The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign is about to kick into overdrive only a month before the first votes are counted in Iowa. Contenders from both parties will ramp up their campaign activities early in January, with a heavy focus on the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Republican frontrunner Donald Trump will launch his New Year’s push with a campaign rally in Mississippi on Saturday, followed by appearances in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and South Carolina next week.
Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is also ramping up with an intensified campaign schedule Monday beginning with several stops in Iowa. Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, will also take a more active role in the campaign as of the same day by attending organizing events in New Hampshire. The ex-president has a special affection for New Hampshire: It was his comeback second-place finish there in the 1992 Democratic primary that put the former Arkansas governor on the road to the White House.
Iowa: Key test for conservatives
Recent polls show Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz locked in a tight battle in the February 1 caucus vote in Iowa, a state where conservative Republican contenders have done well in the past. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum won the Iowa caucus vote in 2012, while former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was the top Republican there in 2008. Neither man went on to claim the party nomination after winning Iowa. Both men have returned to the Republican field in 2016 but are well behind the leaders.
Cruz has been surging in Iowa by appealing to evangelical Christian voters and Tea Party supporters, groups that hold considerable sway among Republican caucus-goers in Iowa.
Surveys show Trump displaying an ability to draw support from a wide range of Republican voters across the country, but experts question whether the Trump supporters who show up at his rallies in Iowa and elsewhere will actually come out to vote. Trump supporters say the large, enthusiastic crowds at his events will translate into support on caucus night, February 1.
Trump ramps up on TV, Bush scales back
Trump has spent very little so far on his campaign, thanks in large part to all the free media attention he has enjoyed, especially from the broadcast and cable news networks. But Trump has announced he will spend at least $2 million in television ads in the early contest states in the weeks to come.
"I feel I should spend," Trump told supporters recently in Iowa. "And, honestly, I don’t want to take any chances."
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush continues to lag behind Trump in national and state polls and has also taken steps to refocus his campaign. Bush has decided to deploy nearly all his campaign staff from Miami to the key early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, according to Politico. His campaign is also redirecting $3 million worth of advertising toward voter mobilization and organizing efforts in the early states.
Bush was considered the Republican frontrunner early in 2015, but his campaign has so far failed to garner much momentum.
Trump and Clinton target each other
Trump lately has turned his attention more toward Democrat Hillary Clinton, who recently accused him of making sexist comments. The businessman tried to turn the tables by recalling the sex scandal that led to former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Trump told a crowd of supporters in Hilton Head, South Carolina, that the former president had a history of "tremendous abuse" of women.
Hillary Clinton has also put Trump in the crosshairs at some of her campaign events recently. During one stop in Keota, Iowa, she seemed to have Trump in mind when she was asked by a voter how to stop the bullying of teenagers.
"It is important to stand up to bullies wherever they are and why we shouldn’t let anybody bully his way into the presidency because that is not who we are as Americans," Clinton said to swelling applause.
New Hampshire will test GOP moderates
New Hampshire will host the first presidential primary on February 9, just nine days after the caucuses in Iowa. Unlike many states, New Hampshire allows independent or "undeclared" voters to take part in either party’s presidential primary. That can be a significant number in a state where about 40 percent of registered voters are not affiliated with either major party.
For the Republican presidential contenders, New Hampshire looms as a key test for the so-called establishment or moderate candidates like Bush, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Ohio Governor John Kasich.
All four are bunched closely in the New Hampshire polls behind Trump, who has held a big lead in the state for months. The New Hampshire primary’s two most recent Republican winners – John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 – went on to capture the Republican nomination.
Historically, the Granite State has been a better indicator of who will be the eventual nominee than Iowa, which is why Rubio, Bush, Christie and Kasich will be putting so much effort into New Hampshire over the next several weeks.
Clinton faces early challenge from Sanders
Clinton's main Democratic challenger, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, also hopes to take advantage of New Hampshire’s independent voters in the February 9 primary. Sanders has been leading in New Hampshire and is within striking distance in Iowa, according to several polls.
Clinton remains the heavy favorite for the Democratic nomination, but early losses to Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire could at the very least lead to a prolonged battle for the nomination, something Clinton supporters would rather not be forced to deal with.
Early tests likely to winnow GOP field
Former New York Governor George Pataki became the latest Republican to leave the presidential race, bringing the total number of GOP contenders down to 12 from a high of 17. Other early dropouts include former Texas Governor Rick Perry, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.
More dropouts are likely after the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, when lesser contenders will find fundraising and winning endorsements increasingly difficult.