Sabato's Crystal Ball

President 2016: The Clash of Dynasties

Assessing where Clinton & Bush stand after their big speeches

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball June 18th, 2015

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The Editors

In the aftermath of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) announcement speech on Monday, Maggie Haberman of the New York Times tweeted that “Several Dem strategists confess to pangs of concern watching Jeb speech right now.” Ed O’Keefe of the Washington Post replied to Haberman, saying that he was hearing the same thing.

These are just the latest examples of the press citing Hilary Clinton aides or unaffiliated Democrats saying the campaign most fears facing Jeb Bush. Maybe it’s true. But pardon our skepticism. We suspect the Clinton camp would welcome Bush as the GOP nominee, and whispered worries to the contrary could very well just be orchestrated noise. Bush would bring the elimination of dynasty as an issue and no generational contrast. Moreover, the Clinton team already knows exactly how they’ll use the Bush 41 and 43 baggage as campaign projectiles.

Likewise, the best Democrat to wield the dynasty attack on Bush probably is not a Clinton.

Clinton, the former secretary of state and first lady, remains in the driver’s seat to win her party’s nomination, although two recent polls show Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) moving to within hailing distance of her in New Hampshire even as she retains a mighty lead in Iowa and nationally. Bush, meanwhile, is among the favorites in the crowded Republican field, though he is not the favorite — our most recent ratings of the GOP field, which are below, have Bush tied at the top with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI). But given that both Bush and Clinton made big speeches over the past several days, it’s natural to look ahead and ponder the possibility of a rematch of the two families that contested the 1992 presidential election.

Clinton’s speech Saturday felt something like the “relaunch” many described it as, although at the time of her official entry into the presidential race in April, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said that a “formal kickoff event” would come later, which is what the speech on New York City’s Roosevelt Island was.

The former secretary of state does not have a reputation as a soaring speaker, and she did nothing to change that Saturday. It was in many respects a laundry list speech, reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s State of the Union addresses, which were often interminably long and filled with small-bore proposals that the press rolled its eyes at but that seemed to go over well with the general public.

Included in the speech was automatic voter registration, universal preschool, paid family leave, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and other proposals designed to appeal to rank-and-file Democrats. It was a cavalcade of liberal policy goals that illustrated she’s not taking her eye off step No. 1 this time, the way she did in 2007 by underestimating Barack Obama. She has to win the nomination first, and part of the speech could be summarized as “Take that, Bernie Sanders…and Elizabeth Warren.” Skeptical Republicans might say she was providing “stuff” — as Mitt Romney put it back in 2012 in his criticism of the Democrats — to the various constituencies that make up the modern Democratic Party.

One obvious bit of Clinton pandering was a proposal to amend the Constitution to undo the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which Democrats revile as the cause of the infusion of big-money Super PACs onto the political scene. Such an amendment would be politically impossible — two-thirds of the House and Senate would need to approve the amendment, and then three-fourths of the states. Get real. (Some of the Republican candidates are trying the same phony gambit with same-sex marriage as the Supreme Court decides whether to make it universally legal.)

Bush, in his Monday announcement, did his share of pandering. One ambitious goal Bush laid out was the desire to achieve 4% economic growth, which he said would be accompanied by 19 million new jobs. This goal immediately raised the eyebrows of economists, many of whom deemed sustained growth at that rate as unlikely, if not impossible. While Bush didn’t explicitly state how long he would expect the economy grow at such a rate, history suggests it would be hard to achieve for two whole terms in the White House. Based on data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the last time an eight-year period averaged at least 4% growth was from 1983 through 1990 (4.1%), after the early struggles of the Ronald Reagan years passed and the economy continued to perform well early into George H.W. Bush’s presidency. But otherwise, one has to go back to 1973 for another eight-year period with average annual growth at that rate. And that was the end of an era where from 1965 (1958 through 1965) to 1973 (1966 through 1973) every eight-year period had at least a 4% average. More recently, Bill Clinton came very close to pulling off what may indeed be Bush’s goal: Clinton’s presidency featured an average annual growth rate of 3.9%. Somehow, we guess Hillary Clinton, not Jeb Bush, will be boasting about that one.

