Sabato's Crystal Ball

Republicans 2016: Two Down, 14 to Go

Making sense of a (slowly) shrinking GOP field

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball September 24th, 2015

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Whatever else it is, the Republican presidential contest has become a full employment act for reporters and analysts. With the largest (though gradually shrinking) field of any major party in U.S. history and a Republican electorate that appears mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore, the GOP caravan is careening down the highway with drivers hurling insults at one another and racing recklessly to get into position for the voting that begins in a little over four months.

The 2012 nomination battle had plenty of ups and downs, too, but this one has become an expensive multi-front contest in record time. With debates drawing massive audiences and stoking the fires at regular intervals, there’s little chance the race will settle down soon.

Once again, we at the Crystal Ball are shuffling the deck and reconstituting our tiers of GOP candidates to accommodate the dramatic events still unfolding. Let’s start with the three candidates who’ve grabbed most of the attention so far, and collectively, a majority of the Republican respondents in recent surveys. All of them are outsiders without any elective office experience on their resumes: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina.

To the consternation of some of our readers, we choose to call them, “The Longshot Frontrunners.” They are the product of the Republican base’s deep anger at President Obama and his seven years of — in their view — appalling liberalism, as well as boiling frustration with their own congressional leaders, many of whom over-promised what the election of a GOP-controlled Senate and House would accomplish. The old slogan, “Throw the bums out,” has been expanded to include the bums branded with their own party label.

First up is the man who has absorbed the lion’s share of the available media light for three months, Donald Trump. It’s been on-the-job training for The Donald, but even his many enemies must admit that he’s learned quickly and become a better candidate overall. As a showman, Trump possesses natural political instincts that have served him well so far.

Now, “better” doesn’t mean “acceptable,” at least to the leadership of the GOP. Few frontrunners have ever attracted a nearly solid wall of unmovable opposition from their own party’s officeholders like Trump has. It’s true that, unlike Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in his withdrawal speech, most are not speaking out. As we always remind people, John F. Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage, is a short volume.

But when you get senators, House members, governors, party chairs, and big donors off the record about Trump, you’d better be ready for some blue language (and have Excedrin handy to ease their pain). They see him as an unserious narcissist whose harsh focus on illegal immigration has severely set back efforts to woo Hispanic and Asian Americans. You had better believe that GOP leaders will do everything in their power, mainly behind the scenes, to ensure that Trump is not their standard-bearer. The ones who are in their 60s or older compare Trump’s fall electoral prospects to Barry Goldwater, who lost in a crushing 1964 landslide.

Friends, there is no way on God’s green earth that the Republican Party hierarchy is going to allow Donald Trump to be their nominee for president if they have enough power to stop him. They hope that Trump will self-destruct, but they are willing to see some bloodletting if needed.

We too remember 1964 (well, one of us does), and just as Goldwater’s ascension could not be derailed, perhaps Trump’s rise can’t be either. Nonetheless, party leaders believe the initials of the GOP will be changed to RIP if Trump is on the November 2016 ballot, and this near-unanimity of leadership opinion should be enough to defeat Trump one way or the other.

What of Dr. Ben Carson, the soft-spoken retired neurosurgeon who is as serene as Trump is boisterous? Among Republicans, there is certainly no dislike of the man, only admiration for his achievements and gratitude that he is espousing conservative values (and a hope, however thin, that he will persuade other African Americans to back the GOP).

Yet Carson is seen by the Republican leadership as another exotic choice, an outsider whose lack of electoral experience and first-hand knowledge of many foreign and domestic issues will inevitably get him into trouble. (His declaration that no Muslim should serve as president is the most recent example.) The guess here is that Carson will finish the primary season with one of the highest favorable ratings in either party, but not with the prize he seeks. Can he be surgeon general in a Republican administration? Sure. But presidential nominee? No.

And this brings us to the third outsider whose ascent has just begun, Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO. Most agree that she lapped the 10 men on the CNN primetime debate stage last week, proving that her triumph in Fox’s August undercard skirmish was no fluke. Steely and possessed of a razor-sharp mind, Fiorina is a force to be reckoned with. As one would expect, she’s on the rise, but is she riding a balloon to the nomination or to Oz?

Given Fiorina’s low level of fundraising and almost nonexistent campaign organization in most places, it will be extremely difficult for her to prevail in Cleveland. She also faces difficult questions about her controversial tenure at HP, which helped to deep-six her when she ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Granted, that earlier contest was against an incumbent, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, in deep-blue California. However, Fiorina ran in a solid Republican year, and Boxer had weaknesses of her own to exploit. If you want to see the kinds of charges a newly elevated Fiorina will now face, then just watch this anti-Fiorina TV advertisement from five years ago.

