Think of the Republican presidential nomination fight as two separate contests within one: a conservative primary and an establishment primary. It's a good way to evaluate the state of the race.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie finally announced for president on Tuesday, but he is currently getting shellacked in the establishment primary by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. It's not even close. Of the fifteen candidates tracked in the RealClearPolitics polling average, Bush is in first with 15 percent of the vote and Christie is running ninth with just 3.8 percent.
The conservative primary is much less certain. After exceeding expectations at the Iowa Freedom Summit, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker emerged as the conservative front-runner. While he remains second in the RealClearPolitics average, he has recently tumbled back down to earth.
In the last two major national polls, Walker has been bunched in with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and real estate tycoon Donald Trump. He is in better shape in Iowa, but the New Hampshire polls tell a similar story, except Carson and Huckabee aren't in the mix near the top. And one can't count out Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, even though he's currently lagging behind.
The big story has been Trump, who has exploded from just 1 percent in a national NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken in June to 11 and 12 percent in more recent national polls conducted for Fox News and CNN. The NBC/WSJ survey was no outlier. It was preceded by a Monmouth poll that found Trump at 2 percent.
So the post-announcement bump for the reality TV star seems to be real, and it is showing up in the early states. Trump is in second place in the most recent New Hampshire poll and tied for second in Iowa.
It's odd that a man who has given money to Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and in the not-to-distant past endorsed liberal policies like single-payer health care would even be competing with Walker, Rubio, Paul and Cruz for the conservative vote, much less outdoing them in some cases. But that's where we are.
That's what the scientific polls say, at any rate. Anecdotally, there's excitement for the newer candidates while a sense that time has passed by the older names and people who have run before. The polls are taking the pulse of the voters at large, but at this early stage of the campaign it's important to consider how party activists feel. They are the people who will be knocking on doors and manning phone banks.
There were two recent gatherings of conservative activists where the attendees were a good reflection of the early states' demographics: the Southern Republican Leadership Conference and the Western Conservative Summit (both more evangelical than New Hampshire, but not that dissimilar from Iowa or South Carolina).
In both places, Carson supporters were thick on the ground. I hadn't even landed in Oklahoma City, where the Southern Republican confab was held, before I encountered my first person telling me "Dr. Carson" would make a good president. A mostly older, entirely white group of activists clad in Carson t-shirts and snapping selfies with a life-sized cutout of the candidate worked the room in support of the only African American running seriously running for president in either party.
So it was no surprise when Carson won both straw polls. His supporters were clearly organized and motivated. Walker, on the other hand, didn't have people walking around decked out in campaign paraphernalia. If he had any ground game at all at either conservative cattle call, his team kept it under wraps. Either that or grassroots enthusiasm alone produced second and third-place showings in the straw polls that weren't far from first place.
At both events, Cruz outperformed all the other Washington no-shows and broke into the double digits. While he didn't attend either conference in personal (he spoke to the Southern Republicans by video), his father Rafael came to both and rallied the troops. Cruz's campaign boasted in Oklahoma City that they used high-tech methods to identify and turn out supporters at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
The biggest difference between the Western Conservative Summit and the Southern Republican Leadership Conference is that businesswoman Carly Fiorina spoke at the latter after the straw poll ballots were cast and did poorly. She got a better speaking slot out West and finished a strong second. Her speeches seemed well-received at both.
Straw poll losers tend to dismiss their results, which they rightly describe as unscientific. If straw polls really predicted electoral outcomes, we would have had President Ron Paul by now. (Ironically, Rand Paul hasn't been active on the straw poll circuit, with the significant exception of the Conservative Political Action Conference. While these other gatherings haven't been dominated by his base, his father won at the Southern Republican Conference in 2011.)
Yet when campaigns complain that their rivals send busloads of people to such events, an objection most recently lodged by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's spokesman, they are missing the point. That's precisely what straw polls test: the basic organizational competence required to get your people to show up or the grassroots enthusiasm that makes them turn out on their own.
At two big events with a large social conservative presence, at least, that mojo has passed from Huckabee and Santorum to Carson and Walker.
Can the eventual winner of the conservative primary ultimately win the general election? That will go a long way toward deciding whether they can win the Republican nomination in between.