The 2016 Republican Primaries are shaping up to be wildly entertaining. One reason for this is the sheer number of candidates: early polls from sources such as CNN and Quinnipiac have listed ten candidates, and still did not include the whole field. The ideological variety that the candidates bring also promises intrigue. From the staunchly conservative Ted Cruz to the more moderate Jeb Bush to the fairly libertarian Rand Paul, it’s an eclectic mix.
This chaos leaves us with two fascinating questions for (us) political junkies: first, which candidate appears to have the best chance of winning the general election; and second — and perhaps more importantly — who will actually be the Republicans’ 2016 standard bearer? For the sake of brevity, only Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rob Portman, John Kasich, and Mitt Romney will be considered. (My apologies to Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum.)
Ted Cruz: There may never be a better time than 2016 for Ted Cruz. Unlike fellow Senators Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Rob Portman, Cruz doesn’t face re-election to the Senate in 2016. He is perhaps the most prominent figure within the Tea Party movement, owing to his leading role in the government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act in 2013. He’s also wildly popular within the Texas Republican party, having eviscerating his competition in a presidential straw poll at the Texas GOP convention. Nevertheless, all this momentum only means that Ted Cruz’s chances of becoming President have moved from .0001 percent to .001 percent. Ted Cruz has the main, unavoidable problem that Mainstream America will not accept him. A July Gallup Poll found his national favorability rating at 25 percent, as compared to 55 for Hillary Clinton, 31 for Jeb Bush, 47 for Mitt Romney, and 31 for Paul Ryan. He is disliked by a significant percentage of his own Senate colleagues, who, according to Politico, have been angered by his support for the Senate Conservatives Fund, a PAC has which has attacked sitting GOP Senators. Finally, he faces Republican primary voters who, for all the talk of their ideological fervor, have not nominated someone as conservative as this since Barry Goldwater in 1964 (and we all know how that turned out).
Rob Portman: Even among politicos, Rob Portman is relatively unknown. Per the New York Times, 52 percent of Americans have never heard of the junior Ohio Senator, who was elected in 2010. Still, Portman has a lengthy resumé, having won six terms as a Congressional Representative and serving as the U.S Trade Representative under George W. Bush prior to claiming his Senate seat. He also hails from Ohio, a crucial swing state in which he is extremely popular. Perhaps most significantly, he is one of only four sitting Republican Senators to endorse same-sex marriage, providing him with a crucial advantage among general election voters compared to more radical Republicans. However, his chances of winning a Republican Presidential nomination remain slim. His support for same-sex marriage would hurt him among the majority of GOP primary voters who still reject marriage equality, and his lack of name recognition and a national fundraising network further weaken him in an over-congested, star-studded primary. Furthermore, an August trip to New Hampshire aside, we have little evidence that the Senator is interested in a run.
Mitt Romney: To my eternal bafflement, the prospect of a Romney presidency still appeals to GOP primary voters. According to a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll, Romney currently has the support of 35 percent of likely 2016 Republican Iowa Caucus voters, giving him a clear lead over all other GOP contenders. Romney has a number of obvious advantages as a GOP nominee: he is nationally known, can easily raise money, and has already been vetted by the American public. But history is not on Romney’s side; since 1892, Richard Nixon is the only presidential runner up ever to win a later election. He might also face the same lack of enthusiasm from the Republican base that he struggled with in 2012. Finally, while he has acknowledged that “circumstance can change,” he has also openly declared that he is not running for President in 2016.
John Kasich: Like Rob Portman, Kasich is a extremely popular Ohio politician. He is poised to cruise to reelection as Ohio’s governor in 2014, and has a strongly conservative record, both as governor and in his previous post in the U.S House of Representatives. He has cut taxes, generated a surplus, and presided over a state with an unemployment rate below the national average. Yet despite such positives, it is difficult to image Kasich as a viable candidate for the GOP nomination in 2016. After all, he was one of the few Republican governors to expand Medicare under Obamacare, something GOP voters are unlikely to forgive or forget. He also spent eight years at Fox News, where he created hours of footage which Democrats will pore over for gaffes. Perhaps the largest obstacle in Kasich’s way, though, is the sheer number of better established candidates he would have to overcome. A good number of possible, more well-known nominees would likely have to falter or withdraw from consideration for Kasich to claim the GOP’s mantle.