At the same time, as unhappy as the GOP leadership is with Trump, they are thrilled that Fiorina has become so prominent. She can go after Hillary Clinton without fear of gender backlash from women. Differentiating herself from Carson and Trump, Fiorina has actually garnered a couple of endorsements from sitting members of Congress, Reps. Lynn Jenkins (R, KS-2) and Candice Miller (R, MI-10). Fiorina has likely guaranteed herself a spot on the lengthy vice presidential selection list next year, although the same questions about her time at HP that could plague her during the nominating contest would also come up in vice presidential vetting. While there will be intense competition for the Veep slot, she’s a solid bet to be offered a Cabinet position should the Republican presidential nominee be elected.

This remarkable nomination battle has been shaped by these three outsiders. While we think that they are unlikely to end up on the November 2016 ballot, each one has influenced what the eventual standard-bearer will do and say — for better or worse.

So who are the more likely nominees?

The Long-Distance Runners

The presidential nominating process is anything but a sprint. And while there doesn’t appear to be a Steve Prefontaine in the Republican field, a quartet of candidates who do have elective experience seem to be best positioned to have a shot at winning the party’s nomination in the long run.

One obviously useful resource over the course of a long campaign is money, and despite his manifest weaknesses, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his surrogates have oodles of dollars that they are now starting to utilize. Right to Rise, Bush’s Super PAC, has begun a $24 million TV ad campaign in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina to boost the candidate. Such largesse can’t easily be matched by other GOP contenders, although it’ll be important to see how much hard money Bush is able to raise for his campaign as opposed to Super PAC money, which can’t pay for staff salaries and other campaign nuts and bolts. A lack of hard, direct campaign fundraising helped end the candidacies of Walker and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Nonetheless, Bush has been relatively stagnant in national polls, with most showing him in the high single digits. While polls in September of the year before an election essentially have no predictive power, they matter to donors and supporters as signals of competitiveness (or lack thereof). There was heightened concern prior to the Sept. 16 debate that a poor performance might cause some of his monetary support to dry up. While Bush’s evening at the Reagan Library was relatively unimpressive, he did have a couple of lively moments, such as going after Trump for attacks on Bush’s wife as well as defending George W. Bush, saying his older brother “kept us safe.” It seems as if Bush may have done enough to avoid an existential crisis for his campaign.

Still, as we wrote in our debate reaction, Jeb Bush will continue to have trouble separating himself from the controversies and conservative heterodoxy associated with his brother’s presidency. A torrent of campaign ads about Bush being his own man won’t alter that, but it could at least blunt the attacks. The GOP base, or most of it, appears quite critical of the idea of nominating a third Bush. Yet it is quite possible the ultra-flush Bush, privately backed by many of the party’s top elected leaders, could win a campaign of attrition.

This wouldn’t be the first time the GOP establishment imposed its preferred choice on a reluctant grassroots (think Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Bob Dole). It’s hard to see Republican activists ever being especially enthusiastic about Jeb Bush, but nominations can be captured in many ways. The Bush campaign is betting they can outlast the opponents, and then the rank-and-file will fall into line, however reluctantly, to do battle with the Democrats. We’ll see whether their optimistic projection comes to pass.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Bush’s fellow Floridian, had a better debate night than Bush, at least based on a CNN/ORC poll taken in the days following the most recent debate. Asked who did “the best job” at the debate, a majority of Republicans picked Fiorina, matching the sentiments of political observers everywhere. However, Rubio finished second, leaving him and Trump as the only others to get double-digit consideration as the debate winner (and about one-third of respondents said Trump had the worst performance). The CNN survey also found that Rubio had the second-best net favorability polling among the candidates, behind only Carson.

Rubio’s horserace numbers have mostly languished in the mid-single digits through the summer, with the CNN poll result of 11% being his strongest since a mid-June poll had him at 14%. We’ve long thought Rubio had a chance of winning the nomination because of his potential ability to appeal to a broad swath of the Republican electorate and earn support from big-time GOP donors and establishment figures. Perhaps this will prove to the beginning of an ascent for the junior senator from the Sunshine State.

