Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The State of the Race: The Republican Primaries

One of these five men will be the GOP nominee-but which?
With just 76 days left until the Iowa Caucuses, no one is doubting the position of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to be the first woman ever to win a major party's nomination.  Clinton's resume, combined with weak opponents and big-name contenders like Joe Biden, Al Gore, and Elizabeth Warren all taking a pass on the race has left her in a position few non-incumbents have ever enjoyed.  Some Democrats may still be a little bit leery about her, but she's about to be their nominee so I suspect they're about to get-inline and vote Clinton for the third time next November.

The Republican primaries, on the other hand, continue to confound.  It's worth noting in the past that presidential primaries have been decided with overwhelming odds in the waning days of a campaign.  John Kerry, for example, was behind almost the entire race in 2004 until he emerged victorious in Iowa, and eventually successful candidates like John McCain, George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan all came out with an "L" in at least one of their campaigns in Iowa.  So this race could well still be decided in New Hampshire, or even (if Bill Clinton is any indication) on Super Tuesday.  As a result, don't get too bogged down on the polls of today, and focus a bit on tea leaves still.  As a result, you'll notice that the man who has led the polling for months nationally has not managed to hit my number one spot still, though I'm definitely not discounting his ability to reach that position if he can continue to keep the sorts of dramatic polling margins he currently has.  Let's take a look at the list of the candidates most likely to make it to Cleveland next August, and perhaps even the White House.

Honorable Mentions: I'm cutting the list in half going forward, because it feels like it's about time to acknowledge ten people aren't seriously competing for the GOP nomination.  As a result, you won't see Gov. John Kasich, who is currently ahead of at least one of these men in New Hampshire, nor Gov. Chris Christie who seems to have rebounded a bit but doesn't have enough gas in the engine to make his campaign work better, nor the debate star Carly Fiorina whose position has clearly faded in the race.  All of these people will be highly-sought after endorsements, and if the Republicans win perhaps a cabinet secretary or high-ranking ambassador (or in Kasich's case, a Vice President), but none of them is #45, or the person that the Republicans will ultimately offer up to be #45.

5. Dr. Ben Carson

I personally can't get over Ben Carson's approval ratings, but they are there and only a fool would dismiss them out-of-hand.  Perhaps this is me living in a glass house, but I honestly have never seen anything like this, where a man with no past experience, who is by all accounts terrible on the stump and in debates, and doesn't have any sort of celebrity charisma manages to land atop many Republican wish lists in the polls.  At least Trump has Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sarah Palin as past precedence for the nation's fascination in his celebrity.  Carson's grasp on foreign policy may be his undoing in the wake of the Paris attacks (though the events are doing nothing to Trump's numbers), but he still sits close to Trump in national polling, and until he starts to hit Fiorina numbers (or hell-Marco Rubio's numbers at this point), I'm not removing him from the lineup.

4. Gov. Jeb Bush

A few days ago I discussed the idea that perhaps Jeb Bush was this cycle's John Kerry, the man no one was really excited about but was the only candidate left standing after all of the other contenders had their turn and we figured out he was the the best of a bad situation.  That's really all Bush, with his terrible approval ratings and polling numbers, can hope for.  It's interesting that his standing in Iowa is considerably stronger than his position in New Hampshire even if that's where he's focusing his campaign right now (Iowa, it should be noted, seems more and more likely to deliver the first bell of the race for Trump at this point, so this might not be the worst decision).  It's worth noting before you totally write him off that in addition to his parallels to the Kerry campaign, Bush is the only option other than Rubio for the establishment.  If Rubio cannot catch fire soon, they may give Bush another look.  Considering the intense strength in the Trump/Carson/Cruz polling numbers, the establishment may not be able to afford having both of them in the race.

3. Donald Trump

I haven't moved Trump from third place for most of the past few months, even if the men surrounding him have moved, but don't mistake that for me not acknowledging that he has gained in this race because he has.  The recent poll numbers about his foreign policy acumen (he tests better than Kasich, Bush, and Rubio in terms of who would do best in terms of foreign policy, a jaw-dropping statistic) show that he has a position that may not be able to questioned until actual voters start to cast their ballots.  It remains to be seen whether or not Trump would be a complete and abject disaster in the general election (I would imagine moderate Republicans and right-leaning Independents, not to mention leery Democrats, faced with the prospect of Trump holding the nuclear codes, would be willing to put up with another Clinton for four years rather than having the Donald in charge), but Trump has defied every expectation so far this cycle and may entice new voters in the same way Jesse Ventura did in 1998.  And this list is for the Republican Primary, not the general election.  Put it this way-if Cruz, Rubio, or Bush had the sort of poll numbers Trump does right now, we'd have them locked in with the same sort of "of course" that we do Hillary Clinton.

2. Sen. Ted Cruz

Cruz has had a marvelous past month, making himself into (at least in the media's eyes) the man who will be challenging Marco Rubio, the assumed frontrunner, in the primaries.  He has run the best traditional campaign, with boots on the ground, money in his pocket, and a subtly strong push in the primaries.  Quite frankly, if you discount the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson (a big distinction), Cruz may well have won the invisible primaries this cycle.  His biggest problem, aside from Rubio of course, is that he needs Carson's voters and Trump's voters to make this thing work.  Cruz has rightfully been reluctant to go after either man, who seem to be revered with the right and he runs the risk of being with the "establishment" if he does, but he's going to have to get more supporters soon if he doesn't want to risk being the Wesley Clark-style candidate that could-on-paper, but couldn't-in-reality.

1. Sen. Marco Rubio

If this were a traditional election, Marco Rubio would be the obvious option, and indeed he is the man I think ultimately makes it through the primaries and takes on Hillary Clinton, but he's a strange frontrunner.  He consistently polls behind both Carson and Trump nationally, as well as in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.  Quite frankly, even if he universally took Fiorina's, Kasich's, and Christie's support nationally (a steep task-some of that would splinter to other candidates almost certainly, and this would assume they all drop out), he would still be behind Trump and Carson according to polling averages.  I put him here because I have never seen a candidate like Trump or Carson actually win the nomination.  Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, Herman Cain-they get their moments in the spotlight, and they might even win a state or two, but at the end of the day the GOP establishment (and the Democratic establishment, for that matter) haven't gone with a candidate who is viewed as general election poison in decades.  As a result, Rubio will be here until he either craters or until actual voters prove forty years of history wrong.

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