Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The State of the Race: Republican Primaries

Trying to get a gage on what is happening in the Republican primaries for next year right now has been impossible.  Conventional wisdom is always there, but increasingly one wonders if this is one of those years that will defy convention-after all, you can't look at these polls forever and not eventually have a moment where you think "could this be a 'history-making' year?"  After all, the polls clearly indicate an increase in strength for non-elect officials in a way not seen in decades.  Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina have all gained since the last debate and though they have different styles they share a common trait of never having held political office, while longtime politicians like Scott Walker and Rand Paul have cooled in polling to the point where one wonders whether or not they should be taken seriously in the race.  As a result, creating a "State of the Race" article seems a task covered in risk as this is a volatile field, but we haven't done one in a while and so I figured it was time to take a stab at where my thoughts are on the competition as we head into the debates one week from today.  Here, with Number One being most likely to win, are my guesses for who wins the Republican Primary:

Before We Begin: Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul are both missing from this list for a reason-I am not remotely impressed by their campaigns, and they have taken what were once insurmountable leads and turned them into piddling jokes.  They both have the name recognition to theoretically regain their positions in the race, but it's doubtful and while everyone is playing the game of "when will Rick Perry quit?" it feels like these two fellas may not make it to Iowa either.  Additionally, I think Sen. Lindsey Graham has a run a pretty decent campaign has a foothold in South Carolina that can't entirely be denied (he's the only Republican running who is from an early primary state), but his hawkish stances don't seem to have a place in the national conversation and I can't seem to find a route for him this late in the game.

10. Carly Fiorina

The former Hewlett-Packard CEO has received raves from the press after her performance at the FOX News Kiddie Table debate, to the point where she was able to elbow her way into the CNN main event debate despite the rules seemingly precluding her from entering.  For Fiorina, the payoff here is questionable-if she were to actually make it to the upper echelons, her position as a "success" would be brought into question in a pretty glaring light.  It's been veryevident all primary season that the GOP is hoping to use her as a foil to Hillary Clinton, as Fiorina's place as the only woman in the race makes it easier to go after Clinton without the risk of being labeled sexist (though considering the vitriol that Fiorina has spewed at Clinton, one wonders if this would work if she was viewed as a theoretically viable option).  I suspect Fiorina's long-term plan is to look as presidential as possible to try and score a cabinet-level position or perhaps even make it to a VP slot if the ticket clearly needs a Republican woman (though Susana Martinez or Nikki Haley would surely be more appropriate choices in that regard), but one wonders how long the GOP field will allow her to get these strong approval ratings without going after her unfortunate tenure at HP and her disaster of a 2010 Senate race. (Previous Ranking: N/A)

9. Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee is making hay out of Kim Davis for a reason-it's the only card he has left to play.  With Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz sucking all of the Tea Party air out of the room, Huckabee is in a position where his only hope is the evangelical Christian vote, which means he's in bed with some unlikely allies like Josh Duggar and Kim Davis.  This won't work in the long run, or probably even in the short run, quite frankly, as the evangelical Christian vote isn't what it used to be and Huckabee's chances as a result rest squarely in South Carolina, which is a state that Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson are all hugely chasing as well (and in which Donald Trump is polling strongly).  Huckabee's base of support is strong enough that as long as the debates remain ten-wide he'll be in them, but I'm getting the sense (and I suspect he is too) that he waited four years too long to enter this race. (Previous Ranking: 8)

8. Scott Walker

The biggest fall for any of the candidates on this list, Walker's chances are decreasing by the day, particularly considering that Donald Trump's strength in Iowa continues to be solid.  Walker desperately needs a win in one of the early four states as he's not a Jeb Bush who can pop up on Super Tuesday and regain the lead, and he's put all of his eggs in the Hawkeye State basket, which is starting to look like an odious plan.  Walker still has several cards to play, particularly his anti-union one that would play well with hardline conservatives (expect him to bring that out in the debates next week), but while he hasn't entered Christie/Paul levels of blase, no one is really excited about him anymore and he's not establishment enough for the Chamber of Commerce crowd to rally around him when the going gets tough. (Previous Ranking: 2)

7. Ben Carson

Donald Trump is a major, national figure that has dominated pop culture for thirty years; his rise-to-the-top of the polls isn't entirely eyebrow-raising, though his ability to stay there might be.  However, Ben Carson is a very odd candidate to be so celebrated, in my opinion.  He's ultra right-wing, particularly with his comparisons of the Affordable Care Act to slavery, but he's pretty demure when he's on the stump, to the point where I don't really know how it is he's getting the numbers that he is.  Is there a wing of the party that hates Trump but still wants a non-politician, because that could be a very interesting wing to look into, and one wonders if Ted Cruz should be tracking down Carson voters first before he becomes Donald Trump's shadow as they seem pretty easy to convert?  Either way, Carson's clearly on the map, though his position seems pretty fluid. (Previous Ranking: N/A)

6. Mitt Romney

I'm aware he's not running, but you know there are certain increasingly vocal quarters of the GOP that are desperate for him to get into the race.  Much like the whole Joe Biden train that's been leaving the station over the past month or so, the Republican Party is looking at Jeb's fall and Marco Rubio's inability to rise and wondering what it's going to take to bring down Donald Trump.  Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans don't have a Vice President who is dying to get to the Oval Office lying around AND is a theoretical option (Dick Cheney's too polarizing and Dan Quayle's too forgotten to be effective), but they do have a man who has been running for president for seven years and whom I suspect would jump at the chance to take another shot at a job he's wanted his whole life.  Mitt Romney dropped out months ago because the chorus from the GOP was "don't run"-if the chorus changes their tune, will he reverse along with it?  I wouldn't totally discount this if Donald Trump still leads in November. (Previous Ranking: N/A)

