2016 presidential ratings update: Nothing but questions on the Republican side


“It is not only the loneliest job in the world — it is one of continual soulsearching and of deep and sustained thought. A president is in the grip of events that never seem to let go. He is in every sense the captor of the most exacting office in the gift of a free people. But with all that, it is a wonderful and indescribable experience. It is exasperating and exhilarating. It is a moment in history that enables a man to serve mankind in a broad and comprehensive way and to shape the course of the world towards a happier existence and its hope for a life in peace.”

— Harry Truman, December 1963

For all the groaning about the permanent presidential campaign, the Neverending Story is valuable in this regard: The job is so important and so powerful that potential aspirants require a thorough vetting that does — and arguably should — begin many years in advance. An individual seeking a position whose occupant is “in the grip of events that never seem to let go” — as former President Truman put it in this excellent description above, reprinted from a newspaper column Truman wrote questioning the size and scope of the CIA — must show his or her capacity for the office. And the public should get all the information it can about the contenders in order to have the opportunity to make an informed choice.

Thus, it’s with an eye toward helping to participate in that grand mission — and certainly not just because we think it is fun (wink wink) — that we make some tweaks to our lists of presidential contenders for 2016.

The Republicans: Wide open opportunity

It’s hard not to think about the permanent campaign when assessing what is the biggest political story of 2014 so far, Gov. Chris Christie’s (R-NJ) scandal involving lane closures on the George Washington Bridge connecting New Jersey to New York. Christie continues to aggressively deny any involvement in the decision to close the lanes. The Bridge Affair — we’re really trying to avoid calling it “Bridgegate” — undoubtedly makes Christie weaker now than he was a couple months ago when he was basking in the warm sunshine of a walkover reelection. Still, we’re not ready to say that his national aspirations are doomed.

We bumped Christie down a peg in our Republican presidential ratings, but we still are putting him in our top tier. Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) leads our list, as he has since we introduced it last year. In reality, though, this is a completely wide-open field with no one even approaching frontrunner status.

Table 1: 2016 Crystal Ball Republican presidential ratings

First Tier
Candidate Key Advantages Key Disadvantages Since Last Update
Scott Walker
Governor, WI
•Midwest GOP governor in Obama state
•Heroic conservative credentials
•Shown political durability

•Too bland? Next Pawlenty?
•Might not deliver home state
•Would highly motivate left/labor

Rand Paul
Senator, KY
•Tea Party favorite
•Strong support from libertarian GOP wing
•National ID and fundraising network
•Too libertarian?
•Association with out-of-mainstream father
•Too dovish/eclectic for GOP tastes?
Chris Christie Governor, NJ •Dynamic speaker
•Shown ability to pursue mainly conservative agenda in Blue state
•Could bridge criticism by media rally right to his aid?
•Bridge scandal still playing out
•Bullying and staff questions
•Not conservative enough for base?
Second Tier
Marco Rubio
Senator, FL
•Dynamic speaker and politician
•From most electorally valuable swing state
•Future tough votes in Senate; has and will have federal record
•Vetting issues regarding family
•Could he really deliver more Hispanic votes?
Ted Cruz
Senator, TX
•Tea Party favorite
•Texas and small-dollar fundraising
•Conservative voting record
•Too extreme? One word: Shutdown.
•Disliked on both sides of the Senate aisle
John Kasich
Governor, OH
•Swing state
•Long conservative record
•Could be fallback option for GOP establishment forces
•Supported Medicaid expansion
•Makes verbal miscues, lots of video from time as Fox host
•Abrasive personality
Wild Cards?
Jeb Bush
Ex-Governor, FL
•Strong gubernatorial resume
•Hispanic connections
•Key swing state
•National Bush money and organization
•Wrong last name (Bush dynasty) — although Clinton dynasty could neutralize this
•George W. Bush’s record?
Paul Ryan
Representative, WI
•2012 VP candidate — next in line?
•General election experience
•Strong conservative record
•May not want to run, possibly positioning self for future in House
•Couldn’t help Romney carry WI
•Not a dynamic campaigner
Mike Huckabee
Ex-Governor, AR
•Governing experience
•Blue collar appeal
•Strong support from social conservatives
•Southerner in Southern-centered party
•Disliked by economic conservatives
•Small fundraising base
Rick Santorum
Ex-Senator, PA
•Strong support from social conservatives
•2nd place finisher in ’12 — next in line?
•Been around primary track
•Lost last Senate race by 17 points
•Chip-on-shoulder attitude
•Small fundraising base
Rick Perry
Governor, TX
•Strong conservative credentials
•Texas fundraising
•Extensive executive experience
•Ran very poor 2012 race
•“Oops,” we forgot the rest

