By Maggie Haberman – – – – –
In politics, there are the “known unknowns,” looming questions that seem to have no answers. There are several such questions in the sprawling and chaotic race leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Some matter more than others, but all will have an effect on how long the contest lasts.
Here is what to watch for:
Does Donald J. Trump have a “ground game”?
Toward the end of the campaign in 2012, the Mitt Romney campaign said its ground game could rival President Obama’s vaunted turnout machine, claims that exasperated Mr. Obama’s aides. “We’ll know who’s bluffing and who isn’t in two weeks,” David Axelrod, the top adviser to Mr. Obama’s campaign, said at the time.
That’s the situation in which most Republican campaigns find themselves regarding the Trump operation a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses and the primary in New Hampshire. Mr. Trump’s campaign has boasted that it is doing things reporters aren’t aware of, and the size of his crowds is indisputable. Campaign workers have been harvesting email addresses from attendees at his rallies, and lawn signs for him abound throughout the early-voting states.
But lawn signs do not a ground game make. Mr. Trump’s promised advertising onslaught has yet to materialize, although The Washington Post reported on Sunday evening that he is about to start spending on ads in Iowa and New Hampshire. His team has been diligent about ballot access in primary states, filing thousands of extra signatures and making sure that delegate slates are full. But the campaign acquired the Republican National Committee’s voter file only a few weeks ago. That list is truly valuable only when the campaigns append their own information to it, including but not limited to how persuadable voters are — a process that’s necessary for repeated voter contacts but very difficult to conduct efficiently late in the campaign.
Will there be a national security incident before the Iowa caucuses?
It’s a morbid question, but also an inevitable one in the political climate following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November and in San Bernardino, Calif., shortly thereafter.
Mr. Trump had seemed to be sagging in polls in the days before the Paris attacks. His candidacy drew a fresh bounce afterward, as voters looked not toward a serious-minded policy hound but toward someone who seemed able to project strength. Other candidates, such as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, seemed to use the moment to project strength as well. And still others, like Ben Carson, have struggled to show they are adept at foreign affairs.
Voters already have terrorism as a top concern, according to several polls. And a fresh act of terror just before the voting begins could have a direct impact on the election.
Can Senator Ted Cruz of Texas stay aloft for four weeks?
In an election, a month is a lifetime. Some pundits have theorized that Mr. Cruz, who is riding momentum in Iowa, might be peaking too soon. He has vulnerabilities on national security issues, and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has taken pokes at him.
But Mr. Cruz could also have room to grow, particularly after a campaign shake-up by Mr. Carson last week signaled a deep level of discord internally and raised questions about whether he can regain his previous standing. What’s more, Mr. Cruz has spent months developing a robust campaign organization, and his profile fits well with evangelical voters and those angry with Washington.
The question remains as to whether Mr. Rubio can catch a late wave, especially in Iowa. It is also unclear whether any of the lower-polling candidates whose voters might go to Mr. Cruz, such as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky or Rick Santorum, will stay in till the end, or, if they don’t, whether they will try to stop Mr. Cruz by supporting another candidate.
Who will emerge as the establishment favorite in New Hampshire, and when?
It’s an open question whether any of the candidates competing for establishment voter support in New Hampshire will emerge as the person to compete against Mr. Cruz or Mr. Trump.
Right now, Mr. Rubio is fending off Mr. Christie, Jeb Bush and Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio, all of whom hope to be that candidate. Mr. Rubio has openly positioned himself as the candidate who is fine with coming in second or third in the state, with his eye more focused on South Carolina. The other three have made clear they need to do well in New Hampshire to continue.
If Mr. Cruz takes off strong in Iowa or if Mr. Trump wins the state, the ripple effect in New Hampshire is likely to be strong. But if Mr. Cruz wins Iowa, that does not necessarily translate into a collapse of Mr. Trump’s support — on the contrary, New Hampshire has a habit of doing the opposite of what Iowa did. The eight days between the Iowa caucuses, on Feb. 1, and when the polls close in New Hampshire, on Feb. 9, will be long ones.
Can Mr. Rubio and Mr. Christie survive an onslaught of negative ads?
Mr. Christie’s comeback story from a brutal year after the “Bridgegate” scandal has been the focus of recent news coverage. So has Mr. Rubio’s story as the candidate who has been described for weeks as on the brink of a surge.
The two men are ripe targets for negative ads, and both are almost certain to face them in the coming weeks. Mr. Rubio has been criticized by Mr. Bush for his attendance record in the Senate, and by Mr. Cruz, who has tethered him to Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, with their work on an immigration reform bill in 2013.
Mr. Christie, meanwhile, is certain to face attacks — on the stump and potentially in “super PAC” ads — over his fiscal stewardship of New Jersey, which, among other difficulties, has had a record nine credit downgrades during his tenure. Mr. Trump has already taken a hard jab at Mr. Christie over that record, as well as his embrace of Mr. Obama just after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Will Mr. Trump ever take a hard swing at Mr. Cruz?
Mr. Trump has relished attacking his competitors, frequently talking on the stump over the last six months about taking out his rivals. Yet Mr. Cruz has repeatedly gotten a pass.
To be sure, Mr. Cruz has publicly embraced Mr. Trump. And even after he raised questions at a closed-door fund-raiser about Mr. Trump’s judgment to be president, Mr. Cruz described Mr. Trump as “terrific” on Twitter during the brief moment when Mr. Trump criticized him.
But even as Mr. Cruz has threatened to eclipse him in Iowa, Mr. Trump has kept his sights most heavily trained on Mr. Bush. Mr. Bush is polling at about 3 percent nationally and is hard to see as a direct threat to Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump’s seeming act of kindness toward Mr. Cruz has prompted any number of theories about what’s at play.
Will Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont find a win elsewhere if he loses Iowa?
Mr. Sanders is adept at fund-raising from his broad base of followers, and he has proved to be a much stronger challenger to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary than some of her allies once expected. But polls show Mrs. Clinton leading in Iowa. And while Mr. Sanders is leading in New Hampshire, the risk for him is that a win there would be characterized as a neighbor-state phenomenon.
The terrain beyond Iowa and New Hampshire is harder for Mr. Sanders, as it involves states with large black and Hispanic populations, voters who polls show largely favor Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Sanders has the ability to keep raising money and let the race go on for a while if he loses Iowa. And a win in New Hampshire would be significant. But the map becomes less hospitable for him after that.
Will Bill Clinton avoid the ghosts of 2008?
The former president lost his cool on the stump for his wife in the 2008 primaries against Mr. Obama, who, he made clear at the time, he thought was getting a pass from the media while his wife was put under a microscope.
But friends of Mr. Clinton describe that period as an aberration. Among other things, they note, he was only a few years out from a major heart incident. He has often been most provoked when he believes Mrs. Clinton is being attacked, but since 2008, he has been less animated publicly about it.
Mr. Clinton will hit the stump for his wife on Monday for the first time this cycle with a pair of New Hampshire events. Mr. Trump has spent days talking about the sex scandals that plagued Mr. Clinton before and during his White House terms, almost seeming to dare Mr. Clinton to respond. Mrs. Clinton so far has not, even when a heckler shouted at her about her husband at an event in New Hampshire on Sunday.
Mr. Clinton remains one of the Democratic Party’s most popular figures. But he was last in the swing of a presidential campaign during Mr. Obama’s re-election, almost four years ago.