Re-evaluating the “Holiday Freeze” Primary Period

Four years and two days ago, I wrote a piece called “The Holiday Freeze.” Written before Game of Thrones disappointed millions of people sharing HBO Go passwords, I headlined the column with a picture of Ted Cruz, my 2016 Republican Primary sleeper pick, sitting on the Iron Throne:


The piece was my last before Thanksgiving 2015 — and therefore the last before the holiday season would purportedly slow the pace of the Republican Primary, which to that point had been the wildest primary ever. That description stemmed mostly from the next President of the United States behaving relentlessly wild, a practice he completely stopped once he was inaugurated. I started by quoting the Washington Post‘s prediction of the holidays’ impact on the political race:

“Christmas is four weeks after [Thanksgiving]. A week later, it’s New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day. Suddenly, it’s Jan. 4, and the (Iowa) caucuses are only 28 days away.” During this period, “People, including Iowans and New Hampshire types, start paying much more attention to how to stuff their turkey and what’s under the Christmas tree than they do to politics.” As a result, “TV ads, stump speeches and even debates tend to get lost — or plain ignored — in the holiday maelstrom.”

Though I logged my skepticism of this framing (“I find it hard to believe that a primary with Donald Trump as its leader will truly fall off the front page, and we mustn’t forget that there’s a December 15 debate in Las Vegas that will attract attention”), I granted its premise anyway and considered how a “holiday freeze” could impact the race.

Now, as we enter into the subsequent holiday-season-before-a-primary, we should look back and answer the questions:

  1. Was there such a freeze?
  2. How did the 2015/6 Republican Primary change between the last week of November and the first week of January?

Turns out the answer to the first question is easy: there was not a holiday freeze.

Take that December debate I mentioned. It attracted 18 million viewers — the third highest rating ever for a primary debate. In it:

  • Ben Carson started the debate by calling Wolf Blitzer “Woof.”
  • Jeb! Bush implied Trump got his worldview from Saturday morning cartoons.
  • Ted Cruz accused all horse-thieves of being Democrats, which prompts the question of what a horse-thief ever did to Ted Cruz.
  • Rand Paul previewed Trump’s presidency by asking “Whoever you are that think you’re going to support Donald Trump — think, do you believe in the Constitution?” (This was about a year before Rand Paul started supporting Donald Trump.)
  • Chris Christie, when asked “How would you make sure fear doesn’t paralyze America?,” calmed our fears by replying, “Everywhere in America is a target for terrorists.”
  • And Donald Trump responded to a Jeb Bush attack on his character by saying “Well, let’s see. I’m at 42, and you’re at 3. So, so far, I’m doing better.” (Since Trump’s debate performances were clearly being evaluated on a different scale by voters, I ultimately gave him a debate grade of “napkin.”)

So yeah, a debate can still be fun, even if it’s in December. (I’m so glad I wrote about that debate, by the way. I had forgotten literally all of that.) Just like the Republicans had a mid-December debate, so will the Democrats — December 19 in Los Angeles.

Another piece of evidence that the primary continued without a slowdown was polling activity. The pollsters were not frozen. Nationally, Real Clear Politics charted 12 polls in the four weeks from Monday, November 23 to Monday, December 21. By comparison, the four weeks before November 23 has just ten national polls. Meanwhile, there were nine Iowa polls in that four-week holiday stretch, but just eight in the two fortnights before it.

Just as important, those polls showed significant movement. Here was the rolling RCP average in Iowa from November 23 until Christmas.

Be honest… did you remember Bobby Jindal was a person?

I’d say this holiday period was pretty important, wouldn’t you? Carson fell from second to fourth in Iowa, while Cruz rose from third to first. Actually — get this — the top four by Christmas would become the exact order in the 2016 Iowa Caucuses: Cruz, Trump, Rubio, Carson.

Meanwhile, the national polls from the same period mirrored these numbers:


Here, Carson fell from second to fourth, while Cruz rose from fourth to second. Trump-Cruz-Rubio, in that order, is pretty much how the relevant part of the primary would play out in 2016.

In other words, in the next month, the weather might grow cold, but the primary will not. The holiday season matters. So pay attention.

Finally, to show my gratitude for your readership, I’ll spare you further analyses and keep this post to under 800 words. Thanks for reading, and see you in December.

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