5. John Kasich

We now jump to the candidates I think have a realistic chance of being the presidential nominee.  Kasich is the other Plan B, in my opinion, for those who look at the way that Jeb Bush has struggled and Marco Rubio hasn't popped.  The Ohio governor has wanted to be president for as long as I've been watching politics, and I think he knows he's in a make-or-break moment in his campaign right now.  With Donald Trump sucking up all of the air but lambasting Jeb Bush, Kasich has a position now to strike and go after the establishment, ganging up on Bush.  If he doesn't go for the jugular during the debates, I suspect he needs to hire new campaign strategists.  A month from now, we'll know whether or not Kasich is the dark horse candidate I've suspected he could be or whether or not he is simply a historical footnote along the lines of Mo Udall and Orrin Hatch, a respected figure who could never sink the bucket on winning the nomination. (Previous Ranking: 6)

4. Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz is in such a weird position in the race for president.  If you look at the numbers, he's hardly impressive-he's not winning either the invisible primary or the actual primary.  However, there's never been a clearer direction for Ted Cruz's chances for the nomination, and they rest solely in his weird position between the establishment (he's a senator, he's with the business-minded GOP on almost every major economic issue) and the Tea Party (he inspires fire in evangelicals and those who would support Donald Trump).  What Cruz needs is a little bit of luck, a faltering of either Ben Carson or Donald Trump, and for the anti-establishment fervor to continue.  Cruz is a savvier politician than either Carson or Trump, and if the race unfolds the way I suspect, he will have his opening in this campaign.  Whether or not he can take advantage of it is up to him. (Previous Ranking: 5)


3. Donald Trump

Trying to figure out what is happening with Donald Trump is impossible because there's almost no precedent for him.  Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan both ran very well in 1988 and 1996, respectively, but neither of them could have dreamed of getting away with the vitriol and bigotry that Trump has been espousing (though Robertson sure has tried to make up for lost time since!).  Trump is a weird threat to the GOP in several ways, not least of which is that he's going after some issues that are genuinely popular with the populist base but not with the party leadership (principally taxing the rich and he's ultra-right wing stances on immigration reform).  I still feel that the establishment GOP, who almost always get their man (Romney beat Santorum, McCain beat Huckabee, Dole beat Buchanan, etc, etc, etc back to the beginning of the party) will eventually settle on one of the top two men or Kasich, but to dismiss Trump with his gargantuan numbers and increasing popularity and seemingly teflon ability with his supporters is foolishness.  And anyone at the Hillary Clinton camp who is celebrating Trump's lead needs to realize that Trump could create a game plan with a lot of uncertainty (high risk, high reward). (Previous Ranking: N/A)

2. Marco Rubio

The Florida senator is everyone's second choice.  No one seems to want him at the top of their ballot, but almost everyone is fine with Rubio being the nominee.  That's a huge plus for the Florida senator, as we'll start to see the lesser candidates dropping out soon, and provided he holds his own, he could pick up the scraps that Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and theoretically even Scott Walker will leave behind.  The question is where is his in-if this is a race with Trump, Bush, Cruz, Carson, and Huckabee by Iowa, will Marco Rubio have enough support at that point to break in or will that be too many cooks in the kitchen for him to take advantage?  He's certainly the best option against Hillary Clinton at this point, and he's made very few mistakes, but it's hard to imagine the establishment dropping Bush unless they have to and the Tea Party will go Trump/Cruz/Carson first, and the evangelicals will stick with Huckabee.  Rubio's best bet is a high-roller strategy getting the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson to keep him viable past the first four primaries and hope that Bush implodes in the process.  It's always worth mentioning that Rubio as a VP isn't really what's going on with his campaign here (like John Edwards in 2004), as Bush (the most likely guy to pick him) can't make that option constitutionally viable (you can't have a ticket all from the same state). (Previous Ranking: 2)


1. Jeb Bush

I'm sticking with Jeb at Number One, because Rubio, Kasich, and Walker have not been able to tag down the establishment vote and I cannot see an outsider, even a billionaire outsider with universal name recognition, getting the nomination.  Bush has run a lousy campaign, rivaled in many ways only by Hillary Clinton, but he is a titan in GOP politics.  Most of the party bigwigs owe their careers not to their idol Ronald Reagan, but to Bush's father and brother and it's hard to see them abandoning their mentors and old bosses in a time of need for the family.  Jeb also has nearly unlimited funds and is still the grown-up in the room, which will help with the Chamber of Commerce crowd.  In many ways he's in the same position as Hillary Clinton-the race is too stacked in his direction for him to lose.  Donald Trump is the unstoppable force, Jeb Bush is the immovable object, and the paradox states that they can't both exist in the same universe-which one gives way and how much damage is sustained is the answer to who the nominee is. (Previous Ranking: 1)

And there you have it-my Top 10.  Any thoughts?  Anyone I'm missing?  We'll be getting to the Democrats later this week, but in the meantime weight in on who you think will be the GOP nominee!

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