In the typical presidential campaign cycle, the calendar year before the primaries is spent doing two things — raising money and campaigning in the early states (almost entirely in Iowa and New Hampshire). The reasons for this focus are simple. There is not enough time after Iowa and New Hampshire for a campaign to raise the type of funds needed to “go national.” Additionally, several major states come early in March; so the campaign has to start working in these states even before the first votes are counted. Both parties have a history of candidates with surprisingly good results in Iowa and New Hampshire who did not have the resources on hand to turn those early results into a successful national campaign. On the other hand, as several candidates in this year’s campaign have already shown, failure in Iowa and New Hampshire mean the end of the campaign. For the eight candidates still running, the question after New Hampshire is simply what’s next.
On the Democratic side, with only two candidates, this question is simple. As 2008 showed, in a two-candidate race (especially with proportional representation), candidates need to run everywhere. The last South Carolina polls were in January, before either the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary, and the newest Nevada polls are even older. The demographics in South Carolina and Nevada are significantly different than the demographics in Iowa and New Hampshire. In the long run, whether this race will be close will depend upon if Sanders can convince minority voters and poor whites in rural areas to support him. While — in European terms — Sanders is a “pink” at most, his characterization of himself as a “Democratic Socialist” might become an insurmountable barrier to gaining these votes in areas in which he is less known as socialist is a “dirty word” to a lot of voters who do not understand the significant distinctions between various progressive political philosophies. While there are some potentially favorable states on March 1 (Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and maybe Colorado), Sanders needs to keep things close in Nevada, South Carolina, and the remaining March 1 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia).
The Republican side gives candidates more choices on how to play. The New Hampshire results have scrambled the field. If Marco Rubio had been able to follow-up on Iowa with a strong finish in New Hampshire, he would have become the favorite to win the nomination. His weak showing has given both Jeb Bush and John Kasich a degree of hope to become the consensus candidate. At this point, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz need to run everywhere. In the pre-March 15 states, while each state has slightly different rules, a general rule of thumb is that 20% state-wide and top two in each congressional district equals delegates. While Kasich, Bush, and Rubio continue to split the moderately conservative vote, the path is clear for Trump and Cruz to pad their delegate totals — making it harder for the candidate who survives between the other three to get the nomination.
For different reasons, Bush and Rubio probably need to make a full effort everywhere. Bush has the money to keep going, but he needs something that he can call a win. Rubio needs to put New Hampshire behind him and show that he is the first choice of the “Establishment” Republicans. If neither can put the other away, however, there continued battle in every state will aid Trump and Cruz in their effort to gain delegates — particularly when Florida votes in a winner-take-all primary on March 15.
Kasich is in a slightly different position. He currently lacks the funding to run everywhere, but he does have a path forward. He just needs enough of an effort in South Carolina and Nevada to avoid being embarrassed — 8-10% should be enough. He can then focus on a handful of states on March 1 — Massachusetts, Vermont, maybe certain parts of Minnesota — and hope to get a win in one of them. If he can claim to be one of the winners on an indecisive Super Tuesday, He could then aim at Maine on March 5 and Michigan on March 8, before turning to Illinois, Ohio and some congressional districts in Missouri on March 15. A win in Ohio and a strong enough showing in these other states would leave him in the 200-300 delegate range. If the continuing split between Rubio and Bush in the other states leave them short on delegates, Kasich would then become the Republicans best shot at stopping Cruz and Trump. Such a strategy would be risky. No candidate has successfully pulled off such a pick and choose approach (as the poor results in the states that you skip tend to drag down your results in the states that you target), and there is no indication that Kasich will actually pursue such a strategy. Given his resources, however, it would probably be his best chance at gaining some separation from Bush and Rubio.
The one candidate that does not appear to have a path forward is Ben Carson. For most candidates, the results in Iowa and New Hampshire would have been the end of the road. For now, it looks like Carson will continue in the field — at least through Nevada, but it will be hard for him to reach double digits in any state.