We continue to like Walker’s combination of Blue state electoral success and conservative bona fides, but let’s face it: We have little idea how he would handle the crucible of a national campaign. That is just unknowable at this point. Walker’s potential as a candidate comes in part because, as a governor, he doesn’t have to weigh in all the time on divisive national issues — something he won’t necessarily be able to get away with in 2015 if he becomes a candidate. It seems like an odd comparison, but Walker might end up being like Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX), who had all the makings of being a great candidate until he actually became one. Tim Pawlenty (R), the former Minnesota governor whose shiny candidacy went up in smoke quickly, is another comparison that Walker and his allies surely wouldn’t welcome. And of course Walker needs to win reelection — we rate him a solid favorite but he’s not likely to win by a big, Christie-esque number — or all this talk is moot. We like Walker’s potential as a candidate, but just because he tops our list doesn’t make him the frontrunner: This is a very big and fluid field.

Perhaps competing with Walker for oxygen will be Gov. John Kasich (R-OH), who is in a similar position to Walker — he appears likely to win a second term in November — and who we believe is eager to throw his hat in the ring, as he did, briefly, in the 2000 cycle. He has moved up our list slightly since our previous update. One big potential liability is his support of Medicaid expansion in Ohio, which Walker has largely resisted. Any connection with Obamacare in 2016 could be a kiss of death in a GOP primary, although it didn’t kill Mitt Romney in 2012. (As for Romney running again in 2016, forget about it.)

While it’s hard to see him actually winning the nomination, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) now occupies the second slot on our board. Despite his protests that he’s just 50-50 on running, it seems likelier than not that Paul would throw his hat in the ring to provide a different voice in the primary field — particularly by offering a more dovish approach to foreign affairs and the national security state, not unlike the role his father played in the 2008 and 2012 nominating process (although the son is more of a conventional Republican than his father). Paul would probably be competing for the same segment of primary voters as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) if they were both in the field. We like Paul’s chances a bit better than Cruz’s, although if one believes that support/endorsements from party leaders are important — and there’s evidence to suggest they are — it’s difficult to imagine either Paul or Cruz getting the needed backing from party bigwigs.

Rather, we suspect the so-called establishment would prefer Christie, provided his candidacy is not, pardon the pun, a Bridge Too Far. The Bush family, and many others, wanted Christie to run in 2012, but he demurred. If Christie is not a viable candidate in 2016, there are rumors that former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), son and brother to presidents, would consider entering the contest. The same might be true of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Mitt Romney’s former running mate who is widely respected in GOP circles. Ryan was another potential candidate who took a pass on the race last time. He seems like an even more reluctant candidate than Bush. Ryan might prefer holding on to his relatively safe seat and ascending in the House to launching a presidential candidacy. Also worth mentioning: former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR), who has made some noise about running. We’ll believe he’s running only after he makes the official announcement, but he’s been through this game before — an important rite of passage for many eventual GOP nominees (see: Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole, Ronald Reagan, etc.) — and is a culturally conservative Southerner in a party that has as one of its pillars a culturally conservative Southern bloc.

We’ve made a special category for two 2012 retreads: Perry and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA). They both appear to be taking steps toward running, but their best chances of winning would appear to have come and gone.

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA), whose national star seems to be fading as he faces unpopularity at home, moves off this list.

Lurking in the middle of our ratings is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who doesn’t enjoy the same kind of buzz that he did in 2012 or early 2013 but who now might be a bit underrated as a contender. Rubio’s considerable political talents aren’t negated by reaching for a bottled water or getting twisted in knots by immigration — he could still be a formidable 2016 contender, even if the national spotlight has moved on to others. In the early stages of a presidential campaign, sometimes it’s better to avoid the limelight. Just ask Christie. Or a certain Democrat…

The Democrats: The value of a primary

…Hillary Clinton. Being considered the frontrunner in 2008 obviously wasn’t enough to win her the nomination, and one wonders if all the attention Clinton is getting — from magazine covers to a laser-like focus on every word or tweet she utters — will ultimately make voters tire of her, and perhaps even clamor for an alternative in the Democratic primary.

