“For a guy like me, it’s pretty simple,” Graham recently told Time Magazine. “I do well in Iowa and finish in the top tier in New Hampshire, I’ll win South Carolina. By the end of South Carolina there are three or four people left at the most.”
In other words, the strategy is: 1) Don't tank in Iowa or New Hampshire. 2) Come in strong in the home state. 3) ???
As of now, Graham is barely registering in polls anywhere else, including states he would need to compete in in the later stages of the Republican primary process. But let's start with Step 1.
A WMUR Granite State poll of likely New Hampshire voters has him far behind most of his would-be rivals, carrying the support of just around 1 percent of primary voters. For context, former Florida governor Jeb Bush leads the pack with 15 percent. Meanwhile, even longshot candidate Donald Trump has 5 percent.**
And in Iowa, Graham is the first-choice candidate for just 1 percent of likely GOP voters, according to a May Des Moines Register poll.*** He completely fails to register in another poll by Quinnipiac.
History doesn't seem to be on Graham's side either. Presidential candidates who hail from early voting states have frequently failed to make a splash nationwide and have also occasionally been met with resistance from in-state allies who fear their state's primary could be rendered irrelevant by a home grown contender.
Put another way: in the modern era, there has never been a presidential nominee who hailed from Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Nevada.
Consider former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, who made a short-lived run for the 2008 Democratic nomination but quickly dropped out of the race – ending his campaign in February of 2007. Though Vilsack stood a strong chance of winning the caucuses if he had stayed in the race, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s fundraising strength proved to be an intractable challenge nationwide. For what it's worth, The Iowa Democratic Party responded to Vilsack's candidacy by promising to remain neutral for fear that Vilsack’s candidacy would discourage candidates from competing in the state.
When former New Hampshire senator Bob Smith ran for the 2000 GOP nomination – also as a longshot – New Hampshire Republicans balked at the thought of the Granite State losing its sacred status as a must-compete contest. He too dropped out before the primaries actually began.
Iowa's Tom Harkin, who retired from the Senate last year, ran for the Democratic nomination in 1992 and swept the Iowa contest, receiving the support of nearly 80 percent of caucusgoers. But in New Hampshire the next week, Harkin took just 10 percent of the vote.
Of course, Graham's candidacy will largely rest on his clearly-defined, hawkish foreign policy positions in an election where foreign affairs have already taken center stage. That could bode well for him, particularly as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's strong critique of GOP hawks presents a headline-grabbing foil for Graham to pit himself against.
*The NBC News/Marist survey of 450 likely South Carolina GOP voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points.
**The WMUR survey of 293 likely GOP primary voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.7 percent.
***That survey of 402 likely caucusgoers was conducted between May 25 to May 29 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.