Paul Ryan: Though his chances of someday claiming the White House would be far greater had he become the sitting VP, Ryan is still a viable Republican candidate. He has strong conservative bonafides as the author of the Ryan budget, yet remains able tout his compromises with Sen. Patty Murray on the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 as evidence that he can work across the aisle. RealClearPolitics’ polling averages have him a mere 2.2 points behind Chris Christie for the lead for the nomination, and most Americans recognize him from his 2012 run for the vice presidency. However, according to the Washington Post, rumors persist that Ryan is more interested in advancement within the House of Representatives than running for the Presidency. Moreover, at 44, Ryan is still relatively young. It is easy to picture him waiting for a year with a less crowded Republican field to take a shot at the top job. My gut feeling is that he will stay on the sidelines in 2016.
Marco Rubio: Two years ago, Florida’s junior Senator was at the top of most lists of potential Republican nominees. A Public Policy Polling survey from January 2013 put him a hefty 7 points ahead in the Republican nominating contest. Furthermore, after Obama carried 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012, a Cuban Republican from Florida who supports immigration reform seemed like a prime candidate for the GOP in 2016. Slowly, however, Rubio’s support has eroded. Comprehensive immigration reform proved extremely unpopular among the Republican base, and with the current legislation stuck in the House of Representatives, it seems Rubio will get no credit for taking a politically brave stance. Additionally, the timing is off for Rubio to run in 2016. Since he was elected in 2010, Rubio would face reelection to the Senate in 2016. Florida law bars individuals from simultaneously being candidates for the Presidency and the Senate, meaning that Rubio might be forced to give up his Senate seat if he pursues the Presidency. Unlike Rand Paul, who has indicated he might challenge a similar law in Kentucky, Rubio has also suggested that he will not be a candidate for two offices at once, so a Presidential run would likely end his Senate career. Finally, there is the question of whether Rubio would indeed attract broad Hispanic support in 2016. While we often have a tendency to lump all Hispanic-Americans together in a single group, there are a multitude of cultures present within the Hispanic community. Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, and other Americans of Hispanic heritage often have different values and ideas, and to assume that the entire Hispanic-American community would identify with a candidate of Cuban heritage is likely a mistake.
Chris Christie: Really, this section could consist of a single word: Bridgegate. For all Christie’s charisma, fundraising acumen, and bipartisan appeal, it is difficult to see him overcoming the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal. Even if Christie had no role in the lane closures, ongoing public suspicion and investigations will damage his probable candidacy. Furthermore, New Jersey’s recent financial woes have undermined Christie’s case that he has been an effective governor. A massive hole in the 2013–2014 and 2014–2015 budgets has been attributed to overly optimistic revenue projections on Christie end, and New Jersey’s unemployment rate is about the national average. Never beloved by the GOP base, Christie would need to overcome serious problems with both primary and general election voters to end up in the White House come January 2017.
Scott Walker: After passing a controversial budget bill in 2011 that stripped Wisconsin public unions of collective bargaining rights, Governor Walker became simultaneously a heroic figure to the right and a reviled despot to the left. The anti-union laws and a subsequent recall election raised Walker’s national profile and expanded his fundraising network. If he wins reelection in 2014, he will have the both the position and the assets to successfully run for the GOP nomination in 2016. Several factors, however, could complicate his bid. First are allegations that he illegally coordinated expenditures with the Wisconsin Club for Growth (a Super PAC) during his 2012 recall election. State prosecutors are seeking legal clearance to investigate the matter, and the findings of that potential investigation could be damaging to Walker’s campaign. Additionally, there is no guarantee that Walker will win the Wisconsin gubernatorial election in 2014. Polls show his gubernatorial race against Mary Burke as too close to call, and if he does lose, he may very well be painted as lacking both state and national electability.
