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Republicans 2016: A Contracting List of True Contenders

A Commentary By Kyle Kondik

The atrocities in Paris over the weekend show that events can and will inject new issues into the presidential contest or intensify ones that already exist. But it’s important to remember that what dominates news today might not be what dominates it a month from now, and we still have two and a half months until the primary season begins and nearly a year before the general election.

The threat of terrorism may be a vital issue in the primary and general election season next year, and that could be exactly what the GOP wants as it positions itself to run against Hillary Clinton, President Obama’s former secretary of state. Republicans naturally gravitate to issues of war and peace and foreign policy because, for decades, the public has generally perceived them to be stronger on these issues. Democrats naturally prefer to focus on domestic issues, where the public often sees them as stronger. The Republicans want the next election to be about foreign policy, and it is the kind of issue that can nearly unify the fractious party, Rand Paul notwithstanding. Whether it actually will be is anyone’s guess.

In the short term, the Paris attacks are prompting the Republican candidates to take a hard line against admitting refugees from Syria, a position that dovetails with an ever-increasing hawkishness amongst the Republican leaders on the issue of immigration. This is the effect businessman Donald Trump, the most anti-immigration candidate of them all, is having on the race, although his continued national lead is only exaggerating this positioning on the GOP side. It would still be happening to some degree without him.

As we reassess the field, we continue to feel the same way about Trump and the other polling leader, former neurosurgeon Ben Carson. One can simultaneously acknowledge their shaping of the race to this point while also arguing that they don’t really fit the profile of a plausible nominee. Some of the party’s leaders fear that GOP primary voters might be ready to take the plunge with an unproven candidate, but if they do they could suffer consequences that go beyond just losing the White House for a third straight time. Trump and Carson remain at the top of our rankings as the Yin and Yang Frontrunners — a nod to their very different styles and bases of support.

Still, the campaigns are eventually going to be sharpening their attacks, and Trump and Carson have, to us, produced mountains of video and ill-informed statements that even a modestly talented advertising consultant could cut into devastating attack ads. The campaign has been going on for almost a year, if one considers former Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R-FL) informal entry into the race in mid-December 2014 a starting point, and yet it still has not yet fully blossomed on television.

The real changes in our rankings come in our second tier, covering the candidates who are polling behind Trump and Carson but who are the most plausible nominees. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), promoted to the top spot in this tier over Bush a few weeks ago, remains there. Is the GOP leadership (a.k.a. “the establishment”) starting to coalesce around him? He recently won the backing of three of his fellow senators, Cory Gardner (R-CO), Jim Risch (R-ID), and Steve Daines (R-MT).

Bush was supposed to dominate among the establishment, but Rubio might be taking his place among that group, and we’ve pushed the brother and son of presidents down even further in our rankings. He falls a notch below Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who is about as anti-establishment as they come (at least among members of the U.S. Senate). We’ve listed Cruz among the top contenders for months, but this is the highest he’s been in our rankings.

Cruz has been playing the long game in the GOP race for some time, although he may look stronger in the earlier parts of the actual nominating season than the latter ones: As Geoffrey Skelley explained last week, white evangelical Christians — the voters to whom Cruz is probably most appealing — dominate the early part of the primary calendar. Also, the field might remain quite large through March 1’s evangelical-dominated SEC primary, which might blunt Cruz’s ability to secure large numbers of delegates. If anyone would benefit from a Carson collapse before Iowa, it’s Cruz, who could potentially inherit Carson’s evangelical support: Many have suggested Trump is blocking Cruz from increasing his support, but it might be more that Carson is. Trump’s supporters are less evangelical and conservative, and thus are probably less likely to flock to Cruz than Carson’s more evangelical backers. Earlier this week, Cruz won the endorsement of Rep. Steve King (R, IA-4), whose district is the most conservative in the state. The exit of Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) does eliminate one other candidate who was focusing intensively on Iowa, which is potentially helpful to the other Iowa-centric candidates like Carson and Cruz.

Bush, meanwhile, continues to look weak to us. His last debate performance was a little bit better than what he had offered previously but those cattle calls are still uncomfortable forums for him. He remains in this tier out of respect for his Super PAC resources and lineage. Some believe that the focus shift to terrorism could help Bush recover. Maybe. Even though Jeb himself has no foreign policy experience, this is one place where dynasty benefits him. The third Bush is assumed to have international expertise via the other presidents Bush and their advisers. On the other hand, the accompanying Bush baggage includes the Iraq War.

Our final category, the Daydream Believers, has expanded this week, filled with candidates we do not see as plausible contenders for the nomination. Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) interrupted his way to the second-most speaking time at last week’s debate, but his performance wasn’t well-received by voters, and he hasn’t caught on nationally and perhaps never will. His New Hampshire-or-bust strategy might actually end up in a bust whether he wins or not. Even if he maneuvers his way to a Granite State victory, where does he go from there? Does New Hampshire provide him enough fuel to stay in the race until Ohio votes on March 15? Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), another tough-talking, low-polling, New Hampshire-style candidate, is in the same boat as Kasich, and they might cancel each other out. If one exits the race, perhaps the other would be a more credible contender.

Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, once generated momentum from debates and little else, but she got little out of the most recent one and is more gadfly than contender. So too is Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who could nonetheless win small percentages of support in most states and perhaps out-do his father by actually winning a caucus or primary state — Rand’s home state of Kentucky has its caucuses on March 5. However, the most dovish candidate in the field is a poor fit for the post-Paris mood of the party.

