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2016 Republican Nomination: The Race “Officially” Begins

A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley

Last week, a Crystal Ball reader sent us an e-mail asking if now would be the time to remove “low name ID nationally” from our list of negatives for possible presidential aspirant Gov. Mike Pence (R-IN). We absolutely agree, given the turmoil surrounding Indiana’s new religious freedom law: There’s little question that name identification is no longer a problem for the Hoosier State governor.

However, we have a more permanent correction for Pence’s entry in our list of potential 2016 Republican candidates: removing him entirely. As we said last week, a Pence presidential run in the aftermath of the controversy over the new law seems unlikely, and in light of that, we’re taking him off.

On the one hand, Pence’s defense of the law certainly bolstered his support from social conservatives, becoming something of a cause célèbre to national commentators on the right. On the other hand, the entire episode has made him radioactive to the party establishment, at least in the near term.

Summing it up, one smart Republican told us, “He went from dark horse to dead horse about as quickly as anyone I can remember.”

As what we’ve called a “governor alternative,” Pence would need for some big names — say former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) or Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) — to run into significant problems early on to have a shot at the presidential nomination. Under that scenario, major party players would search for alternatives to defeat candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) or Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who scare the party establishment to death.

But now the religious freedom law controversy has frightened establishment backers. And with so many anti-establishment names in the field or looking to get in, Pence probably would not run as a quasi-outsider candidate, which he almost certainly would have to do now if he wanted to jump in. Moreover, his decision in the face of substantial pressure to ask the legislature to adjust the law cannot have pleased the social conservatives who initially defended his stance.

In light of these developments, Pence will almost surely turn his attention fully to winning reelection as governor, a race where he will be favored. (We moved it from Safe Republican to Likely Republican last week, but Pence remains a solid bet to secure another term at this early point.)

Our list of Republican contenders is now shorter by a name — but it’s still 19 names long. And the candidates are starting to “officially” enter the race.

Earlier this week, Rand Paul jumped into the Republican primary mix, even though it seems as though he has been gearing up for a presidential run ever since he was elected to the Senate in 2010. A couple of weeks ago, Ted Cruz made his announcement, which, again, surprised no one, given that he too appeared to be a likely candidate about as soon as he entered the Senate in 2013. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), another relative newcomer who seemed a likely eventual candidate at some point in his career once he got elected to the Senate in 2010, is likely to announce his bid next week. And Hillary Clinton’s long-anticipated official entry could happen any day now.

Paul could get a bump from his announcement rollout: Cruz, it appears, did. There have been four national polls of the Republican primary electorate since Cruz’s announcement on March 23. He has polled in the double digits in all of them after failing to register that high in any single national poll conducted after the 2014 midterms. The Cruz bump provides a lesson. Just because these “announcements” are anti-climactic to hardcore politicos, who have rightly assumed many of these politicians were candidates all but in name before the official hoopla, the actual rollout generates positive media interest that can show up in surveys.

It will be interesting to see if Paul, who consistently polls in the high-single or low-double digits nationally, gets a similar kind of boost.

Paul’s motto is “Defeat the Washington Machine, Unleash the American Dream,” a slogan that works on many levels. As a libertarian-inclined Republican, Paul says he wants to shrink the size and scope of government, although in truth when we watched his Tuesday announcement speech we didn’t think a lot of his positions on the size of government sounded all that much different from standard GOP boilerplate. But the slogan also gets at his populist “outsider” position in the Republican Party, which owes both to his bloodline — his father, Ron, was even more of an anti-establishment figure during his runs for the GOP nomination in 2008 and 2012 — and his actual policy positions, particularly on reducing the size of America’s global military footprint and the scope of the national security state. This includes his criticism of the massive data collection efforts used by the National Security Agency to (potentially) snoop on the private lives of Americans.

However, when Paul attacks the national security state and rules out “nation-building” abroad, he is also attacking the party’s neoconservative foreign policy elite, which supports those efforts. Dumping on the NSA is a rebuke of President Obama, but it’s also a rebuke of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, whose hawkish policies both at home and abroad represent the consensus in the GOP. There was a time when one could imagine Paul’s foreign policy dovishness gaining real traction amongst Republicans, but that time has very probably passed. The varied threats of the Islamic State, Syria, and Russia, not to mention the GOP’s strong defense of the priorities of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition to the deal Obama is pursuing with Iran over its nuclear program, tell us that the 2016 nomination battle will reward those who speak loudly and carry a big stick. That just is not Rand Paul.

Let’s put it another way: It’s almost unimaginable to think the Republicans will nominate a candidate who is less hawkish than Hillary Clinton. But if they choose Paul, that’s what the GOP would be doing.

