Sabato's Crystal Ball

Republicans 2016: A Contracting List of True Contenders

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball November 19th, 2015


The Crystal Ball is taking next week off and will return on Thursday, Dec. 3. We wish our readers a very happy, safe and, most important, filling Thanksgiving.

The Editors

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

Democrats 2016: Clinton’s Cloak of Inevitability

Larry J. Sabato, Director, UVA Center for Politics November 19th, 2015


Every Republican debate appears consequential because of the large number of candidates, the changing cast of characters on stage, and the clashes among controversial colorful contenders on hot-button topics.

The same cannot be said on the Democratic side. There just isn’t much drama left in the Democrats’ search for a nominee. While Hillary Clinton was always a considerable favorite, her first debate performance, coupled with Vice President Joe Biden’s decision not to run and Clinton’s successful Benghazi Committee testimony, established (or reestablished) her as the heavy favorite.

At the second Democratic debate last Saturday night, Clinton’s performance was much shakier than in the initial encounter. She made a major misstep in wrapping herself in 9/11 to explain her close ties to, and millions in donations and speaking fees from, Wall Street. Almost everyone who is not a Clinton partisan recognized her jarring non-sequitur. Now 68 years old, Clinton also identified herself with the distant past — “I come from the ’60s” — in a way that could not have appealed to younger and future-oriented voters.

And despite her deep experience in foreign affairs as a former secretary of state, Clinton’s answers about the enhanced ISIS threat were boilerplate. She missed an opportunity to get out in front of the parade and short-circuit the ongoing criticisms of her party’s views on terrorism. Democrats have some tough decisions to make regarding the entry of 10,000 Syrian refugees, as promised by President Obama, as well as the puzzling semantical refusal to call the culprits what they clearly are, Islamic extremists, which is no more a condemnation of Islam than the references to Catholic and Protestant extremists during Northern Ireland’s lengthy conflict were a condemnation of Catholicism or Protestantism. (Republicans have their own problems, of course, not least some candidates’ evident enthusiasm for another significant boots-on-the-ground commitment in the Middle East while memories of President Bush’s unpopular Iraq War are all too fresh.)

For these reasons, some judged Clinton the debate’s loser (see, for example, this compelling piece by the Washington Post’s James Hohmann). But loser to whom? A central reason why Clinton survived with only scratches was that she shared the stage with just two others, both highly implausible party presidential nominees. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) has run a spirited race so far, and he speaks to issues such as income inequality that move the Democratic base. But even many party faithful who agree with him understand that he is too far left to win a general election. Sanders’ also seemed hesitant to discuss at length foreign and defense policy — not areas of his expertise but essential portfolios for any occupant of the Oval Office.

The other candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, was articulate and forceful enough, yet he is barely an asterisk in the polls and low on money. The rationale for his candidacy is not especially compelling, even less so now that foreign policy has moved to the top issue bracket.

It’s no surprise that the post-debate CBS poll showed Clinton the easy winner, and a focus group of 33 undecided Democratic voters in Iowa overwhelmingly backed Clinton as well.

Maybe Clinton’s debate gaffes can be exploited by the eventual GOP nominee next fall, but otherwise, there will be little impact from a show hidden on a Saturday night with a much reduced audience and swallowed up by a much bigger story, the ISIS attacks in Paris. The next two Democratic debates are scheduled for odd times, too — the next one is on Saturday, Dec. 19, just before Christmas; the other is on the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Everyone in the upper echelon denies it, but those not born yesterday or the day before understand that the party hierarchy scheduled the handful of debates to minimize any cost to the frontrunner. (Will Clinton regret having missed more debate practice when she faces a rigorously tested GOP candidate? We shall see.)

Anyway, our judgment is that, barring an indictment or a serious health problem, Clinton will breeze to the nomination. Yes, there’s a chance Sanders will rally and win Iowa and/or New Hampshire. As we’ve argued before, though, those two small liberal states with near lily-white participants are probably the peak of his primary season. The real question is whether Sanders will hurt her by refusing to bow out gracefully in March or April, instead insisting on carrying his challenge through June or to the convention. Sanders is more unpredictable than most.

With a high degree of certainty, then, we know the identity of the Democratic nominee. Whether she emerges from the convention looking strong or weak will depend on many factors. Has the Democratic Party reunited and is it enthusiastic and optimistic about the coming campaign? Do the Republicans select an electable nominee? There are some on the ballot, for sure, but also a number of choices that would prove disastrous. With deep divisions in its ranks, can the GOP pull together and get its many ideological factions and players on board? Naturally, the mega-factors (the shape of the economy, the terrorism crisis, President Obama’s job approval, and possibly scandal) will be just as illuminating and perhaps more determinative.

As many observers of the Clintons have noted for decades, they are at their best when cornered and needing to excel, and at their worst when high-flying and convinced their future is secure. We doubt Clinton can find a way to snatch primary defeat from the jaws of victory, but given what happened in 2008, we promise never to take our eyes off those big jaws.

