Sabato's Crystal Ball

2016 President Update: Clinton Isn’t Going Anywhere…Yet

On the Republican side, Christie’s moving in the wrong direction

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball March 19th, 2015

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Hillary Clinton went before cameras and reporters at the United Nations last week to address the ongoing controversy over her use of a private email system during her time as secretary of state. She was terse, combative, and essentially told the American people to “trust her” when she says that she didn’t do anything wrong and isn’t hiding anything. Clinton’s visceral dislike of the media was obvious and can be summed up by three words (“Go to Hell”), which was how Politico’s John Harris put it after Clinton’s presser.

But Clinton’s position as the undisputed frontrunner in the Democratic field has hardly wavered. In fact, Democrats are perhaps more worried about Clinton’s ability to address controversies like the email affair and the foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation than the “scandals” themselves. Many Democratic donors and insiders around the country are urging her to quit delaying and officially announce her candidacy. Having a campaign apparatus, they say, would help her more effectively respond to the probing media and other attacks on her candidacy. Given the paucity of strong foes, the media appear to be a bigger opponent than anyone in the Democratic field.

The email episode, the questions about foreign money, and other challenges to Clinton may eventually prove damaging or even fatal to her candidacy — but certainly not yet. Not even close. The media and Clinton’s conservative critics, the two entities most riled up by the recent revelations, don’t vote in the Democratic primaries, and unless these controversies become real scandals with smoking guns, they won’t topple Clinton as the Democratic frontrunner.

Another Democratic alternative?

But if Clinton does begin to truly falter — or if she shocks everyone and ultimately passes on a run — who else is there on the Democratic side? This week, we have another new but old name to add to the list: Secretary of State John Kerry. While claiming in February that there was “no scenario whatsoever” where he could see himself running in 2016, the 2004 party nominee didn’t completely rule out another eventual presidential bid, saying “nobody ever says never.”

Kerry can’t be positioned ahead of Vice President Biden or progressive favorite Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), but there’s little question that he would be a serious candidate. First, he’s obviously been there before and is incredibly well-vetted, having been both a presidential nominee and now Secretary of State. And while he lost in 2004, Kerry only fell short to incumbent George W. Bush by 2.5 points, putting him a bit ahead of Mitt Romney — a four-point loser in 2012 — who for a moment looked likely to run again in 2016.

Second, given recent international events, Kerry’s foreign policy gravitas could be timely. In many ways, this could be the principal rationale for his candidacy should the situation in the Middle East continue to deteriorate, although he might also receive blame for Obama administration missteps in foreign affairs. It’s nigh impossible to imagine Kerry running if Clinton remains in the field, but if she were to suddenly exit the race there would be a chaotic vacuum where the Democratic establishment would cast about for a tested alternative, and Kerry could fill that void.

The main problems for Kerry? He’s a retread who lost over a decade ago, he’ll be 73 years old by the 2017 inauguration (making him about the same age as Biden), and he’s still a patrician Northeasterner, which caused him plenty of grief in 2004. It’s also hard to see Kerry inspiring the Democratic faithful to rally; he’s too ponderous for that. Even if he were to win the nomination again, a non-Bush nominee on the Republican side would present the same problem for Kerry as it does for Clinton or Biden: a future-versus-past election dichotomy. As with Hillary, it may be Jeb Bush to the rescue for the Democrats.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Democratic presidential rankings

First Tier: The Undisputed Frontrunner
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Hillary Clinton
Ex-Secretary of State
•Very popular within party, more so than in ’08
•Pro-Iraq War vote fading in importance
•Woman: chance to make history
•Can scare away most/all strong opponents if she runs (unlike ’08)

•Age (69 by Election Day ’16)
•Ran unfocused, too-many-cooks ‘08 campaign; could make similar mistakes in ’16
•Keeping Bill in check — and on the porch
•Scandals already emerging
•What policy rationale is there for a new Clinton presidency?

