We’re only three weeks from the Iowa caucuses and four from the New Hampshire primary, but even at this late date there are many plausible scenarios on the Republican side.
Here’s what to watch during the next month:
Now through Jan. 31
The polls in Iowa have been stable for the last few weeks.
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Texas Sen. Ted Cruz holds a slim lead over billionaire Donald Trump. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is well back in third place.
The rest of the field is under 10 percent and showing no signs of moving up.
Yet plenty of chances to shake things up remain.
Thursday’s GOP debate in South Carolina and one on Jan. 28 give the candidates one opportunity to break out.
Cruz’s surge makes him a natural target, whether in the debates or in ads. Will candidates pile on?
Will Rubio’s heavy spending on TV advertising and his continuing trickle of endorsements give him a boost?
Iowa caucuses, Feb. 1
The big “if” is whether Trump’s supporters will show up. There’s no way to predict his turnout, since many of his voters don’t fit the profile of regular caucus attendees.
Cruz appears to have the strongest organization.
Will that give him more of a leg up in the final polls, not only helping him to win but also to beat expectations?
Will Rubio’s strategy — dominating pre-caucus advertising at the expense of on-the-ground organizing — leave him short of his final polling?
Feb. 8 New Hampshire primary
The polls show Trump with a large lead in New Hampshire, and four mainstream conservatives — Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — all bunched closely for second, along with Cruz.
Small changes can set off late surges and collapses, which are common in New Hampshire.
In part, that’s because media attention for a candidate, perhaps after a good showing in Iowa, builds momentum when people suddenly learn more about him or her.
In addition, voters who want to block Trump or Cruz will shift rapidly to anyone who appears likely to be able to do that.
After the vote in Iowa, Trump will get attention, no matter what.
Rubio, Christie, Kasich and Bush should pray for a blowout by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, because if Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders beats her or comes close, that will steal reporters’ attention from whichever one of the four mainstream conservatives does the best.
After Feb. 8
Some losers in New Hampshire and Iowa will drop out, reconfiguring the race in South Carolina and beyond.
Granted, most of those likely to exit — Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul and perhaps Ben Carson — have little support at this point anyway.
The real shakeout will be in the mainstream conservative group: Rubio, Christie, Bush and Kasich.
One of them will surely be gone after New Hampshire, and probably two and possibly three.
Here’s where splitting the vote among multiple candidates playing to the same group of voters can make a difference.
Of course, there’s still time for a shuffling of the deck on all of the above.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.