To be clear: Clinton is a big favorite for the nomination if she wants it. Granted, early polls aren’t worth much, but Clinton has a staggering lead right now: According to the HuffPost Pollster average, Clinton is at 68% in national Democratic surveys (Vice President Joe Biden is second at a measly 10%). Clinton was a favorite in 2008, too, but her performance in national polls around this time eight years ago generally only put her in the 30s or low 40s. Her position is seemingly so strong that other Democrats could defer to her: That’s why in Table 2, our rating of the Democratic candidates, we list some credible candidates in the “won’t run against Hillary” category. There’s not much to say about these possibilities beyond that.

Table 2: 2016 Crystal Ball Democratic presidential ratings

First Tier
Candidate Key Advantages Key Disadvantages Since Last Update
Hillary Clinton Ex-Secretary of State •Popular nationally and within party
•Woman: chance to make history
•Can potentially scare away most/all strong opponents if she runs (unlike ’08)

•Age (69 by Election Day ’16)
•Ran unfocused, too-many-cooks ’08 campaign and now appears to be making similar early mistakes
•Keeping Bill in check — and on the porch
•Peaking too soon? Already dominating headlines day after day

Second Tier
Joe Biden
Vice President
•Vast experience
•Next in line?
•VP bully pulpit
•Age (already 71)
•Gaffe machine
•Poor presidential campaign history
Third Tier
Martin O’Malley
Governor, MD
•Willing and very available
•Strong liberal record and policy achievements
•Baltimore/Maryland baggage
•Nationally unknown
•Maryland Obamacare troubles
Brian Schweitzer
Ex-Governor, MT
•Unique populist personality
•Very popular Dem in Red state
•Unique personality
•Too unpredictable?
•Too conservative on guns, environment?
Would Only Run If Clinton Doesn’t
Elizabeth Warren
Senator, MA
•Adored by Dem activists
•Woman — same history-making potential as Clinton
•National ID and fundraising network
•Electable in a general election? Ran several points behind Obama in MA
•’12 campaign baggage
•Another Bay State Dem?
Andrew Cuomo
Governor, NY
•Very popular at home
•Impressive policy record already
•State/Fed experience
•Too conventional?
•Some liberals unhappy
•Another Northeasterner?
Mark Warner
Senator, VA
•Strong executive record
•Key swing state
•Crossover appeal/ bipartisanship theme
•Rich and well-financed
•Too moderate?
•No national constituency
•Not a dynamic speaker
Kirsten Gillibrand
Senator, NY
•Woman — same history-making potential as Clinton
•Fairly strong liberal record
•NY fundraising base
•Bland persona
•Nationally unknown
•Past NRA support?
Wild Card?
Howard Dean
Ex-Governor, VT
•Could attract grassroots support
•Former DNC chair, can raise money
•Yesterday’s news?

That said, as one of us pointed out in a recent Politico Magazine piece, it’s historically rare for a non-incumbent president to simply waltz to a major-party presidential nomination. The only postwar non-incumbent to do so was Vice President Richard Nixon (R), who nonetheless had to mollify potential challenger Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R-NY) right before the 1960 GOP convention. History suggests Clinton will face at least some opposition in the primary fight — in fact, Democrats would be foolish to give her a free pass, if only to force her to gear up for the fall and, as Jonathan Bernstein of Bloomberg View astutely argues, for the party to have an actual primary debate about its future.

At this point, there are a handful of possibilities to challenge Clinton: The most obvious is Vice President Joe Biden (D), who is contemplating his last rodeo. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-MD) is apparently not waiting for Clinton as he ponders a bid, and he’ll have plenty of time on his hands once he leaves office after the 2014 elections (he is term-limited). A couple of former governors who have little use for the party establishment — Brian Schweitzer of Montana and, appearing on our list as a new wild card, Howard Dean of Vermont — might also try to rock the boat. None of them seem like particularly strong competitors to Clinton right now, although they all are current or former relatively prominent Democratic officeholders.

Dropping off the list is Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), who at this point needs to survive his reelection bid before he can entertain any long-shot run at the presidency.

If Clinton isn’t in the field, rip up this list — a lot of other names will emerge. Like the ultimate effect of Christie’s bridge headaches, the shape of the Democratic field, with or without Clinton, remains murky.