Sabato's Crystal Ball

The New World Order

The Republican White House field is scrambled earlier than expected

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics January 8th, 2015

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Well, that didn’t last long! By that, we mean our pre-Christmas ordering of the GOP presidential field. We shouldn’t be surprised. Politics never takes a long holiday break anymore.

First prize for early maneuvering goes to Jeb Bush. His unexpected, all-but-in announcement on Dec. 16 stunned his competitors and the political community. Bush didn’t just accelerate the entire process, including forthcoming announcements by rivals, but he also gained a leg up in conventional wisdom’s positioning.

So for the first time in a while, we elevate a candidate to the First Tier of the Crystal Ball’s GOP rankings for president. Jeb Bush fills a long-established vacuum. Our decision is tentative; his poll ratings are still underwhelming, and Bush is a shaky frontrunner. Yet Bush is No. 1 on a giant roster as we begin the long roller-coaster process of picking the party nominees over the next year and a half.

We are amazed that Republicans could nominate their third Bush for a fifth run at the White House since 1988. Such family dominance of either major party is unprecedented in American history, unless you want to link Republican Teddy Roosevelt’s one nomination (1904) with Democrat Franklin Roosevelt’s four nominations (1932-1944). The Roosevelt presidencies were separated by party labels and 24 years. The Bush presidencies, should Jeb win it all, will have been separated by just eight-year intervals.

By no means is Bush a sure thing — far from it. The path to the nomination will likely be tougher for this Bush than it was for his father in 1988 and brother in 2000. The party establishment is still a force to be reckoned with, but nowhere near as dominant in the GOP of 2015 as it was in those earlier times.

Currently, more than three-quarters of Republicans want someone other than Bush. The frontrunner depends on a split in conservative ranks — which appears to be happening — as well as a concerted push by the party’s establishment leaders and donors to freeze out Bush alternatives (including Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and John Kasich). We’ve always doubted Romney would run unless the pragmatists in the leadership and donor class deemed a rescue mission essential; right now, they do not. The remaining Bush alternatives are still in the game, though.

The other major development is in Tier Six (Wild Cards), with Mike Huckabee’s dramatic move. Most observers had severe doubts Huck would run, given his six years away from elective politics and his lucrative Fox News Channel gig. Now the former governor has walked away from a large TV paycheck and started assembling a campaign team. We’re moving him to Tier Three, where he joins other “Outsiders” Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, has deep, genuine appeal to social conservatives, as do Cruz, Carson, and Rick Santorum.

There are additional pluses for Huck: He’s been around the presidential track with some success, and in 2008 demonstrated strength among blue collars. Nevertheless, a repeat Iowa victory in 2016’s caucuses is hardly guaranteed because he’s splitting evangelicals with many others. Huckabee might also have trouble, as he did in 2008, raising the tens of millions needed to compete throughout the season. Moreover, the Club for Growth and other anti-tax and spending groups will mobilize against Huckabee, claiming he had a “liberal” record on their issues while governor of Arkansas.

No other deck-shuffling is warranted at the moment on the GOP side (or for that matter, among the Democrats, who are mainly frozen while they await Hillary’s definitive signal).

At the same time, Marco Rubio gets a gold star for standing firm and not caving simply because his ally and fellow Floridian Jeb Bush has big-footed him. Bush may yet crush Rubio’s candidacy. It’s not so much because the Sunshine State can’t support dual contenders (actually three, because Huckabee now resides there) but rather that Rubio requires the backing of the moneyed class that won’t abandon Bush easily. Many top GOP leaders see Rubio as possible VP material for a non-Bush nominee, or they simply hope he’ll run again for Senate.

By the way, if Bush is the presidential nominee, Rubio wouldn’t be chosen for VP, but not for the legal reason commonly cited. A Bush-Rubio ticket is in fact constitutional, despite a widespread belief to the contrary. Yet such a matchup obviously makes little political sense, and Florida’s electors — assuming the GOP ticket wins in the state — would have to abstain in the vice presidential voting unless either Bush or Rubio has moved his voting residence outside of Florida. If the presidential contest is close in the Electoral College tally, these abstentions would open up the possibility that no one would obtain an Electoral College majority for VP so that the Senate would choose the next vice president under the terms of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution. With Bush-Rubio, the GOP would be making a risky and unnecessary bet that the Senate in early 2017 would still be under Republican control.

A tongue-in-cheek postscript: After a vigorous debate, the Crystal Ball team has decided not to demote Chris Christie to a lower tier. Christie’s over-the-top performance in Jerry Jones’ box last weekend, with his bear-hugging of Jones and his jumping up and down while squealing like a schoolgirl, infuriated and disgusted millions (our considered estimate). Still, it would be probably unwise, though somewhat just, to take out the nation’s massive dislike of the Dallas Cowboys on Christie. Yet Christie’s demonstrated aversion to Detroit, and his snubbing of New Jersey-area home teams, may earn him the voters’ rebuke in the Lions’ Michigan, the Giants’ and Jets’ New York, and the Eagles’ Pennsylvania.

Table 1: 2016 Crystal Ball Republican presidential rankings

First Tier: The Nominal Frontrunner
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
Second Tier: The Other Big Boys
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

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
•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
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
•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 and has strong campaign team
•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 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
•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 gadfly 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