Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is seen through Christmas lights as he speaks during a campaign event, Dec. 18, 2015, in Kennesaw, Ga.
Photo by David Goldman/AP

The sprint to Iowa and New Hampshire starts now

Updated

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.

The final sprint to Iowa and New Hampshire starts now

Happy New Year and welcome to Thunderdome. The presidential candidates are holding a whopping 28 campaign events today alone; Donald Trump is up with his first TV ad, while Rick Santorum is airing the first negative candidate spot on Ted Cruz; and Bill Clinton is on the trail in New Hampshire. So with today marking the start of the final sprint to Iowa and New Hampshire – which will be a crazy, chaotic, and consequential next five weeks – here’s a handy guide to explain WHY the individual 2016 candidates could end up winning the early states. Or why they could fall short. Think of it as a helpful exercise to make sure, come Feb. 2 (the day after Iowa) or Feb. 10 (the day after New Hampshire), we’re not missing a big story out there.

Donald Trump wins either Iowa or New Hampshire – or both

  • His ground game was MUCH better than many pundits thought it would be. Or equally as important, it turned out his supporters (who were willing to wait hours to see him in an arena) were also willing to commit a few hours in a church basement in Sioux City
  • He made the GOP into his own image. Or another way to look at it: He better channeled where today’s GOP is than any other candidate. Just see his new TV ad
  • The Republican establishment was unable to stop him, and he continued to find a way to dominate the news cycle every day (and thus suck the oxygen away from the other GOP candidates)
  • His decision to focus on attacking the Clintons personally gave him an aura of inevitability that eclipsed the rest of the field

Donald Trump fizzles in both Iowa and New Hampshire

  • His ground game wasn’t that strong after all; those supporters who waited hours to see him in an arena turned out to be more gawkers than anything else
  • Ultimately, someone who had previously supported the Clintons, universal health care, and abortion rights was never going to be a major player to win the GOP nomination
  • The GOP establishment was able to strike back

Ted Cruz wins Iowa, finishes in Top 2 in New Hampshire

  • He ran one of the best campaigns (in terms of organization and money)
  • He capitalized on – and consolidated – the evangelical vote, especially to overperform in New Hampshire
  • He benefitted from hugging Trump, as well as being perceived as a less hostile candidate to the GOP establishment than Trump was
  • He flew a bit under the Trump radar and avoided being put through the ringer the way other frontrunners usually are at this point in time.

Ted Cruz sinks in Iowa and New Hampshire

  • It’s never good to peak a month or two before the first contests (see New Gingrich, Howard Dean)
  • His ground game was overrated
  • The evangelical vote got split up between him, Huckabee, and Santorum, and candidates were able to go negative against Cruz. Just see this new TV ad from Santorum

Marco Rubio wins either Iowa, New Hampshire, or both

  • The GOP establishment rallied around Rubio
  • The GOP electorate cared much more about electability and a generational contrast with Hillary Clinton than anything else
  • Rubio was right all along – what matters is peaking (and campaigning hard) the month before Iowa, not before

Marco Rubio finishes third (or worse) in Iowa and New Hampshire

  • The GOP establishment never rallied around Rubio. (Question: why hasn’t he released his 4th quarter fundraising numbers? Are they that much lower than Cruz’s $19 million?)
  • Not campaigning aggressively turned out to be a SERIOUS mistake
  • Rubio was always better in theory than in practice. As the New York Times’ Frank Bruni wrote yesterday, Rubio just “doesn’t add up.”

Jeb Bush or Chris Christie overperform

  • The passage of time helped erase these once-formidable candidates’ serious flaws (last name, Bridgegate)
  • The GOP establishment rallied around a candidate not named Marco Rubio
  • Despite the crazy 2015, this is still your father’s (and grandfather’s) Republican Party – at least when it comes to voters who actually show up to the polls

Jeb Bush and Chris Christie fall short in both Iowa and New Hampshire

  • Their flaws (last name, Bridgegate) turned out to be insurmountable passage of time helped erase these once-formidable candidates’ serious flaws (last name, Bridgegate)
  • Today’s GOP just wasn’t going to go for someone who called illegal immigrant an “act of love” (Bush), or who embraced Barack Obama during Hurricane Sandy (Christie)

Hillary Clinton wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, essentially clicking the Dem nomination

  • She learned her lesson from 2008 and built an impressive organization in Iowa, and used that success as a catapult to victory in New Hampshire
  • She always was a formidable Democratic presidential candidate, who only fell short in ‘08 to a more formidable candidate (Obama)
  • The Democratic Party was ready to start the general election

