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Neither Bush nor Rubio is placing above 4th in Iowa or New Hampshire

Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, in 2012.
Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, in 2012.
Vallery Jean/FilmMagic

At various points in 2011, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich all surged to the front of national GOP primary polls. But all along, establishment favorite Mitt Romney had one bit of comfort. He always remained ahead in the New Hampshire primary — by double digits, in fact. With the Granite State in his back pocket, Romney didn't have to worry about coming up empty in all the early contests.

But Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — this year's GOP candidates who seem most likely to get establishment support — have no such relief. Here's where they currently stand in the first two states to vote, according to the relevant RealClearPolitics averages:

  • Iowa: Rubio fifth (6.3 percent), Bush sixth (5 percent).
  • New Hampshire: Bush fifth (7.7 percent), Rubio seventh (5 percent)

My headline is generous to Rubio, who's been in fourth place in the most recent two Iowa polls, with a mighty 6 percent and 8 percent support.

Bush hopes to win New Hampshire, but no one knows what Rubio's thinking

Every Republican nominee in the modern system has managed to win either Iowa or New Hampshire. And it's long been believed that since Jeb Bush had little chance of winning the evangelical-dominated Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire was effectively a must-win state for him.

Bush still has time to make a comeback — millions of dollars in ad spending from his Super PAC might help — but the fact that he hasn't topped 9 percent in any poll there since August is surely setting off alarm bells in his camp.

Marco Rubio, meanwhile, has been raising eyebrows with his "relatively light schedule" in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, as Bloomberg's Michael Bender recently reported. New Hampshire operatives in particular are in "disbelief" that Rubio has "largely ignored" their state, Bender writes.

This seems to be deliberate on Rubio's part — an effort to lower expectations for his own performance in the Granite State, so the media doesn't consider it a must-win for him. If Bush is discredited by a loss there, Rubio seems to hope, the party will rally to him instead. Yet a decision to effectively skip both Iowa and New Hampshire is a very risky one — as Rudy Giuliani found out with his infamously failed "Florida strategy" in 2008.

Early polls are often wrong

Like national presidential primary polls, early polls of the first states to vote have frequently proven volatile and inaccurate. For instance, the eventual winners of the 2008 and 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses — Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum — were both in fifth place or lower in October of the previous year. The stability of the New Hampshire polls for Romney in 2011 and 2012 is actually rather unusual in recent years.

And the good news for Bush and Rubio, such as it is, is that most of the candidates ahead of them are the political neophytes who most observers believe will flame out eventually — Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina.

However, Ted Cruz — a candidate despised by the party establishment but who has a more traditional political background — is also ahead of Rubio in both states, and John Kasich is leading both Bush and Rubio in New Hampshire.

It certainly remains possible that there could be a late rally to either Bush or Rubio from voters in one or both early states. In 2004, for instance, John Kerry surged out of nowhere late to win the Iowa caucuses. He then won 45 other states and, of course, the nomination. As of now, though, supporters of these candidates will find little encouraging news in the latest numbers.