Second Tier:
Obvious Anti-Clinton Alternatives
Elizabeth Warren
Senator, MA
•Adored by Dem activists
•Woman — same history-making potential as Clinton
•National ID and fundraising network
•Still seems unlikely to run against Clinton
•’12 campaign baggage
Joe Biden
Vice President
•Vast experience
•Next in line?
•VP bully pulpit
•Age (73 by Election Day ’16)
•Gaffe machine
•Poor presidential campaign history
Third Tier: The Other Secretary of State
John Kerry
Secretary of State
•Well-vetted
•Strong foreign policy credentials could play well with recent developments in Middle East
•Could probably raise the needed money if he chooses to run
•2004 campaign failed, seen by many as patrician and uninspiring
•Can general election retreads work in this day and age?
•Age (will be almost as old as Biden on Election Day)
Fourth Tier: The Three Caballeros
Jim Webb
Ex-Senator, VA
•Unique populist niche
•Strong military background with Democratic views
•Not liberal enough
•Unpredictable
•Not the best stump speaker

Bernie Sanders
Senator (Ind.), VT

•Left loves him
•Small-donor fundraising potential
•Not actually a Democrat
•Outsider in what is very much an insider process
Martin O’Malley
Ex-Governor, MD
•Willing and very available
•Liberal record and policy achievements
•Baltimore baggage
•Chosen successor lost Maryland governorship
•Nationally unknown>
Fifth Tier:
Would Only Run If Hillary Clinton Doesn’t
Kirsten Gillibrand
Senator, NY
•Woman — same history-making potential as Clinton
•Fairly strong liberal record
•NY fundraising base
•Bland persona
•Nationally unknown
•Past NRA support?
Amy Klobuchar
Senator, MN
•Woman — same history-making potential as Clinton
•Moderate-liberal record
•Nationally unknown

List changes

Additions: Secretary of State John Kerry

Christie slides

Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) hasn’t had a very good start to his still-incubating presidential campaign. New Jersey’s economy is struggling and its budget situation is awful. If that wasn’t bad enough for Christie, Jeb Bush entered the GOP field in December 2014, imperiling Christie’s position as a high-ranking establishment favorite for the GOP nomination. Since then, all indications are that Christie has faltered to some degree, with Bush seizing a great deal of establishment oxygen (and money) and Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) proving a more attractive sitting-governor candidate with appeal to both the establishment and grassroots. At this point, Christie is a leading “governor alternative,” but he is no longer in the top tiers of our rankings.

Though polls hold little value this far away from the start of primary and caucus season, favorability surveys can tell us something about Christie’s predicament. Take a look at Table 2, which lays out the HuffPost Pollster favorable/unfavorable numbers for the prominent potential 2016 presidential candidates. Christie ranks dead last in net favorability at -14.5% based on recent polling. While this polling isn’t of just Republicans, who will make up most voters in GOP primaries and caucuses, Christie’s poor showing speaks to his image problems and can help explain, at least in part, why many establishment poohbahs aren’t leaning to back him at this point (although that hasn’t stopped many of them from backing Bush, who has only marginally better numbers).

Another factor in Christie’s decline has been the increased stature of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is now the Third Man in our first tier. Rubio, who seems to be positioning himself as the “ideas candidate,” is viewed by many insiders as a strong alternative to Bush, and he has moved ahead of Christie in the establishment’s pecking order. Although Rubio has since earned the wrath of the Tea Party for his foray into immigration reform, he had strong support from the grassroots in his 2010 Senate win, and like Walker may be capable of winning backing from both establishment and anti-establishment forces in the GOP.

While he has now been elevated to our first tier, Rubio is still not on Bush or Walker’s level. With another Floridian in the field, many key Sunshine State supporters are going to back Bush over Rubio, and this is true more generally of the establishment nationally. And it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bush crowd turn on Rubio with a vengeance, dealing out opposition research galore. Rubio’s connection to scandal-ridden ex-Rep. David Rivera might be a one-off case or it might be the tip of the iceberg. Still, more and more it looks like Rubio’s boldly going to eschew a Senate reelection run and go all in on the presidency, and his dynamism will make him a contender.