Hillary Clinton loses either Iowa, New Hampshire, or both

  • Her organization in Iowa was overrated (again)
  • She was unable to inspire enthusiasm from Democrats, especially the younger ones whom Bernie Sanders has attracted
  • The Democratic Party – in Obama’s eighth year as president – is more splintered than we thought

Trump releases his first TV ad – and it’s a doozy

Beyond that 30,000-foot view of the 2016 race, the top political story of the day is Donald Trump’s first TV ad of the cycle. And it’s classic Trump: “Donald Trump’s ad begins with a shot of President Obama and Hillary Clinton. Then comes a U.S. battleship launching a cruise-missile strike,” the Washington Post writes. “From there it moves swiftly through an explosive montage: The suspects in the recent California terrorist attack. Shadowy figures racing across the U.S.-Mexico border. Islamic State militants.” More: The narrator, a deep-voiced man, speaks ominously: ‘That’s why he’s calling for a temporary shutdown of Muslims entering the United States, until we can figure out what’s going on. He’ll quickly cut the head off ISIS and take their oil. And he’ll stop illegal immigration by building a wall on our southern border that Mexico will pay for.’”

NBC/SurveyMonkey/Esquire poll: Whites and Republicans rank as angriest Americans

“Nearly half of Americans are angry, and no groups are angrier than whites and Republicans, according to a new NBC News/Survey Monkey/Esquire online poll about outrage in the country,” NBC’s Andrew Rafferty writes. “Overall, 49 percent of Americans said they find themselves feeling angrier now about current events than they were one year ago. Whites are the angriest, with 54 percent saying they have grown more outraged over the past year. That’s more than Latinos (43 percent) and African-Americans (33 percent). Seventy-three percent of whites said they get angry at least once per day, compared with 66 percent of Hispanics and 56 percent of blacks. The poll also found Republicans are angrier than Democrats. Sixty-one percent of Republicans say current events irk them more today than a year ago, compared to 42 percent of Democrats.”

By the numbers

Here are some helpful numbers to help make sense of the 2016 campaign as we head into the final sprint:

  • 28: The number of individual campaign events the presidential candidates are making just today (and that doesn’t include Bill Clinton’s two stops in New Hampshire) – 15 in Iowa, 12 in New Hampshire, and one in Massachusetts (where Donald Trump stumps tonight)
  • 37: Those are the millions of dollars (in primary money) that Hillary Clinton’s campaign said it raised in the 4th fundraising quarter. The Clinton camp was followed by Bernie Sanders’ $33 million, Ben Carson’s $23 million, and Ted Cruz’s $19 million. No other campaign has revealed its 4th quarter numbers, which probably means that they’re disappointing.
  • 22: That was Hillary Clinton’s lead over Barack Obama, 45%-23%, according to the national Dec. 2007 NBC/WSJ – a reminder that the early polling doesn’t always reflect actual results.
  • 17: That was Newt Gingrich’s national lead over Mitt Romney, 40%-23%, in the Dec. 2011 NBC/WSJ poll - another caution about the polls, even just weeks out before Iowa and New Hampshire.
  • 4: That’s the number of new TV ads that are out just today. Here’s Trump’s; here’s Santorum’s; here’s Bush’s; and here’s Kasich’s.

Obama picks another executive-action fight – on guns

The AP: “President Barack Obama is slated Monday to finalize a set of new executive actions tightening the nation’s gun laws, making his first order of business in the new year a clear signal the president in his final year doesn’t intend to go quietly. At a meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, FBI Director James Comey and other top law enforcement officials Obama is expected to sign off on a package of proposals aimed at curbing gun violence and cracking down on unregulated gun sales.”

Protesters, militiamen occupy federal facility in Oregon

And speaking of guns, don’t miss this story playing out in Oregon. NBC News: “A group of protesters and purported militiamen remained in a federal building at an Oregon wildlife refuge Sunday night, a day after they occupied it and vowed to stay indefinitely to highlight ranchers’ rights. The standoff came after so-called “militia members” converged on the small town of Burns to show support for a pair of ranchers jailed on an arson conviction, according to NBC station KTVZ of Bend. After a march and rally there, a small group then took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters about 60 miles away.”

On the trail

Donald Trump holds a rally in Lowell, MA at 7:30 pm ET… Hillary Clinton makes three stops in Iowa, while husband Bill Clinton makes two stops in New Hampshire… Ted Cruz has a whopping five events in Iowa… Marco Rubio is in both New Hampshire and Iowa… So is John Kasich… Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina stump in the Granite State… Ditto Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul… And Mike Huckabee makes five stops in Iowa.

Countdown to NBC/YouTube debate in SC: 13 days

Countdown to Iowa: 28 days

Countdown to New Hampshire: 36 days

This story originally appeared on NBCNews.com

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The sprint to Iowa and New Hampshire starts now

Updated