A Major Reshuffling of the Republican Presidential Deck


For nearly two years we’ve been ranking the GOP presidential contenders, and we’ve only had two names in the No. 1 spot. Now, in our latest update, those two are together, and alone, at the top.

The new first tier is Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, and Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin.

Walker has always been an intriguing candidate to us: He topped our initial ratings way back in April 2013 because of his potential appeal to both the GOP establishment and the party’s grassroots, and because we thought a Midwestern candidate would make a lot of sense to a Republican Party whose path to the White House probably goes through the Midwest (certainly Ohio, and perhaps Iowa or Wisconsin as well). These positives for Walker remain.

Bush took Walker’s place at the top in early 2014 as rumblings of his candidacy grew and Walker’s star faded a bit as Republicans fretted that he might lose reelection. Now comfortably reelected, Walker is clearly running, and running quite well in the early going.

The son and brother of presidents remains at the top of our list. As we’ve explained in the past, he’s the kind of candidate who historically wins GOP nominations, and the Bush family and campaign apparatus deserve the respect they’ve earned over three and a half decades in presidential politics. Additionally, the biggest development of the past few weeks in the race — Mitt Romney’s decision not to run — helps Bush considerably because the two of them would have competed over the same pool of voters and donors.

Some interpreted Romney’s parting statement as leaving the door slightly cracked open to run again, but Bush and other candidates would have to bomb completely for the establishment to turn back to the party’s gaffe-prone 2012 nominee. The bottom line is that Republican leaders, who mainly shunned Romney’s potential entry into this field, realize that a Romney candidacy would splinter the party’s mainstream conservative vote, possibly allowing someone the establishment dislikes — someone from our “outsiders tier” below — to steal the nomination. As Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center wrote last year, the GOP nominee generally has the support of the party’s “somewhat conservative” voters. These are the voters who supported Romney in 2012. By exiting the race, Romney made it more likely that these voters will again produce the nominee because their votes will not be as diluted with Mitt out of the field.

That’s an argument for Bush, but we also have some serious initial doubts about his candidacy, though perhaps time will ease these concerns. For one thing, conservatives still have grave misgivings about father Bush (“Read my lips, no new taxes”) and brother Bush (big spending plus massive government interventions into the economy during the financial crisis). Humorist Andy Borowitz got at the problem in a recent satirical posting headlined: “Bush Campaign Hopes to Stoke Nostalgia for Nation’s Most Glorious Era,” referring to the George W. Bush years of Iraq, Katrina, and economic collapse. Additionally, there is Jeb Bush’s support for Common Core education standards, a hot-button issue on the right, and his wavering support of immigration reform. Beyond that, Bush hasn’t run for anything in a dozen years, and he cannot expect much deference from his more contemporary competitors.

It’s easy for critics to compare Walker to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who flamed out after the Iowa Straw Poll in the 2012 cycle. But Walker is already showing that the comparison doesn’t fit (so far at least), and that he is more formidable. Here’s how:

  • Walker already has something of a national following among conservatives because of his battles with public sector unions. Pawlenty’s candidacy made sense on paper but he had no such built-in credibility with activists.
  • Pawlenty and Walker are not known for being dynamic speakers, but Walker’s performance at a recent Iowa event is calling that characterization into question. While ever-pleasant in demeanor, Pawlenty never was able to distinguish himself on the stump.
  • Both were governors from states adjacent to Iowa, but Walker is already polling much better there. He was at 15% in a recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll, and at 10% in two other polls conducted so far this year. In four 2011 polls conducted between January and early April, Pawlenty was at 4% in each one. Pawlenty did rise somewhat later, but Walker is starting from a much better position.

Granted, outperforming Pawlenty a year before the Iowa caucus in a cycle where the field looks much stronger than the one Pawlenty faced is perhaps not a huge accomplishment. But it’s among the many reasons why Walker deserves the attention he’s getting as a Bush alternative. Now let’s see what Walker does with this opportunity: His opponents will come after him hard with opposition research gems. Bush in particular will try to replicate Romney’s 2012 “whack-a-mole” strategy of knocking down strong opponents with heavy ad buys once the real contest begins. If Walker emerges as the anti-Bush, he’ll get heat from the entire field, not just Bush.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie make up the revamped second tier. It appears that both of these potential candidates are closer to running than not, which is a surprise in the case of the former given that Rubio and Bush share donors and allies. Christie has had a bad time of it lately: His quickly modified comments seeming to question vaccinations represented a poor message to send to members of the party establishment. Nate Cohn of the New York Times’ Upshot argues, persuasively, that both Rubio and Christie might be boxed out by Bush.

Dropping on our list, to the third tier of “Outsiders,” is Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who like Christie also caught flak for pandering to the anti-vaccination crowd. In hindsight, we’ve probably rated him too high previously. He has a devoted base of supporters, giving him a high floor, but he also has a low ceiling because he isn’t going to get much backing from party leaders (the nominal endorsement of fellow Kentuckian and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell aside). Libertarians don’t make up a large enough segment of the party to secure the nomination for Paul, and he is going to be splitting votes from the more conservative, populist wing of the party with the other outsiders: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

We’ll be blunt on the prospects of all five: They all basically steal votes from one another because they appeal to many of the same voters — very conservative voters, Tea Party devotees, and evangelicals — and party leaders are going to fight like crazy to prevent any of them from winning the nomination because those leaders do not think they are electable in November.