Lofty goals qualify as bold, but a garden-variety campaign pledge can become a political boomerang. Look at Obama: Part of his 2008 appeal was a pledge to bring the parties together, an impossible task in this polarized era that he has spectacularly (with the GOP’s determined help) failed to achieve.

One fascinating aspect of Bush’s announcement was his adoption of his father and brother’s approach. Bush 41 promised a “kinder, gentler” administration, while Bush 43 doubled down with “compassionate conservatism.” Now, the potential Bush 45 has promised to show people what is “in my heart.”

But slogans and approaches cannot obscure historical records. Hillary Clinton’s response will be something along these lines: “Twice the American people were promised compassion, and what they got was war and recession. Why would we take the bait a third time? It’s still the economy, stupid!”

No presidential candidate is tabula rasa, a blank slate. They all come carrying baggage. Hillary has plenty of it, some Bill’s and some all her own. But no one needs as big a baggage cart as Jeb Bush, who will lug the weight of a dozen Bush White House years around on the campaign trail, plus the controversies from his eight years in Tallahassee.

Given that Bush, like Clinton, is not a naturally gifted speaker, we found his performance Monday to be strong. Even though he’s effectively been in the race since December, it’s easy to imagine that the coverage of Bush’s speech and official announcement will help him get a small bump in the polls.

Both Bush and Clinton want to distance themselves from two men apiece: For Bush, it’s 41 and 43. In his announcement speech, Jeb Bush said that no one deserves to win the White House “by right of resume, party, seniority, family, or family narrative. It’s nobody’s turn.”

For Clinton, it’s 42 and 44. In an interview with the Des Moines Register earlier this week, Hillary was asked about whether she was running for a third Bill Clinton or Barack Obama term. “I’m running for my first term. I will have my own proposals,” she said.

There’s a grain of truth to both claims, but they are denying the larger reality. Bush is where he is because his brother and father were POTUS; he’s far more Bush than Jeb. And Clinton is there because of Bill and Barack. She is indeed a continuation of both presidencies.

Big breaks from the past by these two candidates just aren’t possible because the public isn’t going to find them credible.

Hillary’s task is not easy, because as we’ve seen many times, Bill can say and do things that require major cleanup. Moreover, any new scandal involving Bill reminds voters of the long history of ethical problems that has dogged both Clintons. And she has to live with President Obama’s successes and failures — those already catalogued and those occurring right through Election Day.

What’s the saving grace for Clinton? First, even a lame duck president such as Obama can maneuver in substantive ways to help her. Second, Clinton has less defending to do with her husband’s record than Bush must do for his brother’s two terms.

In retrospect, President Clinton is remembered more for a golden economy than for the sex scandal. It sure didn’t look this way as America said farewell to Bill Clinton in January 2001, yet public perceptions shift over time.

Bush’s challenge is much greater. He carries the burden of his brother’s more recent and very controversial presidency. Voters don’t need to see George W. on the campaign trail to remember Iraq, Katrina, and economic disaster. The previous Bush presidency wasn’t that long ago.

Both Bush 41 and 43 have a legacy of economic struggle, and that reinforces Jeb’s dilemma and gives Hillary a big opening.

So what does Jeb do? Beyond asserting independence (“I’m my own man”) he has to draw as many distinctions with his brother as possible. Still, most people know Jeb owes his position to his family name, and Jeb basically endorsed everything George did at the time.

Jeb has to hope his enormous war chest and establishment backing propels him to the nomination, and then maybe voters in the fall of 2016 will want change badly enough that they’ll pick the Republican ticket, whatever their doubts about installing yet another Bush.

In that sense, an election between a Bush and a Clinton might turn out to be more about the current occupant of the White House than either of the dynasties.

A word on Trump

Table 1 shows our updated 2016 Republican presidential rankings (our Democratic rankings are unchanged). In an effort to prune a list that feels like it is ever-expanding, we have removed hawkish Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who hasn’t made much noise about actually running lately and whose potential role in the field as a foil to dovish Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is now being filled by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

In his place amongst the “Gadflies and Golden Oldies” goes businessman Donald Trump, who announced for president on Tuesday in a rambling speech.

The key thing to note about Trump is that he is deeply unpopular both nationally and with Republicans. Quinnipiac University recently found him with a weak 34% favorable/52% unfavorable rating nationally among Republicans. A Monmouth University poll released earlier this week was even worse: 20% favorable and 55% unfavorable. That -35 point favorability gap was far worse than any other Republican, dwarfing that of even Graham and Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), who are also unpopular with Republicans. Few give those two much chance of winning the nomination, and Trump’s odds are as bad and probably worse.

