Want to host a victory party in Des Moines? Aim for 30%

Washington (CNN)Recent polls of voters in the states most likely to kick off the 2016 presidential race do little to reveal who will ultimately carry those states, but for the GOP field of relative unknowns, they highlight just how far they all have to climb.

In none of the latest crop of surveys did the leader of the poll top 20% support among likely Republican primary voters or caucusgoers. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker topped the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Iowa poll with a scant 16%. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush sat atop two recent polls out of New Hampshire, with 17% in a poll from the University of New Hampshire and WMUR and 16% in another from Bloomberg and St. Anselm College.
Those who routinely follow political polling, particularly polling of the horserace variety, already know that polls this far out are unlikely to predict the winner come caucus night or election day. Beyond the number of days between here and an Iowa victory party, however, it's also important to note just how much ground these candidates need to gain to become the host of that party.
    In the post-McGovern-Fraser era, just four candidates have won either an Iowa caucus or a New Hampshire primary with less than 30% of the total vote. On the GOP side, there was Rick Santorum in Iowa in 2012, Bob Dole in Iowa in 1996 and Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire that very same year. Among the Democrats, only Jimmy Carter in New Hampshire in 1976 carried the state with less than 30% support.
    Santorum's 24.5% victory in the 2012 Iowa caucus, a virtual tie with eventual nominee Mitt Romney, was actually the single lowest winning percentage for any candidate in either of these two states' nominating contests since 1972.
    A candidate's winning number is partly a factor of the size of the field and partly driven by the competitiveness of the race. George H.W. Bush squeaked by with 32% in Iowa in 1980 in a field of six, but Ronald Reagan's post-Iowa push yielded him 50% of the vote in New Hampshire that year against the very same field.
    The winning total in competitive races in these states tends to run between 35 and 40 %, about double what the top candidates are pulling this year. Mike Huckabee, who is among the best known in the GOP field after a previous run for the presidency and stint as a talk show host, actually won the Iowa caucus in 2008, but his total share of the vote that year was more than 6 times as high as his showing the latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll.
    Voters in these early states are used to the spotlight and accustomed to taking their time to make up their minds. In that UNH/WMUR poll, 85% of likely Republican primary voters said they were still trying to decide. Heading through the 2012 primary season, UNH's polling found this "undecided" bloc made up a majority of likely voters until December 2011, just a month before the primary.