Sabato's Crystal Ball

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The Race for the White House -- Nomination Phase

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball December 18th, 2014

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After releasing our initial Senate, House, and gubernatorial ratings for 2016 earlier this month, we’re finishing off this year’s Crystal Ball with an updated look at the race for each party’s presidential nominations. We’ll be back Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015. Have a safe and happy holiday season.

The Editors

Thank goodness the midterm election is fully behind us so we can focus your attention on the White House sweepstakes of 2016. Oh, we can hear a few spoilsports among you moaning and whining: “Give us a break! Couldn’t you at least wait until after the holidays?” No, we couldn’t. Super-early analysis of future elections is what separates the possessed professionals in our business from the sane amateurs.

Not only is it just 691 days from the November ’16 election, but it’s a mere 410 days until the Iowa caucuses (as currently scheduled on Feb. 1, 2016). That’s practically the day after tomorrow.

Now that the self-justifications are completed, let’s take a preliminary gander at the way both parties’ fields are shaping up.

It’s hardly worth the effort on the Democratic side — or so it appears for now. By all objective standards, the Anointed One will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee for president, unless she chooses not to run. Forget about the comparisons to 2008. Hillary Clinton was only “heavily favored” back then to be the Democratic standard-bearer. This time an overwhelming majority of both elite and rank-and-file Democrats appear to have reserved space for her visage on Mount Rushmore. The party that gave the United States its first African-American president wants to create another first, and because about 57% of the voters in Democratic nominating contests are women, Clinton has a bit (or a lot) of an edge — probably even if another woman enters the race.

And yet, there are distant rumblings reminiscent of 2008. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA), beloved by progressives, could give Clinton a stiff challenge. Hundreds of former Obama campaign staffers have urged her to run, and liberal groups like MoveOn.org are poised to spend money to encourage Warren. However, so far we don’t sense in Warren the overweening ambition and determination necessary to mount a frontal attack on the nominee-in-waiting, and she has consistently said, with these exact words, “I am not running for president.” Still, that can change on any given day.

What of the other possible Democratic challengers? Vice President Joe Biden seems to sense the futility of what would be his third presidential candidacy at age 73 on Election Day 2016. Ex-Sen. Jim Webb (VA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) would needle Clinton and make debates worth the price of admission, but actually dethroning her? The rationale for outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley (MD), if there ever was one, seemed to evaporate when he couldn’t get his lieutenant governor elected to replace him in one of the nation’s bluest states. There are lots of other Clinton substitutes, but these are backup candidates, spare equipment likely to remain unused. One often-mentioned possibility, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (NY), has so infuriated the left in his state that we are no longer even listing him as a backup.

Table 1: 2016 Crystal Ball Democratic presidential rankings

First Tier
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 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
•What policy rationale is there for a new Clinton presidency?

Second Tier
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
•Still seems unlikely to run against Clinton
•Electability? Democrats seem to care more about that than Republicans
•’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

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
•Electability? Democrats seem to care more about that than Republicans
Martin O’Malley
Governor, MD
•Willing and very available
•Liberal record and policy achievements
•Baltimore baggage
•Loss of Maryland governorship
•Nationally unknown

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

Barring a Warren decision to get in, or a stunning Clinton decision to stay out (which would create a free-for-all among Democrats), the nominating fun will mainly be on the Republican side, where there is a cast of thousands. Or at least a cast of about 18 to 23, depending on who’s counting the potential candidates and how generous they are to long shots.

The Crystal Ball is, for now, in the middle. We feature 21 actual or potential contenders in our analysis, and we have divided them into seven tiers or categories.

The top tier is vacant — completely empty. If you think there’s a GOP frontrunner, then you are probably a staffer or family member of one of the candidates. Until one or more contenders can break a paltry 20% or 25% in the polls, this tier will be akin to the vacuum in outer space.

Few will dispute the quartet we’ve identified for our second tier, The Big Boys. Ex-Gov. Jeb Bush (FL), Sen. Rand Paul (KY), Gov. Scott Walker (WI), and Gov. Chris Christie (NJ) have the right stuff to compete in the nominating process, though the nominee will not necessarily be one of the four.

We’ve had Bush atop our list of GOP presidential contenders for months, and earlier this week he made a non-announcement announcement of a campaign, saying that he will “actively explore the possibility of running for president of the United States.” Bush has to be taken very seriously as a candidate, and we suspect that if he does in fact follow through on a campaign, other potential candidates such as Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, and perhaps many others from the mainstream of the party (more on them below) will defer to another member of the First Family of the Republican Party. That said, Bush may not be able to overcome his surname baggage and the aggressive dislike of much of the Tea Party.