The removal of Pence is the only real change to our presidential rankings, which are shown below in Table 1. We still see Bush, Walker, and Rubio at the top of the heap. Let’s see what kind of bump Paul gets from his announcement: We currently have him placed just above Cruz in the No. 4 slot on the ratings, but one could argue that Cruz is a more conventional Republican on national security and foreign policy, and thus might have better odds to win the nomination.

Table 1: 2016 Crystal Ball Republican presidential primary rankings

First Tier: The Leading Contenders
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Jeb Bush
Ex-Governor, FL
•Conservative gubernatorial resume
•National Bush money and organization, has already raised huge sums
•Personifies establishment, which typically produces GOP nominees
•Bush fatigue is real
•Support for Common Core and immigration reform
•Personifies establishment, which grassroots loathes
Scott Walker
Governor, WI
•Heroic conservative credentials
•Checks boxes for many wings of party
•Already clear he’s not next Pawlenty — getting serious attention and early momentum
•Needs to raise mountains of $
•Has had some minor, early missteps
•Does lack of college degree matter? (We don’t think so)
•Early peaking will open him up to attacks from others
Marco Rubio
Senator, FL
•Dynamic speaker and politician
•Potential appeal to party insiders and outsiders
•Short time in Senate, which Obama proved could be a plus
•Bush ahead of him in Florida pecking order
•Went left on immigration, hurt him with base
•Increased stature in field will attract opposition attacks
Second Tier: The Outsiders
Rand Paul
Senator, KY
•Reaching out to diverse audience
•Strong support from libertarian and Tea Party wings
•National ID and fundraising network; benefits from father’s previous efforts
•Hawks, rather than doves, in vogue in current GOP
•Association with out-of-mainstream father
•Competing with many other “outsiders”
Ted Cruz
Senator, TX
•Dynamic debater and canny, often underestimated politician
•Got a bounce from early announcement
•Anti-establishment nature plays well with base
•Too extreme?
•Disliked on both sides of the Senate aisle
•Strong Tea Party support ensures establishment resistance to candidacy
Mike Huckabee
Ex-Governor, AR
•Already vetted in 2008 and well-known from his Fox News program
•Blue collar appeal
•Strong support from social conservatives
•Southerner in Southern-based party
•Disliked by establishment for economic populism and social views — party leaders don’t think he’s electable
•Small fundraising base
•Has he been passed by newer, flashier candidates?
Ben Carson
Neurosurgeon and activist
•Adored by Tea Party grassroots
•Diversity + conservatism
•Good on TV
•No political experience whatsoever
•Little chance of establishment backing and funding
Rick Santorum
Ex-Senator, PA
•Strong support from social conservatives
•2nd place finisher in 2012 — next in line?
•Been around primary track
•Harder to stand out in much stronger 2016 field
•Lost last Senate race by 17%
•Not as economically conservative as others
•Competing with many other social conservatives
Third Tier: The Governor Alternatives
Chris Christie Governor, NJ •Commanding speaker
•Made a lot of friends with successful RGA stint
•Honeymoon in NJ is long over
•Fallen behind Bush and Rubio in establishment race
•Weak national numbers
John Kasich
Governor, OH
•Long moderate-conservative record plus two terms as swing-state Ohio governor
•Could be fallback for GOP establishment forces
•Supported Medicaid expansion, backs Common Core
•Long record to scrutinize
•Time running out for him to get real as a candidate
Rick Perry
Ex-Governor, TX
•Running vigorously and has strong campaign team
•2012 campaign so poor that he may now be underrated
•Bombed in much weaker 2012 field
•Hard to make a second first impression
Bobby Jindal
Governor, LA
•Deep and wide experience
•Knows how to toss red meat to base
•Better on paper than on stump
•Controversial tenure in Louisiana
Fourth Tier: The Gadflies and Golden Oldies
Lindsey Graham
Senator, SC
•Prominent Obama critic
•Generally liked by party leaders/establishment
•Media savvy and hawkish views on foreign policy
•Vehemently disliked by grassroots
•Immigration reform efforts hurt him with conservatives
Carly Fiorina
Former business executive
•The only woman in the field, party leaders want her on stage
•Very wealthy, could self-fund
•Lost only race (2010 Senate) badly
•Largely unknown, no base of support
•Just making a play for VP?
Peter King
Representative, NY
•Foreign policy expertise — and hardline views
•Media savvy; frequent TV appearances
•Probably not conservative enough
•Small base of support (candidates from House rarely win)
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
•Not strong on the stump
•Left office in 2002: “Jim Who?”
•Lost 2008 Senate race by 31 points
Bob Ehrlich
Ex-Governor, MD
•Federal and state government experience •Lost twice to…Martin O’Malley
•No rationale for candidacy
John Bolton
Ex-Ambassador to the United Nations
•Foreign policy experience and hawkish views •All foreign policy, little domestic profile
•No electoral experience or donor base

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