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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Republican establishment nightmare, thy name is New Hampshire

The final results of the Iowa Caucuses last week offered Americans their first glimpse of how the Republican presidential race would begin, with real vote tallies backing up or disproving the multitude of pundit theories on who would be the strongest candidates in the large field.

Tonight when the winners of the New Hampshire primary are determined, we’ll have an even better understanding of how the dynamics of the race are taking shape. Oddly enough, it may not necessarily stem New Hampshire primaryfrom who wins the state as much as who loses the war between the establishment candidates.

Donald Trump leads in all the polls according to the Real Clear Politics average and is a heavy favorite to be the top vote getter tonight. Meanwhile, Iowa winner Ted Cruz is locking down the bulk of evangelical support and looks to be the choice of the most conservative Republican voters.

And then there’s the establishment group, competing for about forty percent of the vote. For months Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie have literally set-up camp in the tiny Granite State, grinding out the type of one-to-one retail politics that is supposedly necessary to do well there (though Donald Trump may disprove that theory this year).

Marco Rubio rounds out the establishment contenders, though he’s spent considerably less time there than the others…and we know it wasn’t because he was too busy tending to his job in Washington.

Rubio’s debate stumble over the weekend is the biggest wildcard in the establishment battle, in terms of how much it will cost him and/or benefit one of the others.

Caitlin Huey-Burns and Rebecca Berg of Real Clear Politics write that thanks to Rubio, there’re still a lot of questions left to answer today. “Voters here are known for making their decisions in the last 72 hours. Independents, who constitute up to 40 percent of the electorate, are allowed to vote in either party’s primary, leaving contenders on both sides of the aisle fighting for support with Tuesday’s election nearly at hand.

“Marco Rubio sought to dig out of a brutal debate performance that blunted his post-Iowa momentum. He tenaciously stuck by the lines he was criticized for repeating, while casting himself as the uniter of the Republican Party.  His chief rivals Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich each awoke Sunday morning more optimistic and energized about the path forward – which likely includes a ticket out of the Granite State for one or two of them but not all three.”

With the utterly boring nature of the Democrat race this cycle, here’s thinking the independents would much rather flock to the infinitely more interesting Republican contest.

In their article, Huey-Burns and Berg present interviews of supporters considering all the major contenders and it’s clear there could be a shift of favor in the final hours.

Or, possibly even no shift at all. It almost sounds like the establishment support is so divided that it could very well split three or four ways. How about that, a virtual four-way tie for the “mainstream” candidates?

If that happens, all of them will likely head to South Carolina looking to break the tie…which will only stand to bolster the bids of Cruz and Trump as credible and electable anti-establishment candidates -- especially if Cruz bests them for second place.

The establishment nightmare would continue. There’d better be a good supply of Maalox at RNC headquarters tonight.

Trump should know the House always wins, so why isn’t he betting on a better ground game?

Even as New Hampsherites go to the polls today, doubts linger as to the strength of Donald Trump’s get-out-the-vote effort.

Alex Altman and Philip Elliott of Time report, “Trump’s teeming rallies, healthy poll numbers and raucous supporters are part of the story. But those who have seen the underbelly of the campaign say there’s not much depth. ‘What ground game?’ Joel Leyden, a former super-volunteer for Trump who now supports Texas Senator Ted Cruz, said when asked how Trump’s get-out-the-vote stacked up. ‘He has a good organization, but he doesn’t listen to any advice from anybody.’”

Leyden’s last comment is particularly telling. It’s just like The Donald acted on his TV show The Apprentice. Once he decided to fire someone, there wasn’t any chance that person was going to get him to change his mind.

Trump’s recalcitrance is fine for a reality show, but it isn’t going to get him far in politics. He’s maintained his poll popularity because he’s a celebrity and the media gives him a microphone whenever he asks for it – but eventually the simple laws of grassroots organizing will catch up with him. It might be today; it might be on February 20 in South Carolina or even further down the road.

Hopefully the final lesson won’t have to wait for Election Day in November, though the national party might have something to say about it before then if he’s the nominee.

For now, Trump is running against a thoroughly time-tested campaign tenet that ground game matters. Ted Cruz is a believer and he’s taken the necessary steps to find and motivate his support.

Again, Altman and Elliott write, “As in Iowa, there’s a converted dormitory to house devoted volunteers, dubbed Camp Cruz. The Texan’s volunteers are dispatched into selected neighborhoods based on voter modeling that cost the campaign millions and includes in-depth ‘psychographic’ profiles of their personality types and suggested methods of persuasion. Houses that need to be crossed off the lists show up in red. Contacted dwellings turned green. Homes where no one answered are marked in blue. Volunteers will return to those again.”