As for Bush, he remains at the top of our list, but questions abound. There is far more resistance to this Bush than his father or brother encountered in 1988 or 2000, respectively. Bush fatigue is very real, it’s intense in some quarters, and it goes way beyond immigration or Common Core. Bush has many things going for him: connections, money, talented staff, and substantive policy rhetoric, just to name a few. But he appears to be lacking something important, too: real popular appeal to grassroots voters, as opposed to the establishment. It’s obviously very early, but initial polling finds many Republicans lukewarm or openly hostile toward his candidacy.

Should Bush overcome intraparty opposition to win the nomination, the GOP may suffer from turnout problems with part of the base, even if the base likes the eventual vice presidential nominee. Moreover, Bush may be exactly the Republican the Clinton campaign desires. Her people are well rehearsed and they all say, “The candidate we’d least want to face is Jeb Bush.” In actuality, this suggests that the candidate the Clintonistas may really want to run against is Bush, knowing that most of the outsider candidates won’t be able to win the nomination and other serious contenders such as Walker or Rubio could make a strong future-versus-past argument. And with Bush, Hillary Clinton can run against two Bush recessions and two Bush Middle East wars, asking “do you want a third?”

Kasich as Christie?

The Crystal Ball was in Ohio last week — see our piece on the Senate race — and we also asked around about Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who briefly ran for president in the 2000 cycle and has been poking around about it this time.

Our sources on both sides of the aisle were generally in agreement that Kasich’s chances of running, while still less than 50/50, are probably increasing. He’s been traveling the country in support of a national balanced budget amendment, a popular issue amongst conservatives that has little chance of ever being written into the U.S. Constitution. Kasich’s visits have taken him to several western states that are not prominent pieces of the GOP presidential nominating battle, although more recently his itinerary has included some early primary states, including New Hampshire.

Kasich at his best resembles Christie at his best: Both are blunt politicians who like to be seen as truth-tellers urging fiscal discipline and innovation in an era of government belt-tightening. It’s no wonder, then, that the like-minded Kasich and Christie have a good relationship (Christie was set to attend Kasich’s second inaugural but weather interfered). It strikes us that if Christie were to decide against a run or flame out in the next few months, Kasich could perhaps take Christie’s place in the field. One or both of them could present a problem for Bush, perhaps in the Granite State.

It’s possible that Kasich is just keeping his name fresh in people’s minds so he can be considered for vice president, although Kasich — again, similar to Christie — is hard to imagine in the sidekick role. Both can be loose cannons on the stump, which is not a good trait for a running mate.

Another unlikely possibility is one we laid out in a Columbus Dispatch article last week:

“A Kasich presidential nomination requires that the current favorite of the party establishment, Jeb Bush, falters so badly that he either flames out or ultimately decides not to run,” said Kyle Kondik, a former Ohioan who is now managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.…

“The party establishment will likely not want (Texas Sen.) Ted Cruz, (Kentucky Sen.) Rand Paul, (former Arkansas Gov.) Mike Huckabee, (former Pennsylvania Sen.) Rick Santorum or (former Texas Gov.) Rick Perry to be the nominee. They are seen as too extreme for one reason or the other,” Kondik said, echoing others’ comments.

“So the path for Kasich is probably something like this: Bush has a horrible next few months, as do the other candidates. Party leaders start scrambling around for another candidate, like they did in 2011 when some in the party, people close to the Bushes, tried to get Christie to run. In their search for a candidate, they look to Ohio and Kasich, who is someone they know from his long time in office. Kasich then becomes something of an unlikely savior for the party.”

One under-the-radar consideration for Kasich is that his long-time media expert, Ohio-based operative Rex Elsass, is already working for Rand Paul. While it’s theoretically possible that Elsass’s Strategy Group for Media could work for both candidates, creating a “wall of separation” at the firm, our sources thought the Elsass-Paul connection was at the very least a small bump in Kasich’s road to a candidacy.

