Elections

View from the bottom is lousy for GOP underdogs

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. speaks during a campaign stop at the University of New Hampshire.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. speaks during a campaign stop at the University of New Hampshire. AP

It’s a lousy year to be an underdog in the Republican presidential race.

A cluster of lesser-known candidates is vying to pop out of the pack and emulate Barack Obama, who on this date in 2007 trailed Hillary Clinton by nearly 22 percentage points – 44.4 percent to 22.6 percent in the RealClearPolitics.com average – and still went on to win his party’s presidential nomination.

But that was very different. Mainly, there was no one between Obama and Clinton. By comparison, the also-rans in the GOP this year have a huge field ahead of them before they could even get to the top tier. The Republican field of 15 prominent candidates is the biggest in modern times, and real estate mogul/former television host Donald Trump has dominated media coverage.

That means not only is “support for others going to be quite splintered, but it’s hard for any of the lesser candidates to get any attention,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan analysis group.

The underdogs keep hope alive two ways: They take solace from polls showing seven of 10 Republican voters saying it’s too soon to make a final decision. And there’s a history of candidates who spent more time in New Hampshire diners than at Capitol Hill fundraisers and eventually emerged as contenders.

When Sen. Rand Paul’s sputtering campaign eyes how Trump and Ben Carson, both seeking elective office for the first time, routinely get half the backing of Republicans, they figure, hey, it’s only November.

“I personally don’t believe the party is going to nominate somebody who has zero experience in government,” said Steve Munisteri, a former Texas Republican Party chairman, now a senior campaign adviser to the Kentucky senator.

Such logic explains why Paul, along with Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, and Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, retain hope. Same goes for the five other candidates whose poll showings are so dismal they can’t even qualify for the main debate stage under rules set by media sponsors.

They and former business executive Carly Fiorina get comfort from a familiar pattern in voters: They send messages in the fall but pick presidents in the winter and spring. On Nov. 4, 2007, for example, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had a double-digit lead in the average of Republican presidential polls. Second was the late former Sen. Fred Thompson. By the time voting started, both were also-rans and Sen. John McCain of Arizona won the nomination.

Here’s the lineup of this year’s top underdogs:

Fiorina

The hope: She got a poll bounce after a strong Sept. 16 debate showing, but it didn’t last. Stay tuned, said campaign officials. “The horserace numbers are interesting for Washington reporters but not all that relevant at this point,” said Sarah Isgur Flores, deputy campaign manager.

Outlook: Fiorina’s in New Hampshire this week meeting voters and pitching herself as the tough-minded outsider best equipped to take on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. She’s been told she needs to show more warmth and still faces questions about why she was ousted as Hewlett-Packard’s CEO in 2005.

Paul

The hope: A solid core of libertarian voters is behind him. His father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, finished a solid third in the 2012 Iowa caucuses. Rand Paul’s supporters are regarded as among the most likely to not switch to another candidate.

Outlook: He needs to broaden his appeal, selling himself as an outsider who’s been in Washington long enough to understand how it works but not so long he’s spellbound by its insider ways. And his campaign needs to show some energy and momentum.

Christie

The hope: His blunt style has appeal. Christie got a bump in polls after the last debate, when he protested a question on fantasy football as frivolous at a time terrorist threats loom. In the latest Monmouth University Poll of New Hampshire voters, Christie’s favorable rating has improved “dramatically,” a poll analysis said.

Outlook: Still a tough sell in more conservative areas. Soft-spoken Ben Carson is more akin to the style voters in Iowa prefer, and conservatives remember Christie’s embrace of the hated Obama three years ago when Christie sought aid after Superstorm Sandy clobbered his state.

Kasich

The hope: A strong team in New Hampshire, and his down-to-earth style, make him this year’s version of plainspoken McCain. Kasich is also a proven consensus-builder who won re-election in Ohio last year with 64 percent.

Outlook: “No nominee has ever gone through this process and won with no government experience,” said former Sen. John Sununu, Kasich’s New Hampshire chairman. Kasich will keep talking about his work in Ohio and his 18 years in Congress.

Huckabee

The hope: He won the Iowa caucuses easily in 2008, remains popular with the influential Christian right, and remains a big draw on the stump.

Outlook: That Christian right vote has been moved to Carson and shows no sign of going elsewhere. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, also adept at personal campaigning, has strong financial backing and is waiting in case Carson stumbles.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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