Team Trump argues that with such a big field, Trump has enough niche support that he can get some traction in the early states and grow from there. It’s not impossible that Trump will make some noise, and he is such an over-sized (some would say outrageous) personality that he’s guaranteed to generate coverage, perhaps at the expense of other GOP candidates. This may be true particularly in the coming dog days of a summer campaign, when Trump’s rhetorical bomb-throwing will fill column inches and airtime. While unpopular, Trump is well-known, and that name ID could keep him in the top 10 of national polling by the time of the first Republican debate in Cleveland on Aug. 6 — a ticket to the stage and a huge TV audience. (Trump is now at about 4% in the RealClearPolitics polling average, and no. 9 overall in the GOP field.)

However, it should not shock anyone if Trump’s dalliance with the 2016 campaign turns out to be brief. The billionaire could be long gone from the race by the time the first votes are cast in Iowa and New Hampshire, if his efforts are not bearing fruit and he wants to preserve The Apprentice. Trump has a well-earned reputation as a national novelty act that he will have to overcome if he wants to be taken seriously by both the press and the voters.

Table 1: 2016 Crystal Ball ratings of Republican presidential candidates

First Tier: The Frontrunners
(in alphabetical order)
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 — Jeb cannot avoid George W.’s negatives
•Support for Common Core and immigration reform
•Personifies establishment, which grassroots loathes
Marco Rubio
Senator, FL
•Dynamic speaker and politician
•Potential appeal to party insiders and outsiders
•Generational contrast with Jeb…and Hillary
•Went left on immigration, hurt him with base
•Increased stature in field attracting opposition attacks and media scrutiny
Scott Walker
Governor, WI
•Heroic conservative credentials
•Checks boxes for many wings of party
•Early momentum in Iowa and nationally
•Criticism of legal immigration might scare party’s business wing
•Does lack of college degree matter?
•Needs to prove he knows foreign policy
Second Tier: The Outsiders
Ted Cruz
Senator, TX
•Dynamic debater and canny, often underestimated politician
•Anti-establishment nature plays well with base
•Hard for anyone to get to his right
•Too extreme?
•Disliked on both sides of the Senate aisle
•Strong Tea Party support ensures establishment resistance to candidacy
Rand Paul
Senator, KY
•Strong support from libertarian and Tea Party wings
•National ID and fundraising network; benefits from father’s previous efforts
•Dovish views on national security are out of GOP mainstream
•Association with father
•Might also be losing some of his fathers support by moderating
Third Tier: The Governor Alternatives
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
•Jon Huntsman 2.0?
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, especially under indictment
Chris Christie
Governor, NJ
•Commanding speaker and stage presence
•Very high name ID
•Honeymoon in NJ is long over
•Weak favorability among Republicans and general public
Bobby Jindal
Governor, LA
•Deep and wide experience
•Knows how to toss red meat to base
•Better on paper than on stump
•Deeply unpopular in Louisiana
Fourth Tier: Evangelical Favorites
Mike Huckabee
Ex-Governor, AR
•Well-known from his Fox News program
•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
Ben Carson
Neurosurgeon and activist
•Adored by Tea Party grassroots
•Good on TV
•Gaffe-prone
•Little chance of establishment backing and funding
Rick Santorum
Ex-Senator, PA
•Strong support from social conservatives
•Been around primary track
•Harder to stand out in much stronger 2016 field
•Not as economically conservative as others
Fifth Tier: The Gadflies and Golden Oldies
Lindsey Graham
Senator, SC
•Prominent Obama critic
•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, severe critic of Clinton
•Very wealthy, could self-fund
•Lost only race (2010 Senate) badly
•Largely unknown, no base of support
Donald Trump
Businessman and TV personality
•Enough name ID to get into debates
•Can command the stage — freedom to say anything
•Draws crowds & media
•Billionaire, could self-fund
•Low favorability among Republicans and general public
•More novelty than plausible nominee
•Makes outlandish statements
•Strongly opposed by GOP leadership
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

List changes

Additions: Donald Trump

Subtractions: Rep. Peter King (NY)