Rick Perry in two of three states) while convincing more moderates he is a reasoned reformer. Walker will need to prove his competence on foreign policy, but for now seems to be one of the few if any candidates who can keep pace with Bush regardless of the state and across ideological groupings.
What we do know is that a lot of the punditocracy so far has been clueless. Contrary to their pronouncements, as of now Rand Paul is not the frontrunner (!) and Ted Cruz is not popular at all. There is no “libertarian” moment one can discern in the polls nor is there any sign at this stage that Bush’s positions on Common Core or on immigration knock him out of contention. Painting Bush as a moderate has deepened his appeal with that segment of the party. (Rightwing talk show hosts might try another tactic than helping Bush to consolidate his grip on that segment of the electorate.) If the media were more conscientious they would focus less on outlier candidates and track how well Bush and Walker can expand their appeal, how they approach foreign policy and whether Rubio can break through. That as of now is where the action will be.