Rand Paul: The Kentucky Senator is perhaps the most difficult potential candidate to gauge. He has all but declared his 2016 bid, having made several high profile trips to Iowa. Yet no one seems to know how seriously voters will take his candidacy. He ran for Senate in 2010 as a Tea Party favorite, but he has also captured the attention of his father’s old cohorts in the libertarian wing of the Republican party. Paul’s policy views do not always harmonize with traditional Republican orthodoxy: he supports drug sentencing reform, and has a more isolationist view of foreign policy than most of the Republican establishment. He has also been critical of GOP-championed voter ID laws and launched a marathon filibuster against the use of military drones. While he has inched his way towards the Republican mainstream (see his 2014 Kentucky Derby visit with Rupert Murdoch, and his gradual shift to the center foreign policy), his stances would still make him an odd choice for the GOP. That is not to say that Paul will not become the Republican nominee. He has his father’s old fundraising network from his two presidential bids, and a devoted following of libertarian voters. Moreover, his policies on drug sentencing reform and voter ID laws are tailored to appeal to both younger voters and the African American community, but it is difficult to say how successful Paul could be in merging those groups with the Republicans’ traditional coalition of one (the white, straight, male, middle-aged and elderly voter).
Jeb Bush: Having begun with Ted Cruz, it seems appropriate to finish with perhaps the most moderate Republican contender. The former Governor of Florida has variety of strengths. He has the potential to raise perhaps more money than any other candidate, thanks to his family’s national connections and his natural appeal to the Republican establishment. His support for comprehensive immigration reform would play well in a general election, and his wife’s Mexican heritage gives him further ties to the Hispanic community. Perhaps most importantly, though, he has managed to project a different public image from that of his famous brother. While George was frequently portrayed in the media as somewhat reckless and intellectually unfit for the Presidency, Jeb has been careful to cultivate a more intellectual image. This could help him overcome any handicap associated with his last name. Aside from his family, the two other greatest obstacles to a Bush nomination are his desire and the nature of GOP primary voters. Nobody is certain if Jeb is interested in running for President; he passed up the 2008 and 2012 contests, and is now nearly eight years removed from when he last held elected office. His wife and his mother are said to prefer than he not run. 2016’s GOP voters could give Bush further trouble. The caucus seems to have moved notably to the right since a Bush last stood for elected office, and it is entirely possible that the Bush brand is now too centrist for the Republican Party. History, though, suggests that that is not the case. The Republican party, despite its reputation, has not always been averse to moderates. Since Eisenhower’s election in 1952, only Goldwater and Reagan have won the GOP nomination with significantly more conservative platforms than Jeb. On the other thirteen occasions, the Republican standard bearer has run either approximately where Bush stands, or even slightly to the left of him. Therefore, I believe that Bush could capture the nomination, should he choose to run.
Who gives the Republican Party the best chance to win?
Ultimately, Jeb Bush remains the GOP’s best candidate, with Portman as a good second. Bush governed a swing state successfully and remains popular there. His connection to the Hispanic community is stronger than any contender (except possibly Rubio), giving the the Republicans a better chance to compete among an increasingly significant demographic. Even more importantly, undecided moderates would feel far more comfortable voting for Bush than they would voting for Paul or Christie. Even Bush’s last name, which most would think a detriment, may not cause much damage; his brother, six years removed from the Presidency, has a 53 percent favorability rating, and his father’s has stayed well above 50 percent during his post-presidency. If the Republicans are looking for their best challenger to Clinton in 2016, they should look to Bush.
Who will receive the Republican Presidential nomination in 2016?
I believe that at this point the most likely Republican nominee is Marco Rubio. Given his wife’s and mother’s rumored opposition, Jeb Bush seems likely to opt out of the primaries, as will Paul Ryan, who will stay focused on his House career. It is not out of the question that Romney could seek one more turn in the spotlight, but I believe he will pass as well. Portman and Kasich, despite being strong candidates, likely will not have the cash or nationally recognition to compete with Walker, Christie, Rubio, and Paul. Walker and Christie, though at one point viable, carry significant baggage that will ultimately sink them. And if left with a choice between the eclectic Paul and the more traditional Rubio, it seems unlikely that Republican voters will risk the White House for the former.
Brett Parker, a sophomore studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.