Republican operatives from inside and outside New Hampshire agree: Sen. Ted Cruz is all but doomed to finish below the top tier in the Granite State.
The winning coalition Cruz put together in Iowa won’t work in New Hampshire, they say, pointing to the fact New Hampshire has the second-lowest rate of church attendance in the country. So the edge that Cruz had among evangelicals isn’t particularly applicable there.
“I would advise Cruz to skip New Hampshire and go to South Carolina. I believe you shouldn’t compete anywhere where it’s not a favorable battlefield to win,” said Stuart Stevens, a top adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign.
“History suggests there isn’t much of a momentum carryover from Iowa to New Hampshire,” added Fergus Cullen, the author of a book on the New Hampshire primary and a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. (Cullen is personally supporting Gov. John Kasich, but holds no formal role). “Cruz doesn’t need to do well in New Hampshire. He has earned a bye week.”
While Cruz has a held a similar number of events in New Hampshire as, say, Sen. Marco Rubio, he has visited the state fewer times. For a period of two months, from Nov. 12 to Jan. 12, Cruz didn’t hold any events in the state, according to a New England Cable News tracker.
“Cruz cannot [re-create his Iowa coalition there],” said Charlie Black, who has served as a political adviser to Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and John McCain. New Hampshire, he said, “could be a traffic jam among four or five candidates.”
As of now, the Real Clear Politics polling average has Cruz in second in the Granite State. But observers say Cruz’s in-state organization is noticeably weaker in New Hampshire than in Iowa.
“The Cruz ground game in Iowa is not evident in New Hampshire,” said Bob Walker, a lobbyist and former GOP congressman—he is also an adviser to the Kasich campaign.
Cruz’s team is already tamping down expectations of a win: “I would be thrilled with second place in New Hampshire,” Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler said on PBS. “And third would certainly be acceptable.”
However, Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary for George W. Bush, said he wouldn’t rule out a scenario in which non-Cruz candidates divide the vote so much that Cruz wins a tight plurality in the state.
“What Ted possibly could do is win the lion’s share of the very conservative voters. If Trump and Rubio and Bush and Christie and Kasich divide the remaining moderate and liberal [Republican] voters, Ted can squeak in a victory,” said Fleischer. “That’s the only way Ted could win a state like New Hampshire.”
Veterans of the state’s primary say the contest unfolding over the next week won’t really come down to conversations about policy issues, but rather personality—with the exception of heroin addiction, which is a serious problem in the state.
“A lot of it depends on personal engagement with the candidate [and] if you like that candidate,” Sen. John McCain, a two-time New Hampshire primary victor, told The Daily Beast. “It’s more about their impressions.”
Not to mention that the candidates remaining in the race are generally similar on the issues that matter most to New Hampshire Republicans.
“There’s not a lot of difference on the issues: Who is in favor of opioid addiction? Who is in favor of leaving ISIS alone?” Cullen said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a substantive policy disagreement that’s going to move a lot of voters that is different with what’s been talked about over the last few months.”
The next few days are going to be brutal for voters and candidates alike—the New Hampshire primary is to be held next Tuesday.
“If someone has a bomb to throw against their opponent, this is the week to throw it,” Cullen said.
Updated 8:50 a.m. Feb. 4 to include Bob Walker’s role as an adviser to the Kasich campaign.