Another factor: If Kasich enters, he is going to need a financial angel to set up a Super PAC. He might have one in Mark Kvamme, a venture capital player who for a time led Kasich’s privatized state economic development operation, JobsOhio. Kvamme doesn’t have the juice of someone like Sheldon Adelson or Foster Friess, the wealthy Republicans who almost single-handedly kept New Gingrich and Rick Santorum, respectively, going in 2012, but there’s plenty of Republican money in Ohio and Kvamme could set up a respectable money machine to back up the state’s two-term governor.

Again, Kasich is on the periphery of the race, and he’s probably still an unlikely candidate. But he remains an interesting GOP figure to watch, particularly as Christie struggles.

Less interesting, probably, are Kasich’s neighboring governors, Mike Pence in Indiana and Rick Snyder in Michigan. While both have been mentioned as candidates, there’s been little indication that either is running. Snyder moves off our list this time, and Pence might be joining him soon absent indications that he is truly gearing up to run for president, which would probably mean passing up a second term as governor.

By the way, for those who will invariably ask — yes, we have heard about how a certain real estate mogul is considering the race and, yes, we need a lot more convincing before we include him on our list.

Table 3: Crystal Ball Republican presidential 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 $
•Do lingering scandals hurt him?
•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
•Diversity + conservatism
•Short time in Senate, which Obama proved could be a plus
•Did his national star peak too soon?
•Went left on immigration, hurt him with base
•Increased stature in field will attract opposition attacks
Second Tier: The Outsiders
Rand Paul
Senator, KY
•Working hard, reaching out to diverse audience
•Strong support from libertarian and Tea Party wings
•National ID and fundraising network; benefits from father’s previous efforts
•Too dovish/eclectic for GOP tastes? Party leaders likely to prefer someone else
•Association with out-of-mainstream father
•Competing with many other “outsiders”
Ted Cruz
Senator, TX
•Dynamic debater and canny, often underestimated politician
•Diversity + conservatism
•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
•Social conservatives have many other options

Ben Carson
Neurosurgeon and activist

•Adored by Tea Party grassroots
•Diversity + conservatism
•Good on TV
•No political experience whatsoever
•Gaffe-prone
•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%
•Chip-on-shoulder attitude
•Social conservatives have flashier options
Third Tier: The Governor Alternatives

Chris Christie Governor, NJ

•Commanding speaker, base enjoys his aggressive style
•The more Democrats and media criticize him, the more acceptable he becomes to GOP base
•Made a lot of friends with successful RGA stint
•Bridge scandal still playing out
•Fallen behind Bush and Rubio in establishment race
•Not conservative enough for base
•NJ economy: credit rating downgraded eight times under Christie
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
•Long record includes gaffes + controversial votes, plus lots of video from time as Fox host
•Nobody’s first choice as yet

Mike Pence
Governor, IN

•Extensive federal and state governing experience
•Excites conservatives, particularly social conservatives
•Low name ID nationally
•Would have to give up governorship to run
Rick Perry
Ex-Governor, TX
•Running vigorously and has strong campaign team
•2012 campaign so poor that he may now be underrated
•Indictment? Could rally right if vindicated
•Indictment gives establishment chills
•Bombed in much weaker 2012 field
•Hard to make a second first impression
Bobby Jindal
Governor, LA
•Diversity + conservatism
•Southerner in Southern-based party
•Deep and wide experience
•Knows how to toss red meat to base
•Better on paper than on stump
•Controversial tenure in Louisiana
•His star has been brighter in the past; hasn’t yet lived up to national potential
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
•Probably too moderate
•Largely unknown, no base of support
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)
•“Pete Who?”
George Pataki
Ex-Governor, NY
•Very long elective experience in a big (Democratic) state — plus 9/11 experience •Time has passed him by: “George Who?”
•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

List changes

Subtractions: Gov. Rick Snyder (MI)