A new CNN poll of New Hampshire finds Donald Trump still dominating the crowded Republican field, with the support of 36 percent of Republicans in the Granite State, up somewhat from his position last month.
In December, Trump had 32 percent support, four points less than his January score — but well within the 4.8 percent margin of error in the polls.
The real activity, however, is in the race for second. Six candidates are locked in a cage match to secure place and show out of New Hampshire. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is currently second, with 14 percent support, followed closely by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush each with 10 percent.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul are tied with 6 percent each. Considering the margin of error, all six candidates are within striking distance of finishing second, with Cruz have a slight edge for runner-up.
Rubio, Bush, Kasich and Christie are all pouring millions of dollars into paid advertising in New Hampshire. With the exception of Rubio, all have conducted dozens of campaign events in the state, whose voters put a premium on direct contact with candidates. Cruz has campaigned in the state little, and hasn’t advertised there, but his stronger showing is likely a result of his consistent second place showing in national polls.
Although almost half of Republicans, 43 percent, say they are still deciding whom to support, Trump is widely expected to win New Hampshire, the first primary state to vote this year. The real battle is for the limited number of candidates who can realistically continue their campaign beyond New Hampshire.
Bush, Kasich and Christie has each staked much of their campaign on a strong showing in New Hampshire. Bush can likely continue his campaign, even if he finishes far behind the leader, because of his fundraising edge and perceived strong ties in South Carolina.
If Kasich and Christie fail to finish in the top three, it is hard to imagine their campaigns will have the resources or momentum to continue. After New Hampshire, the Republican primary calendar features a swathe of contests in the South, where neither is expected to poll well.
Marco Rubio faces perhaps the biggest challenge. Rubio is trying to consolidate the support of more mainstream Republicans as the most serious challenger to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. If he doesn’t finish in the top three however, he will have a difficult time arguing that he has the fortitude for a long campaign.
His campaign has recently been criticized for its light campaigning schedule and use of campaign resources. To date, his campaign’s spending has been second only to Jeb Bush’s campaign. If he can’t translate that spending into a strong finish in either Iowa or New Hampshire, mainstream Republicans will likely look to a different candidate.
In terms of favorability rating, though, Rubio does still have an edge. His net favorable rating, the difference between favorable and unfavorable opinions, among Republicans is +26. Ted Cruz’s rating is almost the same, at +25. Donald Trump’s is +14.
Jeb Bush, by comparison, is upside down, with a net favorable rating of -11.
The poll also asked voters who their second choice would be. Combining the first and second choice results are interesting. Trump still leads with 42 percent, followed by Cruz with 34 percent. Rubio is third with 29 percent, followed by Bush with 20 percent.
The second choice question is important because so many Republican voters say they are still trying to make up their mind. How they make their decision over the next three weeks will determine who gets to live to campaign another day.