Of course, one poll alone can’t be taken as unassailable truth. And it seems Rubio knows full well that a nice September survey result doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. At least the CNN poll will reassure donors and possibly gain him new ones. Rubio’s circumstances could be seen as the polar opposite of Walker’s. Initial 2016 polling suggested that Rubio and Walker had perhaps the most potential to attract both the conservative grassroots and Republican insiders to their presidential banners. With Walker now out, Rubio may be alone in his ability to attract voters across the party’s ideological spectrum. Additionally, the Florida senator is reportedly set to receive much of Walker’s big-donor base.

Whereas Bush and Rubio aren’t really pursuing highly state-specific campaigns, Ohio Gov. John Kasich is running a New Hampshire-or-bust effort. According to National Journal’s helpful 2016 Travel Tracker, of the four “Long-Distance Runners” we see as the most likely group to contain the eventual GOP nominee, Kasich has visited New Hampshire by far the most — 26% of his 54 trips have been to the Granite State versus 11% for Bush and Rubio. Note that the data catalog all trips outside of a candidate’s home state, and someone like Bush has taken many fundraising trips in states such as New York. Nevertheless, Kasich has focused most of his attention on the first-in-the-nation primary: A strong finish in New Hampshire could make him a preeminent establishment choice, especially if he finishes ahead of Bush, who must also do well there. Beating Bush could potentially encourage many insiders to reconsider their support for Bush and shift over to Kasich. Thus, Kasich’s campaign and its surrogates have poured resources into the state, including a recent $5 million Super PAC ad blitz. Averaging horserace polls in New Hampshire (all prior to the last debate), Kasich sits in third behind Trump and Carson and just ahead of Fiorina and Bush. If the political outsiders slide, the Kasich strategy might pay off in spades.

A Bush or Kasich nomination would indicate a total defeat for outsider forces in the GOP, who have dominated much of the national conversation with the rise of Trump, Carson, and Fiorina. As we suggested above, the establishment has usually gotten what it has wanted in presidential nominating contests. Not since Goldwater has a true outsider won the nomination; Ronald Reagan had the image of an outsider but had accumulated quite a bit of establishment support by 1980.

To the right of Bush, Rubio, and Kasich is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who had a solid debate performance this past Wednesday. When he got a chance to speak, he was one of the few on stage who understood that it was a television debate — he consistently spoke directly to the camera and the 23 million people watching around the country.

Deeply conservative, Cruz can’t be portrayed as a squish on key conservative issues, something that can’t necessarily be said for Bush and Rubio (immigration) or Kasich (Medicaid expansion). Given his constant battling with the Republican establishment in DC and his rhetoric about taking on the “Washington Cartel,” Cruz’s reputation isn’t at odds with the desire of some conservatives to nominate an anti-Beltway candidate. With this in mind, Cruz has proactively been friendly to Trump, and the real estate mogul has been equally affable in return. In the aftermath of Carson’s comments regarding a Muslim becoming president, Cruz didn’t criticize Carson directly but said that as a constitutionalist, he respected the fact that the Constitution says there cannot be religious tests for public office. While Trump and Carson are ahead of Cruz in nearly all polls, the Texas senator wants to be in a position to capture those who support the leaders when and if they falter, even though it’s far from clear whether people who support, say, Trump, would flock to another candidate en masse.

Walker’s exit might help Cruz in Iowa. Before the rise of Trump, Walker appeared to be the frontrunner in the Hawkeye State, and he had been gearing his candidacy to appeal to very conservative voters and white evangelicals, who dominate the Iowa caucuses. Those are the same voters Cruz is targeting, and he now has one less person with whom to contend in the leadoff contest. However, there are lots of other candidates targeting those voters — many of them are in our third tier, and Cruz might benefit if more of them fall by the wayside.

For Cruz to win the nomination, he will probably need a serious split in establishment support between two other candidates. RedState’s Erick Erickson has suggested that a Cruz-Rubio battle seems like a plausible matchup way down the road. That could very well happen, and we would probably view Rubio as the favorite if the field were mostly whittled down to that pairing. But what if Bush, “heavy with campaign cash and family issues” as Ross Douthat recently put it, hung around and helped split the less conservative, more establishment vote? That could set up an advantageous situation for Cruz. At the same time, there’s also the possibility that enough outsiders will hang around that Cruz won’t ever make the gains his strategy appears to anticipate. Trump has a personal fortune to spend and Carson has seen improved fundraising. If both remain relevant, that could reduce the number of supporters Cruz hopes to pick up.

As you see, the what-if game is a lot of fun to play. And the next batch of Republican candidates are doing a lot of it while hoping to break through.

The Breakthrough Seekers

Our rebranded third and final tier features candidates who, frankly, have disappointed so far. But one or more of them may enjoy a moment in the sun before the book is closed on their candidacies.

