The final tracking polls ahead of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary show Donald Trump retaining his big lead on the eve of the vote. Four other candidates, however, are locked in a knife-fight for second.
Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz are all essentially tied for second. Chris Christie is further back, but positioned where he could catch one of the four.
The tracking polls, from UMass-Lowell and ARG, indicate two separate races in New Hampshire. Donald Trump currently has support from 30-34 percent of likely Republican primary voters. Trump’s support level has been consistent through all of the tracking polls, and throughout January. The question for Trump is how much he under- or over-performs his polling.
There is nothing in these tracking polls to indicate he is in danger of losing the primary Tuesday. His support is also the most solid of all the candidates. According to the UMass tracking poll, 75 percent of his supporters definitely plan to vote for him. By comparison, only 51 percent of Marco Rubio’s current supporters have definitely settled on the Florida Senator.
The polling in New Hampshire has been so consistent, in fact, that a Trump loss or even a narrow victory would pose existential questions about the state of polling.
The race for second and third, however, is completely up in the air. In UMass tracking, Rubio and Ted Cruz are tied with 13 percent each, followed closely by John Kasich and Jeb Bush with 10 percent each. Chris Christie is far back with 5 percent.
In ARG tracking, Rubio and Kasich are tied for second with 16 percent, followed by Cruz with 10 percent and Bush with 9 percent. Christie has 6 percent.
Neither tracking poll shows any movement in the race following Saturday’s GOP debate. Several candidates, however, had particularly noteworthy performances on Saturday that will likely have an impact on the final outcome on Tuesday. This has not yet shown up in the tracking polls.
As has been noted, a significant portion of the New Hampshire electorate, around 20 percent, makes its final decision on election day. Saturday’s GOP debate and the organization and ground games of the various campaigns will have a large impact on how these voters break.
It is a critical time for Rubio, Bush, Kasich and Christie. After a strong third place finish in Iowa, expectations for Rubio in New Hampshire grew exponentially. He needs an outright win or very strong second place showing to consolidate mainstream party support behind his candidacy.
Kasich, Bush and Christie have staked their candidacies on a strong showing in New Hampshire. Kasich and Bush are positioned to finish second in the state, which would allow them to extend their campaigns to other early voting states. Placing third or lower would increase calls from Republican leaders to end their campaigns.
As winner of the Iowa caucus, Ted Cruz has the least at stake in New Hampshire. The state has a more moderate electorate than other early states and was never part of Cruz’s path to the nomination. He has concentrated most of his campaign on the upcoming February 20 primary in South Carolina. He just needs to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack.
One note of caution about these tracking polls: Both show a fairly static race over the whole week after the Iowa caucus. That seems unlikely, especially in a state where so many voters make up their minds in the final days. One can’t help but guess that these tracking polls are missing some volatility on the ground.
That said, Tuesday is the primary and will move the New Hampshire primary from conjecture to historical archive.