When Donald Trump soared to the top of national polls earlier this month, Republicans had one hope — at least he wasn't yet leading in any early states!
He is now. The past two polls of the New Hampshire GOP primary have both shown Trump in first place, and not by small margins. NBC/Marist shows him leading Jeb Bush by 7 points, and Monmouth University shows him up by 12.
These early polls certainly don't suggest Trump is likely to win the nomination — he isn't. But still, this news is a big blow to Jeb Bush, whose presidential operation has raised by far the most money of any contender. Since Bush doesn't appear to be competing in the conservative-dominated Iowa caucuses, a win in New Hampshire was important to him. It seemed in June that Bush had finally managed to take a small but consistent lead there. But Trump's new 12-point lead in the Monmouth poll is a bigger lead than Bush, or any other candidate, has ever had in any New Hampshire poll this year.
Trump's popularity here may be a surprise to those who remember how New Hampshire boosted establishment favorites Mitt Romney (in 2012) and John McCain (in 2008) over more conservative Iowa caucus winners.
But New Hampshire has long had a quirky side and an occasional affection for tough-talking, outsider candidates. Pat Buchanan, a far-right conservative pundit with an anti-immigration message, narrowly beat Bob Dole in the state's 1996 presidential primary. And McCain himself was a renegade, "maverick" challenger to George W. Bush when he first won the Granite State in 2000. (Neither won the nomination.)
Throughout all the chaos of the 2011 primary season — when Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich shot to the front of national polls — Mitt Romney could take comfort that New Hampshire was his bulwark. Indeed, he led every single poll there that cycle, according to RealClearPolitics, most by huge margins. Bush has no similar comfort — he's polling much more weakly in the state, having sometimes trailed Walker and now Trump.
It's unclear how long Trump will stay at the top of the state's polls, but another potential danger for Bush is the sudden rise of John Kasich, who has previously been in the bottom tier of candidates. The Ohio governor is also emphasizing a compassionate message, and hoping to gain the favor of the GOP's business wing, and pinning his hopes on New Hampshire — meaning he could sap support away from Bush. And he's now moved up to fourth place in one poll, and is tied for third with Scott Walker in the other.
Kasich's operation has spent big on unusually early advertising in New Hampshire, making a buy of about $1.5 million to run this positive ad introducing himself to the state. His competitors aren't yet on the airwaves, so we don't yet know whether Kasich's mini-surge will last when they are. But for now, it's enough to make clear that the governor is worth keeping an eye on.
In Iowa, meanwhile, Trump has made it to second place, but not yet first. Scott Walker still has the edge in the two polls that have come out there this month. Recently I argued that Donald Trump's is rise for great news for Jeb Bush, and I still think that's true overall. But if Trump proves much more popular in New Hampshire than he is in Iowa — perhaps because he has less appeal to evangelicals — his rise could in fact help clear the way for Walker. If Trump does actually manage to win one of the first two states, the party is quite likely to unite behind whichever candidate wins the other one in an all-out "Stop Trump" effort. And that could well be Scott Walker, not Jeb Bush.