When we originally conceived of this tier late last week, Scott Walker was going to lead it, in a big downgrade from his previously lofty position. We won’t dwell on Walker’s exit here, but we’re reprinting our initial reaction to his departure from the race below (we originally published that analysis on Monday afternoon after the Walker news broke). With Walker out, there are eight other bottom tier candidates desperately seeking a path up the ladder.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the 2008 Iowa caucus winner, is playing up his cultural conservatism, appearing with a Kentucky clerk of court who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. His time has likely passed, but if he’s on the ballot in Iowa one would expect him to get a not insubstantial total of votes. On the other end of the spectrum is the New Hampshire spoiler, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The votes he gets in the Granite State will probably come from voters who would otherwise be inclined to support more durable candidates such as Bush or Kasich. It would be a boon to the latter two if Christie got out before the primary there.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky did pay his state party $250,000 to move from a May primary to a March caucus, but he still appears to us to be a man without a home in the GOP. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania are, like Huckabee, Iowa spoilers, but they have virtually no national viability at this point, as indicated by their relegation to the so-called “undercard” in the first two debates. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had a solid undercard debate performance but it might be a stretch to call him a spoiler even in his home state primary; does he want to risk embarrassment there by staying in? Former Gov. George Pataki of New York is an afterthought, maybe vying for a few percentage points in New Hampshire, and former Gov. Jim Gilmore of Virginia is a poor man’s Pataki.

Remember: We’re still more than four months until the Iowa caucuses, currently scheduled for Feb. 1, 2016. The presidential nominating process is often criticized for being too long, and it probably is. But the lengthy period of scrutiny — really, more than a year before any primary or caucus votes are cast — does give voters and observers an opportunity to see if a candidate who looks good on paper actually pans out in practice. Ultimately, Walker’s transition from paper to practice was remarkably rocky, which explains why he no longer appears in the list of active candidates. Table 1 shows our complete rankings.

Table 1: 2016 Crystal Ball Republican presidential rankings

First Tier: The Longshot 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
•Massive television coverage amounts to in-kind donation from press
•GOP holds very mixed views about him, more negative than most of real contenders
•More novelty than plausible nominee
•Makes outlandish & controversial statements
•Strongly opposed by a near-unanimous GOP leadership
Ben Carson
Neurosurgeon and activist
•Adored by Tea Party grassroots
•Good on TV
•Political outsider, no baggage from office
•Gaffe-prone
•Little chance of establishment backing and funding
•Can he build a credible political operation?
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
•Can she raise big money & build credible political operation?
Second Tier: The Long-Distance Runners
Jeb Bush
Ex-Governor, FL
•Conservative gubernatorial resume
•National BushWorld money and organization, has already raised huge sums
•Personifies establishment, which typically produces GOP nominees
•Bush fatigue is real and deep
•Support for Common Core and immigration reform unpopular in GOP
•Personifies establishment, which grassroots loathes
•Weak on stump, little excitement for him
Marco Rubio
Senator, FL
•Dynamic speaker and politician
•Potential appeal to party insiders & outsiders, plus Hispanics
•Generational contrast with Jeb…& Hillary
•Went left on immigration, hurt him with base
•Still surprisingly anonymous for seeming top-tier contender
•Blocked by Bush in home state?
John Kasich
Governor, OH
•Long moderate-conservative record plus two terms as swing-state Ohio governor
•Could be fallback for GOP establishment forces
•Early success in New Hampshire
•Supported Medicaid expansion, backs Common Core — shares some of Bush’s liabilities but lacks Jeb’s immense funding
•Unscripted style can lead to unforced errors

•Jon Huntsman 2.0? Will not have path without strong NH showing
Ted Cruz
Senator, TX
•Dynamic debater & canny, often underestimated politician
•Anti-establishment nature plays well with base
•Strong early fundraising
•Too extreme?
•Disliked on both sides of the Senate aisle
•Strong Tea Party support ensures establishment resistance to candidacy
Third Tier: The Breakthrough Seekers
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 & social views — party leaders don’t think he’s electable
•Small fundraising base
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
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
•May be losing support from father’s base by altering positions
Bobby Jindal
Governor, LA
•Deep and wide experience
•Knows how to toss red meat to base
•Attempts to build national credibility have fallen flat
•Deeply unpopular in Louisiana
Rick Santorum
Ex-Senator, PA
•Credibility with social conservatives
•Been around primary track
•Yesterday’s news
•Not as economically conservative as others
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
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 recent debate, no detectable support
•Largely anonymous in party