By Matt Rooney | The Save Jersey Blog
For most of Republican history, Save Jerseyans, we picked our candidates in smokey back rooms. That system had its merits. Then we moved away from the convention system towards the “primary” system in the latter part of the 20th century. Still, what you ended up having was an establishment favored candidate and maybe one (or two) serious challengers.
Not in 2016.
A perfect storm of factors – including an explosion of post-Citizens United independent expenditure spending, the proliferation of social media influence and a deep Obama-era Republican bench – has led to an unprecedented 15-candidate (and counting) GOP field with no clear front runner.
I’ve decided to try to rank them on a semi-regular basis in a (likely) vain effort to keep track of the mayhem. Polls are one factor in my rankings, sure, but we’re naturally going to adopt a more holistic approach to forecasting who’s best positioned, at any given time when we update them, to winning the Republican nomination.
So, without further ado:
Defined: Anyone is the first tier, at this moment in time, could reasonably win the nomination. They’ve got both a path and the means to successfully traverse it.
1. Jeb Bush
Sorry, haters, but the Bush clan is a dynasty for a reason. Jeb Bush is a fiercely-smart, extremely hardworking executive-type with a famous name carrying a dynastic aura, an infrastructure (or at least the beginnings of one) in all 50 states and one hundred flippin’ million dollars. The former Governor was also an unarguably conservative in Florida so it’s going to be hard to poke many holes in his record per se. That’s the good news and, you have to admit, there’s plenty of it.
However, his immigration position and rhetoric, disdain for red meat and last name (it’s the ultimate double-edged sword) have kept him from being able to break out as the clear front runner. It’s not easy for a cerebral candidate to breakout early and hard in the modern, increasingly-populist Republican Party. He leads most polls but let’s face it, leading with under 20% of the vote in a field of 15+ candidates in post-Citizens United America does not a true front runner make! The smart money nevertheless is on him going all the way…. if we had to bet the farm….
2A. Marco Rubio
If Jeb Bush is everything that’s made the GOP strong in the past, fellow Floridian Marco Rubio represents much of what we’ll need to be successful tomorrow. At least in that sense, it’s a damn shame the former allies are constitutionally prohibited from serving on the same ticket. I still think he’s far-and-away the most promising young talent in the race (only 44 – Kennedy was 43 and TR only 42) with the political skills and life story to make a great president. The lure of supporting the first Hispanic presidential candidate might sway some voters; combating history (Hilldawg = first female president) with history (Marco!) is an attractive electoral proposition!
He’s in 3rd place on the fundraising front, too, and building an impressive battleground state network, so combined with his Super PAC’s early success, he should have more than enough cash to compete with the other big boys. Obstacles? (1) Jeb Bush is putting the squeeze on his Florida connects/prospects, (2) His Bush-like immigration prospective hurt him with some one-issue conservative voters, and (3) Republicans tend to prefer executives to legislators. #2 may prove fatal only because the race is soooooo crowded. Purists may opt for another right-of-center alternative and, in so doing, hand the nomination to Jeb Bush.
2B. Scott Walker
Governor Walker is in tier #1 ’cause he’s ideologically simpatico with the GOP base AND his governing resume is stellar. His every-man narrative and Midwestern roots could prove advantageous. The challenge? Guy-next-door Walker is only marginally more inspiring on the stump than Hillary Clinton. In other words, he’s boring. A throwback to a simpler time. We just don’t elect guys like him in the sound bite age. That’s challenge numero uno, and I’m dubious as to whether it can be turned into a plus.
A secondary but not unimportant daunting issue is money. He’s got a proven ability to raise it, but with so many other RGA alums and stars in the race, is he going to find enough?
2C. Donald Trump
The man of the hour? Or 2016’s latest passing fad? Now leading (or close to leading) in major polls, I continue to maintain that the GOP underestimates Trump. He’s a billionaire, for starters.
Unlike Ross Perot in ’92 or ’96, he’s going into this fight demonstrating clear ideological compatibility with the base of one of two major leading national parties. Unlike Ron Paul in ’12, he’s got money/name recognition/charisma and a hundred other advantages.
Yet Trump seems to be tapping into a general feeling of disgust not all too dissimilar to what Perot leveraged over two decades ago. At the moment, Trump is limited in this race only by himself; a little self-control (translated: learning when to shut up) and plenty of money (we’re assuming he’s willing to spend a 9-figure chunk of his $4-8 billion personal fortune) can go a long way toward prevailing in a crowded, unsettled primary environment with no clear front runner. So half or more of the party doesn’t like him today? So what? He doesn’t need that many, and if he starts winning, minds can be changed…
Defined: Candidates in the second tier, at this moment in time, lack either a path to the nomination or the means to successfully traverse it (or both). Most need something to happen – outside of his or her control – to move up to tier #1. But all of that could easily change in the months ahead for reasons discussed in greater details below.
3A. Ted Cruz
The smart, charismatic preacher-style Republican legislator is a Tea Party darling whose Super PAC is sitting on $38 million. Unfortunately for Cruz fans, his appeal isn’t likely broad enough to win the nomination. That’s a fact, not a put-down. Cruz’s best shot? Trump fades sooner rather than later (entirely possible), Rubio doesn’t catch fire (also possible) but the field stays crowded late enough to bring about the first-in-a-generation Republican convention fight (unlikely but 2016 is shaping up strangely). Barry Goldwater II?
3B. Chris Christie
Being as this is Save Jersey, I’ve written enough about this guy to fill a few books. Click here for my latest analysis. For now it suffices to say that while you can’t count the most talented retail politician since Bill Clinton out of the race until he’s actually out (he’s got plenty of cash and he IS right in the mix up in critical New Hampshire). the reality is that he’s got huge negatives and finds himself languishing at 2% in a new Monmouth Poll.