One point about this group. If the networks are going to foolishly continue using national polls to determine inclusion in debates, they have to grapple with the fact that the Republican race now has clear polling tiers. These tiers argue for either a five-person main stage of real contenders, or a 10-person stage — but not an eight-person one.

The first polling tier includes Trump, who is around 25%-30%, and Carson, who is around 20%, depending on which polling average one looks at. The second tier is Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who are both in the low double digits. All by his lonesome in the third tier is Bush, at about 5%-6%. Then there are five others clustered around 2-4 points: Rand Paul, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR). To us, debates should either include all of the latter quintet or none of them, because their polls are effectively the same (and given his recent trajectory, Bush might be joining this group soon). In the last debate, Paul, Kasich, and Fiorina were included, while Huckabee and Christie were not.

The other candidates are all at 1% or less, and they bring up the rear in our rankings.

Given the uncertainty of the field and the uneasiness of the party establishment, there are also rumors, once again, of 2012 nominee Mitt Romney entering the race. He denied it anew on Monday. The filing deadlines for some states have already passed, so if Romney were to get nominated it would likely have to be through a late entry and deadlocked convention. Later on, some of the dreamers may also beg and plead for House Speaker Paul Ryan, Romney’s 2012 running mate, to enter, too, if his early tenure is successful. Still, there’s no reason at this point to think the nominee will be someone not currently in the field, an upsetting prospect for the many Republicans who look at this field’s 14 flavors of ice cream and find themselves craving a 15th.

We are headed into the holiday season. There’s only one more GOP debate remaining this calendar year, Dec. 15 in Nevada, and the holidays may limit its impact and then freeze the action after that.

New Year’s Day will mark one month until Iowa, and in the month before Iowa four years ago — which coincided with the holiday season because the caucus was on January 2, 2012 — there were three different Iowa polling leaders, according to the RealClearPolitics average: Newt Gingrich, then Ron Paul, then Mitt Romney. And that did not include Rick Santorum, the eventual winner whose late surge only appeared about a week before the contest.

Crazy as it sounds, we’re still at a relatively early point in the campaign. That will likely continue until the calendar, at last, turns to the real election year of 2016.

Table 1: Crystal Ball rankings of Republican presidential candidates

First Tier: The Yin and Yang Frontrunners
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Donald Trump
Businessman and TV personality
•Can command the stage, has freedom to say anything
•Draws crowds & media; high name ID; riveting figure
•Billionaire, can self-fund if he wants
•More novelty than plausible nominee
•Produces many soundbites that can be used against him in ads
•Strongly opposed by a near-unanimous GOP leadership
Ben Carson
Neurosurgeon and activist
•Polling well in Iowa, high favorability in party
•Political outsider, no baggage from office
•Strong support from evangelical Christian conservatives
•No campaign experience, media scrutiny raising questions about his biography
•Little chance of establishment backing and funding
Second Tier: The Most Plausible Nominees
Marco Rubio
Senator, FL
•Dynamic speaker and politician
•Generational contrast with Jeb…& Hillary
•Starting to win support from party leaders
•Went left on immigration, hurt him with base
•Is he raising enough money and building a strong enough organization?
Ted Cruz
Senator, TX
•Dynamic debater & canny, often underestimated politician
•Anti-establishment nature plays well with base
•Strong early fundraising and solid understanding that race is marathon, not sprint
•Disliked on both sides of Senate aisle
•Strong Tea Party support ensures establishment resistance to candidacy
•Carson currently blocking him with evangelicals
Jeb Bush
Ex-Governor, FL
•Conservative gubernatorial resume
•National BushWorld money and organization
•Personifies establishment, which typically produces GOP nominees
•Bush fatigue is real and deep
•Well-known but not well-liked
•Personifies establishment, which grassroots loathes
•Early ad blitz not moving needle
Third Tier: The Daydream Believers
John Kasich
Governor, OH
•Long moderate-conservative record plus two terms as swing-state Ohio governor •Unscripted, combative style leads to unforced errors

•Jon Huntsman 2.0? Becoming better known, but not necessarily better liked
Carly Fiorina
Former business executive
•The only woman in the field, severe critic of Clinton
•Strong on debate stage & on camera
•Political outsider, no baggage from office
•Lost only race (2010 Senate) badly
•Major liabilities from time as HP CEO
•Seems over-reliant on debate performances, fundraising has been poor
Chris Christie
Governor, NJ
•Commanding speaker and stage presence
•Improving his favorability amongst Republicans
•Still one of least-liked GOP candidates
•Demotion from main debate stage hurts credibility as plausible nominee
Mike Huckabee
Ex-Governor, AR
•Has the kind of profile that appeals to blue collar social conservatives •Increasingly overshadowed by other socially conservative candidates
Rand Paul
Senator, KY
•National ID and fundraising network; benefits from father’s previous efforts •Dovish views on national security are out of GOP mainstream
Rick Santorum
Ex-Senator, PA
•Credibility with social conservatives •Yesterday’s news
Lindsey Graham
Senator, SC
•Media savvy and hawkish views on foreign policy •Vehemently disliked by grassroots
George Pataki
Ex-Governor, NY
•Very long elective experience in a big (Democratic) state — plus 9/11 experience •Zero grassroots excitement
Jim Gilmore
Ex-Governor, VA
•Record as tax-cutter
•Military record, intelligence officer during Cold War
•Totally left out of debates
•Largely anonymous in party

Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik

See Other Political Commentary

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