Walker is charisma-challenged and the least well-known, but has a governing record that may make him very appealing to the conservative base. Christie might not be able to surmount his image as not sufficiently conservative, and his home-state problems (such as Bridgegate and budget woes) will dog him. But his obvious talents on the stump will help. Paul has quite a job to do to convince the party establishment he’s mainstream enough, especially on foreign policy, to carry the GOP banner.

We have placed The Outsiders next. It is difficult at the moment to see precisely how they could be nominated and keep the party intact. Nonetheless, the Iowa caucuses are structured to give these candidates with intense grassroots backing a potential rocket boost into the finals. Especially after last weekend’s “cromnibus” Senate session, Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) doesn’t have a lot of friends in Congress, but this certifies him as worth supporting for the Tea Party faction and other anti-establishment elements — and nobody is going to out-argue this Princeton debate champ. (We watched him close-up in a University of Virginia class before a partly unfriendly audience; Cruz was agile and persuasive, and he should never be underestimated.) Dr. Ben Carson hasn’t been elected sheriff anywhere, yet his backers are numerous and passionate, and he is seen as a conservative Mr. Smith who could go to Washington and clean house. Carson could easily have a major impact at some stage in the contest.

Establishment alternatives to those in the top tier make up our fourth category. If Mitt Romney were to get serious about running, he’d immediately vault to the top of Tier Two. Romney will have to fight flat-out to win, however. Nobody gets a modern presidential nomination handed to him on a silver platter. If Bush and Christie both run, the rationale for the completion of the Romney Presidential Trilogy, which is to save the party from a fringe nominee, likely evaporates. Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) probably won’t run if Bush does, but a Bush-less field would be attractive to him. Complicating matters for Rubio is that he is up for reelection to the Senate in 2016, so he cannot run from safety. Gov. John Kasich (OH) is dropping hints and crusading for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, though there’s little time to be coy: Most of the talented staff and generous donors will be snapped up quickly. Some operatives are pushing Gov. Rick Snyder (MI), but he’s a long shot. Of course, in the present herd, most are long shots. Snyder might be a good VP ticketmate for the eventual nominee, although there’s a long vice presidential list already. The Republicans’ twin midterm triumphs have given the party a deep bench of statewide-elected senators and governors from which to choose to fill the second slot, and that’s beyond the many recent statewide victors already included on our voluminous table of presidential contenders.

Our fifth tier entries all seem ready to roll. Their ambition is plentiful; it’s their bandwagons that aren’t moving fast. Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA) is hobbled by low approval ratings at home. Two Rick retreads, Gov. Perry (TX) and ex-Sen. Santorum (PA), appear so far to lack compelling rationales in their bids for reconsideration. The candidate field in 2016 is also much stronger than in 2012 when each briefly flourished.

Tier Six consists of Wild Cards. Ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR) is making noises about a second candidacy, but few believe him. Maybe he’ll surprise, and bring back his coalition of blue-collars and evangelicals. Gov. Mike Pence (IN) has loads of street cred with conservatives, but will he give up his governorship for a crapshoot? Unlike many of the other statewide elected officials on this list, Pence was elected in 2012, so a credible presidential run would practically prevent him from running for reelection in 2016. Former business executive Carly Fiorina would add gender diversity to an all-male GOP field, but her only foray into elective politics (a 2010 U.S. Senate contest in California) was unsuccessful. Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC) has had plenty of success getting elected and is well known from his many TV appearances and John McCain-like profile. Whether the GOP as currently constituted would welcome a McCain substitute is doubtful, but Graham’s bluntness would liven up any campaign. Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton is raising money and plans to push for an aggressive foreign policy. As he starts out, few would categorize him as a major candidate, yet he may find some moments to shine as the campaign moves forward. That said, the group that might be most receptive to Bolton’s pitch — the party’s more conservative voters — will have more exciting options, like Cruz or Carson.

As usual, there will be candidates who have no real chance to become the nominee but who are either convinced they are the next Jimmy Carter or possessed of another agenda (you get lots of attention simply by filing, and this can be cashed in for a TV show or book sales). Rep. Peter King (NY), ex-Gov. George Pataki (NY), and ex-Gov. Bob Ehrlich (MD) are good examples, and there may well be more. Most, like Pataki and Ehrlich, will be blasts from the past.