Gov. Christie likely needs Bush and/or Walker to collapse for their to be enough room for him in the top tier. BTW, on that note, he desperately needs to qualify for that first Fox News debate…
3C. Carly Fiorina
I’m hoping Fox News ignores its own rules and admits this remarkable lady to its August 6th debate. Listen to her on Iran. Maggie Thatcher reincarnated! A successful, driven, intelligent, beautiful and powerful woman. Everything feminists used to aspire to before liberalism confused the issue for a misguided generation that thinks feminism = free birth control. And on that note, it’s worth mentioning she’s the only woman in a 16-ish person field fighting to face America’s most famous female politician. That’s no small asset as we try to combat the infectious “War on Woman” attack line. In short, I love her.
Carly’s biggest drawback? No one knows who she is outside of hardcore politicos like ourselves. That could change, and if there’s any justice in the world, she’ll be a serious vice presidential contender at the very least. I’d love to watch her beat up on Cory Booker!
3D. Rand Paul
I know, I know. I can hear you already. “Rooney just hates the Pauls.” Not fair. The Senator has his merits. But rather than give you several paragraphs on Rand, his dad, libertarianism, foreign policy and every other related topic, I can sum up Dr. Paul’s relatively low ranking on my website in this way: Iran. Think about it, setting aside your allegiances: I just don’t see young-ish GOP doves being enough of an electoral force to overcome the party’s post-Goldwater hawkish orientation for as long as ISIS, Iran, China and Putin continue to dominated high-information voters’s collective consciousness. I could be wrong but I don’t think I am.
STILL, he’s solidly in tier #2 because libertarianism is a force in the 2016 Republican coalition and Rand Paul is its undisputed federal incarnation. And who knows what tomorrow brings on the world stage.
Tiers #3 and #4
Defined: Candidates in these tiers are classic “long-shots” lacking the ability to develop a path to the nomination or the means to successfully traverse it. Some are running to sell books or earn cabinet-level attention. One or two could move up to tier #2, or even find themselves vetted for veep, if conditions develop just right over the next year.
3A. Rick Perry
Take away the bogus indictment and the Dubya-esque speech-making deficit and the second coming of the Marlboro man would be a strong candidate in a year with a weaker field. But that’s far too many infelicitous conditions/contingencies for the former Texas governor to make the first or even second tiers in 2016.
3B. Mike Huckabee
Mike Huckabee, who shares a hometown with Bill Clinton, might give Chris Christie a run for his money in terms of retail politicking skills. This guy is an old fashioned speech-maker par excellence. He gave Mitt Romney plenty of trouble back in 2008, too, with a ruthless campaigning style that belied his religious pedigree. So why is he languishign in tier #3?
Not just for his weak early polling and questionable commitment to the race, but also timing. And history. He’s a true late 20th century social conservative (meaning he might be the last of the “blue dog” Democrats if that party magically came out against gay marriage and abortion). The party is moving in the complete opposite direction at this point in time. His “marriage amendment” push, for example, stands a likely chance of catalyzing an equal and opposite electoral reaction from what Karl Rove achieved in 2004’s battleground states. What’s more, a charismatic conservative with strong socially conservative credentials (Ted Cruz) is already in the race who also happens to be more fiscally conservative than Huckabee was in Arkansas. Rev. Huckabee might be able to move up to tier #2 if Cruz collapses but I just don’t see it. He should’ve kept that Fox News contract.
3C. Ben Carson
Dr. Carson is a dream candidate on paper but just not polished enough (yet) in practice to make a serious play. His early campaign hasn’t done anything to change my mind or anyone else’s judging by his polling. What’s more, his past Second Amendment-related comments have scared away influential members of what should’ve been a natural constituency for a right wing candidacy.
3D. Bobby Jindal
See my Perry analysis above. The race is just too damn crowded this year for a candidate who, while admittedly having improved his presentation since 2009, still isn’t electrifying enough to overcome all of the obstacles discussed above in this article to register on the radar. Jindal is also less popular at home than Chris Christie for what that’s worth.
3E. John Kasich
The only person on this list who hasn’t formally announced, he’s likely getting in to run for Veep or a cabinet post. I do think it’s worth mentioning that this experienced politician and congressman-turned TV personality-turned Ohio governor would be a top tier candidate in a normal cycle without talent like Bush and Rubio in the fight. An intriguing question: Could he bring Ohio, a state Republicans can’t win without, back into the Republican electoral college count?
4A. Lindsay Graham
The base hates John McCain’s sidekick in the U.S. Senate. It’s also hard to imagine which higher-ranked candidate he’d balance out on a national ticket being an older white guy from a safely “red” southern state? This reliable, passionate and knowledgeable critic of Barack Obama’s foreign policy might, however, make a half-decent Secretary of State or Defense.
4B. Rick Santorum
Why? See above. Where does the sweater-vest wearing former senator fit into the mix with social conservatives like Cruz and Huckabee in the race? I don’t care how well he did in 2012. That ship has sailed by all accounts. I also firmly believe, for whatever it’s worth, that Santorum is looking for Reagan Democrats that no longer exist. Romney got a higher percentage of white voters than Ronald Reagan but got his clock cleaned in other subsections of our country’s demographic soup all the same. We need to move on.
4C. George Pataki
Who? The amiable Pataki is a throwback to the Christine Todd Whitman “it’s my party, too” Northeastern GOP candidates of the Rockefeller era. He’s been out of the public eye for a decade. It must be designs on a D.C. job… right?