Cruz’s campaign is propelled by a candidate with rock-solid principles, impressive fundraising and smart campaign organization. But all of that wouldn’t mean much without the volunteers to do the work. Ted’s got them in great numbers, as does Trump. But Cruz’s army knows where it’s going and who it’s fighting. Trump’s is stumbling around in the dark searching for the enemy’s flank.

In gambling as in politics, you’re always looking for the smart bets with the best odds. Cruz may have a few factors working against him, but overall the numbers look good for him to win in the long run.

Trump seems to be relying on his poker face. It ain’t fooling people who know about campaigns, that’s for sure.

Contrast Cruz’s strategy with The Donald’s. As a smart businessman and casino magnate, Trump knows the House always wins. In politics, the ground game in a close race is the House. A bet against the ground game is risky at best, because in the end, the percentages will get you every time.

(Note: For what it’s worth, here’s an alternative look at Trump’s ground game courtesy of Trump endorser and New Hampshire senate race loser former Sen. Scott Brown.)

Trump doubles down on revolutionary rhetoric to stir up enthusiasm

People don’t even bat an eyelash anymore when there’s a report that Donald Trump said something controversial.

During Saturday night’s debate, for example, Trump promised if he is elected president he not only would bring back waterboarding, he would do a “hell of a lot worse.”

So to hear he’s becoming more radical as the campaign goes on is par for the Trump golf course.

Byron York of the Washington Examiner writes, “The man leading the Republican race is doing so on a platform that would blow up the Republican Party as it now exists in Washington. If Trump is bringing new voters into the party, he's doing it by promising to make the party virtually unrecognizable to its members today. If he were elected president and did what he says he will do … Trump would be an astonishingly disruptive force in Washington. Of course, that is exactly what his voters want.

“And despite various reports that Trump is moderating his style and presentation a bit, the fact is, his views remain absolutely radical in a Republican context.”

Radical, yes. Sensationalized at the same time? Sure. The Donald always starts with an extreme negotiating stance and then moves back towards the center to strike a deal.

That’s not really radical at all. In fact, it’s much closer to the establishment’s position than most people realize. Obama is notorious for speaking moderately and then gradually move left. Trump has basically flipped that strategy and his voters appear to like it just fine.

York did sound one cautionary note, however. “It's hard to tell how well Trump's appeal is working. He has dipped a bit in New Hampshire polls in recent days. The Plymouth State event had a big crowd, but not a huge one. A lot of people there were still undecided, and I also talked to a number of students — Sanders supporters all — who came to the rally for kicks.”

It’s yet another sign Trump could be fading some as we head into the New Hampshire vote. His demeanor during Saturday night’s debate was rather temperate for him. It’s hard to get a good read on The Donald these days. Part of him seems like the old Trump and the other part looks like he realizes he’s on his way down.

Since Trump loves polls so much he must be aware there’s a large segment of even Republican voters who would never vote for him under any circumstances. It’s a personality thing and these people aren’t buying his act.

Or maybe he’s just getting bored with politics. As I’ve argued before, for a man who lives off the adoration of his backers, rejection in Iowa and the rough and tumble daily nature of a presidential campaign might finally be getting to him.

Tonight and the next couple weeks will likely reveal the answer.

Cruz feels like he can compete everywhere and New Hampshire will prove he can

Finally today, having already won in Iowa, it would be understandable if Ted Cruz placed less emphasis on New Hampshire in order to move on to potentially greener electoral pastures elsewhere.

But he hasn’t done it. Just the opposite, in fact.

Katie Glueck of Politico reports, “Cruz has long said that he'll emerge as the conservative consensus candidate if he can bring together Christian conservative, libertarian and tea party activists — as well as, he often says on the trail, Reagan Democrats. With its relatively secular electorate and preponderance of independent voters, the New Hampshire primary will be an early indication whether Cruz can broaden his appeal.”

Glueck gives special attention to Cruz’s attempts to attract Rand Paul’s libertarian voters now that the Kentucky senator has left the race.

But it’s safe to say Cruz isn’t discounting anyone who could potentially favor a true conservative who means what he says.

In other words, Ted may emphasize different aspects of his platform in different locations – but the message is consistent across the board.

And today, we’ll get a good indication of how effective he can be in making the effort.

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