One thing is for sure: The 2016 Republican presidential nomination will be well worth having. Despite demographic trends that clearly favor Democrats, there is a natural cycle of two-term presidencies that gives the GOP legitimate hope. For instance, Stony Brook University Professor Helmut Norpoth’s White House election model projected that the next Republican nominee will win 51.4% of the two-party vote , and our senior columnist Alan Abramowitz has found that 51% of the two-party popular vote is certainly sufficient for an Electoral College majority — countering the belief among some overly optimistic Democratic activists that they have an automatic, decisive edge in the Electoral College.

The challenge for Republicans is to look down their list of contenders and pick someone who can actually win and govern well. This promising opportunity would be a terrible thing to waste on an unprepared or blindly ideological candidate.

Table 2: 2016 Crystal Ball Republican presidential rankings

First Tier
ABSOLUTELY EMPTY — still chaotic.
Second Tier: The Big Boys
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Jeb Bush
Ex-Governor, FL
•Strong gubernatorial resume
•Potential Hispanic appeal
•Early moves toward running might dissuade other establishment candidates from entering race
•National Bush money and organization
•Wrong last name (Bush dynasty)
•Offshore private equity funds could be political headache
•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? Party leaders likely to prefer someone else
•Association with out-of-mainstream father
•Would be unconventional nomination winner

Scott Walker
Governor, WI

•Heroic conservative credentials
•Checks boxes for many wings of party
•If GOP doesn’t go South, it could go Midwest
•Too bland? Next Pawlenty?
•Do lingering scandals hurt him?
•Not a polished speaker
•Does lack of college degree matter?

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
Roots for the Dallas Cowboys
Third Tier: The Outsiders

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

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
Fourth Tier: Establishment Alternatives

Mitt Romney
Ex-Governor, MA;
’12 GOP presidential nominee

•The ultimate fallback 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
•Bush-Christie runs would probably crowd him out
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
•Bush run could push him out
John Kasich
Governor, OH
•Long conservative record
•If GOP doesn’t go South, it could go Midwest
•Could be fallback for GOP establishment forces
•Supported Medicaid expansion
•Makes verbal miscues, lots of video from time as Fox host
•Would he really excite anyone?
•Nobody’s first (or even second) choice
Rick Snyder
Governor, MI
•Right to Work in major labor state
•If GOP doesn’t go South, it could go Midwest

•Washington outsider
•Supported Medicaid expansion
•Activists have more exciting options
•Washington outsider (not high on establishment lists)
Fifth Tier: The Remainders

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
•Indictment
•Yesterday’s Texan? Has Ted Cruz eclipsed him?
•“Oops,” we forgot the rest; hard to make a second first impression

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
•Social conservatives have flashier options
Sixth Tier: The Wild Cards

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
•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

Carly Fiorina
Former business executive

•The only woman in the field
•Very wealthy, could self-fund
•Might be able to convince a few people she could compete in blue states
•Really the only Western candidate
•Lost only race (2010 Senate) badly
•Probably too moderate
•Largely unknown, no base of support

Lindsey Graham
Senator, SC

•Prominent Obama critic
•Generally liked by party leaders/establishment
•Media savvy
•Vehemently disliked by grassroots
•Immigration reform efforts hurt him with conservatives
•Would be crowded out by other establishment candidates

John Bolton
Ex-Ambassador to the United Nations

•Foreign policy hardliner and expertise
•Media savvy
•Relatively unknown
•No electoral experience, tough to see him putting together campaign infrastructure
•More gadlfy than candidate
Seventh Tier: Newt Gingrich Society —
“Want to buy a book?”

Peter King
Representative, NY

•Foreign policy hardliner and expertise
•Media savvy
•Probably not conservative enough
•Small base of support (candidates from House rarely win)
•“Pete Who?”

George Pataki
Ex-Governor, NY

•Few enemies because no one remembers him
•Potential Wall Street fundraising base
•Very long elective experience
•Time has passed him by: “George Who?”
•Zero grassroots excitement

Bob Ehrlich
Ex-Governor, MD

•**Crickets**
— e-mail us if you can think of one
•Lost twice to…Martin O’Malley
•Time has passed him by: “Bob Who?”
•No grassroots support

List changes
Additions: John Bolton, Bob Ehrlich, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Peter King, George Pataki, Rick Snyder
Subtractions: Rob Portman, Paul Ryan