Table 1: Crystal Ball ranking of Democratic presidential candidates

First Tier: The Undisputed Frontrunner
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Hillary Clinton
Ex-Secretary of State
•Stronger than she was eight years ago
•Overwhelming support from party leaders
•Dual support from women, minorities hard to overcome, particularly after Iowa and New Hampshire
•Private e-mails, Clinton Foundation scandals still playing out. These are the biggest threats to her nomination.
•Danger signs in early states could snowball
•Keeping Bill in check — and on the porch
Second Tier: The Leading Challenger
Bernie Sanders
Senator (Ind.),
•Positioned to do well in New Hampshire, maybe Iowa
•Small-donor fundraising strength
•Drawing big crowds
•Outsider in what is very much an insider process
•Continues to generate little excitement among nonwhite voters
•Big crowds don’t predict wins
Third Tier: The Oxygen Seeker
Martin O’Malley
Ex-Governor, MD
•Liberal record and policy achievements •Baltimore baggage
•Candidacy largely invisible so far

The Baffling Bayou

Edwards has a strong polling lead, but will it hold up?

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball November 19th, 2015


Based purely on poll numbers, the Louisiana gubernatorial race should be easy to call. State Rep. John Bel Edwards (D) leads Sen. David Vitter (R) by 11 percentage points in the current HuffPost Pollster average, a seemingly insurmountable lead with the runoff contest taking place just two days from now on Saturday.

But these days there are serious questions about the credibility of polls. Earlier this month we saw just how wrong surveys can be. In Kentucky, state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) held a narrow but consistent lead over Matt Bevin (R), only to have Bevin win in a rout. The polls were actually pretty close on Conway’s final percentage (43.8% actual versus 43.0% to 44.3% in the averages); they just happened to vastly underestimate Bevin’s support and exaggerated the independent candidate’s position (a common problem seen in contests with relevant third-party candidates). In the Kentucky race, seemingly all the undecideds broke for Bevin (though we are not really convinced of this — it’s a cop-out for pollsters). We had witnessed similar occurrences in previous races in the 2013 and 2014 cycles in states such as Kansas and Virginia, but the Bluegrass State contest cemented our skepticism about Democrats running ahead in very red states.

Thus, we have scrutinized Edwards’ lead in the Pelican State by delving into the polling averages of U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races from past cycles. Should Edwards lose while his polling average remains very slightly above 50%, he would have the highest polling average of any candidate who lost, dating back to 2004 from available polling averages tabulated by RealClearPolitics and HuffPost Pollster. In fact, the highest average percentage any losing candidate has had was Paul Davis (D) in Kansas’ 2014 gubernatorial contest. He led Gov. Sam Brownback (R) 50.0 to 48.1 in the final Pollster average, only to lose 49.8% to 46.1% on Election Day. (Davis also led in RealClearPolitics’ average, but only 44.6% to 42.6%.) Davis is the only losing candidate to end an election at 50.0% in either polling average in the timeframe we examined. Table 1 shows the losing candidates who led in at least one final polling average dating back to 2004 (RealClearPolitics goes back to 2004, Pollster to 2006).

Table 1: Losing candidates who led in at least one final polling average, 2004-2015

Sources: RealClearPolitics, HuffPost Pollster (prior to 2012,

Notes: Candidates shaded in green lost despite leading in at least one average, and averages that are shaded green indicate ones where the losing candidate led. The bolded candidate won the race. *Indicates an incumbent. Note that the two polling averages use different methodologies. Currently, RealClearPolitics does not have an average for the 2015 Louisiana gubernatorial contest. HuffPost Pollster average as of Wednesday afternoon.

Given this history, the fact that Edwards is above 50% (very narrowly) in the polls suggests that he may just be strong enough to actually win. Reports about early voting also sound slightly favorable for Edwards — black and urban turnout is up narrowly, as is the participation of registered Democrats, though many of them are really Republican-leaning voters who first registered as Democrats when it was a more conservative party.

Despite our misgivings because of the Kentucky result, we are moving the Louisiana gubernatorial contest to Leans Democratic. For all the comparisons to Kentucky, the Louisiana race is different, as Kyle Kondik noted last week. Louisiana has a larger African-American voter base that raises Edwards’ support floor. While many Republicans in Kentucky expressed dissatisfaction with Bevin, no major Republican endorsed the Democrat in the race, which has happened in Louisiana (GOP Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who finished behind Vitter in the jungle primary). There may be sufficient division within the GOP over Vitter’s standing that enough white voters will back Edwards to put him over the top.

Looking every bit the underdog, Vitter is throwing the kitchen sink at Edwards, tying him to President Obama’s decision to accept Syrian refugees in the United States as well as criticizing the Democrat for “skipping a family issues debate to bus voters from a New Orleans night club.” We suspect that the more potent attack for Vitter (and Republicans in general) will be those involving the Paris terrorists and Syrian refugees. President Obama’s strategy against ISIS is drawing heavy scrutiny, and Republicans are on the offensive. If the horse race polls are right — definitely an uncertain assumption in the current era — they show that Edwards has managed to avoid being tied to the president in deeply conservative Louisiana. But that could change in the last days if Vitter can make his attacks on refugee and national security policy more firmly connect Edwards to Obama. More than ever, a Democratic loss in Louisiana would be laid at Obama’s feet.

Considering these developments in the race, we can’t say we’re supremely confident in leaning the contest toward Edwards. Still, Vitter remains a damaged candidate, dragged down by his personal baggage and the unpopularity of Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA), and Edwards is still a touch above 50% in the polling averages. Therefore, he has to be viewed as at least a slight favorite for the Nov. 21 runoff.

Table 2: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings change