Sabato's Crystal Ball

2016 Presidential Update: For Republicans, a Vacancy at the Top

GOP field features long list but no obvious frontrunner

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley, U.Va. Center for Politics September 4th, 2014


It’s lonely at the top of the Republican field — like, “top of Mt. Everest” lonely.

In our latest shuffle of the 2016 Crystal Ball presidential outlook, we’ve decided that the Republican first tier is…empty. Our Republican friends might object, but deep down, we think they would be hard-pressed to argue for any single name to head this long list: There’s simply no one in the field who is clearly more likely to get the nomination than a half-dozen or more others.

That does not necessarily mean the field is poor. There are many talented politicians on the list, and we could see any number of them potentially emerging as the nominee — and even winning the presidency if conditions allow. But it’s nearly impossible to figure out who that person is, and it even could be that the eventual nominee will be someone not listed among the 16 names below. Trying to handicap the presidential race years in advance is fun, although it should be done with great humility.

We still believe Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and member of the GOP dynasty, would be a frontrunner if he entered the race, and we suspect the party’s establishment forces favor him over all other candidates. He also would have the potential to dissuade other establishment-oriented candidates from running. That said, Bush has done absolutely nothing to suggest that he’s truly interested in taking on the campaign. So he remains the first name on the list, but is no longer first tier.

Speaking of the establishment, we felt compelled to put Mitt Romney on the list. He’s a backstop for the non-Tea Party middle of the GOP and has been quite active on the trail, backing 2014 Republican candidates. It is still a stretch that he’d mount a third straight presidential candidacy, yet someone needs to fill the frontrunning establishment slot. Is it Bush? Is it Paul Ryan? Is it Chris Christie? Is it another governor, like Indiana’s Mike Pence, Ohio’s John Kasich, or Wisconsin’s Scott Walker? Or — is it Romney?

Or is it Sen. Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican and former Bush administration trade representative and budget director? Portman is reportedly considering setting up a presidential exploratory committee after the midterm election. We discussed his strengths several months ago. Portman might be inserting himself into the conversation now as a way to jump ahead of Kasich, who should cruise to reelection this fall (unlike Walker, who is in a tough reelection race). There’s no love lost between the Ohio senator and governor, according to our Ohio sources, and the field might not have room for either Ohioan, let alone both.

Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky look like near-certain candidates, but despite their appeal to the Tea Party/outsider wing of the party, winning presidential nominations — particularly on the Republican side — is normally an insider’s game. Maybe Cruz or Paul could break that tradition, but we’re not going to predict it this prematurely.

On the Democratic side, meanwhile, there’s not much to say, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone not living under a rock.

Take a look at the tables below, which have been fully updated and feature some new contenders (in place of some old names who have been removed).

Table 1: 2016 Crystal Ball Republican presidential rankings

First Tier
ABSOLUTELY EMPTY — yes, it’s chaotic so far.
Second Tier
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages Mo-men-tum
Jeb Bush
Ex-Governor, FL
•Strong gubernatorial resume
•Hispanic connections
•Establishment favorite: might discourage other establishment candidates from running
•National Bush money and organization
•Wrong last name (Bush dynasty) — although Clinton dynasty could neutralize this
•Does he actually want to run?
•Party has moved to the right
Rand Paul
Senator, KY
•Working hard, reaching out to diverse audience
•Most successful and prominent early campaign
•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?
•Association with out-of-mainstream father
•Would be unconventional nomination winner
Paul Ryan
Representative, WI;
‘12 GOP VP nominee
•Next in line after ‘12?
•Strong conservative record
•Still a favorite of most GOP wings
•May not run, positioning self for future in House
•Not a dynamic campaigner
•May be second-choice candidate for many Republicans; tough to win as everyone’s second choice
Third Tier
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
•Can question electability argument: Could he really deliver more Hispanic votes?
Ted Cruz
Senator, TX
•Dynamic speaker and 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
•Can question electability argument: Could he really deliver more Hispanic votes?
Scott Walker
Governor, WI
•Heroic conservative credentials
•Checks boxes for many wings of party
•If GOP doesn’t go South, it could go Midwest
•Has to get reelected in tough race
•Too bland? Next Pawlenty?
•Do lingering scandals hurt him?
•Not a polished speaker
Chris Christie Governor, NJ •Dynamic speaker
•The more Democrats and media criticize him, the more acceptable he becomes to GOP base
•Establishment favorite
•Bridge scandal still playing out
•Bullying and out-of-control-staff questions
•Not conservative enough for base
Rob Portman
Senator, OH
•Very well qualified; vast government experience
•Loved by establishment — would have plenty of money
•Supports same-sex marriage
•More insider than leading man
•Crowded out by fellow Ohioan Kasich?
•Supports same-sex marriage
John Kasich
Governor, OH
•Long conservative record
•If GOP doesn’t go South, it could go Midwest
•Could be fallback for GOP establishment forces
•Poised to win big in ‘14 (unlike Scott Walker)
•Supported Medicaid expansion
•Makes verbal miscues, lots of video from time as Fox host
•Would he really excite anyone?
•Did Portman beat him to the punch?
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
Rick Perry
Governor, TX
•Showing clear improvement as a candidate — “second chance” mentality
•Running vigorously
•Texas fundraising
•Indictment? Could rally right if vindicated
•Terrific new glasses!
•Yesterday’s Texan? Has Ted Cruz eclipsed him?
•“Oops,” we forgot the rest
Rick Santorum
Ex-Senator, PA
•Strong support from social conservatives
•2nd place finisher in ‘12 — next in line?
•Been around primary track
•Harder to stand out in much stronger ‘16 field
•Lost last Senate race by 17%
•Chip-on-shoulder attitude
Wild Cards?
Mitt Romney
Ex-Governor, MA;
‘12 GOP presidential nominee
•The ultimate remainder candidate: If party’s falling apart, it’s Mitt to the rescue
•Extremely well-vetted
•Been around the track so often he’s muddy
•Poor campaign in ‘12 — same lack of enthusiasm from base
•Still seems unlikely to run
Mike Huckabee
Ex-Governor, AR
•Already vetted
•Blue collar appeal
•Strong support from social conservatives
•Southerner in Southern-based party
•Disliked by establishment for economic populism, social views — party leaders don’t think he’s electable
•Small fundraising base
Mike Pence
Governor, IN
•Extensive governing experience; vetted
•Excites conservatives, particularly social conservatives
•If GOP doesn’t go South, it could go Midwest
•Low name ID nationally
•Would have to give up governorship to run
•No detectable campaign
Ben Carson
Neurosurgeon and activist
•Adored by Tea Party grass roots
•Diversity + conservatism
•Good on TV
•No political experience whatsoever
•Little chance of establishment backing and funding

List changes

Additions: Ben Carson, Bobby Jindal (returns to list), Mike Pence, Mitt Romney.

Subtractions: Gov. Susana Martinez (NM)

Table 2: 2016 Crystal Ball Democratic presidential rankings

First Tier
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages Mo-men-tum
Hillary Clinton
Ex-Sec. of State
•Very popular within party, more so than in ‘08
•Pro-Iraq War vote faded in importance
•Woman: chance to make history
•Can potentially 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
•Peaking too soon? Already dominating headlines day after day

Second Tier
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
Martin O’Malley
Governor, MD
•Willing and very available
•Strong liberal record and policy achievements
•Baltimore/Maryland baggage
•Nationally unknown
Would Only Run If Hillary Clinton Doesn’t
Elizabeth Warren
Senator, MA
•Adored by Dem activists
•Claims not to be running but is very visible
•Woman — same history-making potential as Clinton
•National ID and fundraising network
•Electability? Democrats seem to care more about that than Republicans
•‘12 campaign baggage
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
Andrew Cuomo
Governor, NY
•Very popular at home
•NY fundraising base
•Getting a bad name with the left; moderate positioning good for general, not for primary
•Potential scandal with Moreland Commission
Wild Card?
Jim Webb
Ex-Senator, VA
•Unique populist niche
•Strong military background with Democratic views
•Not liberal enough
•Not the best stump speaker
Bernie Sanders
Senator (Ind.), VT
•Left loves him
•Small-donor fundraising potential
•Not actually a Democrat
•Electability? Democrats seem to care more about that than Republicans

List changes

Additions: Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb

Subtractions: Ex-Gov. Howard Dean (VT), ex-Gov. Brian Schweitzer (MT), Sen. Mark Warner (VA)

Never on the list, won’t be after Ferguson: Gov. Jay Nixon (MO)