This group is just too splintered at this point. If somehow this category is quickly winnowed into one (or maybe two) contenders, we’ll reassess, though it is difficult to see how that happens.

Four of the last six presidents primarily made their political marks as governors before becoming president, which gives hope to our next category of candidates, all of whom are current or former governors. Some of these contenders seem almost certain to run, like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Others are question marks at this point, like Govs. John Kasich of Ohio, Mike Pence of Indiana, and Rick Snyder of Michigan. They are all clearly behind Bush and Walker for now, but as governors they can find ways to favorably compare and contrast their records with the two governors atop our rankings. This is a group of candidates that, individually or collectively, would need to take down Walker in order to have a chance at the nomination. Here again, the Wisconsin governor is going to have to dodge a fistful of darts.

Finally, we have a new category to describe the field’s longest of long shots: Gadflies and Golden Oldies. It’s led by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who doesn’t appear to have a practical path to the nomination but nonetheless is an impressive figure in the party. The veteran Graham would perform very well in debates if he takes the plunge. Also noteworthy in this category is Carly Fiorina, the former CEO and California Senate candidate who appears to be the only woman seriously considering the race.

The sheer size of this field must be giving Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus nightmares. There are 21 names on this list, and even the pols near the bottom are candidates with solid political resumes. Jim Gilmore, for instance, is not only a former governor of Virginia, but ex-chairman of the national party. Bob Ehrlich won the same number of elections to the U.S. House as 2011 Iowa Straw Poll winner Michele Bachmann, and that was before he was elected governor of Maryland in 2002. Rep. Peter King of New York is one of the more nationally recognizable members of the U.S. House owing to his frequent television appearances. George Pataki won New York’s governorship three times, defeating the celebrated Mario Cuomo to start his long tenure. John Bolton is a foreign policy hero to many on the right owing to his time as President Bush 43’s hawkish ambassador to the United Nations. All of them may be candidates, and all would have a legitimate gripe if they are somehow excluded from participating in debates.

All in all, it’s a wild, massive field, but what we think we know is this: Bush is still the person to beat, but he is beatable — no coronation is scheduled on the Republican side. At this point, we think Walker is best equipped to push him the hardest, but there are clearly many others itching for the opportunity. We have almost a year before the Iowa caucuses, and no one thinks the new conventional wisdom will last nearly that long. Odds are, the Crystal Ball will have to purchase a seismometer to gauge the many shake-ups to come.

Table 1 shows our new ratings, along with updates to the candidates’ pluses and minuses.

Oh, and by the way, we have no changes to our Democratic ratings: It is still Hillary Clinton, followed distantly by everyone else.

Table 1: Crystal Ball rankings of 2016 Republican presidential contenders

First Tier: The Frontrunners
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Jeb Bush
Ex-Governor, FL
•Conservative gubernatorial resume
•National Bush money and organization
•Personifies establishment, which typically produces GOP nominees
•Bush fatigue is real
•Support for Common Core and immigration reform
•Personifies establishment, which grassroots loathes

Scott Walker
Governor, WI

•Heroic conservative credentials
•Checks boxes for many wings of party
•Already clear he’s not next Pawlenty — getting serious attention and early momentum
•Needs to raise mountains of $
•Do lingering scandals hurt him?
•Does lack of college degree matter? (We don’t think so)
•Early peaking will open him up to attacks from others
Second Tier: The Credible Contenders
Marco Rubio
Senator, FL
•Dynamic speaker and politician
•Diversity + conservatism
•Short time in Senate, which Obama proved could be a plus
•Did his national star peak too soon?
•Went left on immigration, hurt him with base

Chris Christie Governor, NJ

•Commanding speaker, base enjoys his aggressive style
•The more Democrats and media criticize him, the more acceptable he becomes to GOP base
•Made a lot of friends with successful RGA stint
•Bridge scandal still playing out
•Anti-vaccination comments unwise
•Not conservative enough for base
•NJ economy: credit rating downgraded eight times under Christie
Third Tier: The Outsiders
Rand Paul
Senator, KY
•Working hard, reaching out to diverse audience
•Strong support from libertarian and Tea Party wings
•National ID and fundraising network; benefits from father’s previous efforts
•Too dovish/eclectic for GOP tastes? Party leaders likely to prefer someone else
•Association with out-of-mainstream father
•Competing with many other “outsiders”

Ted Cruz
Senator, TX

•Dynamic debater and canny, often underestimated politician
•Diversity + conservatism
•Anti-establishment nature plays well with base
•Too extreme?
•Disliked on both sides of the Senate aisle
•Strong Tea Party support ensures establishment resistance to candidacy

Mike Huckabee
Ex-Governor, AR

•Already vetted in 2008 and well-known from his Fox News program
•Blue collar appeal
•Strong support from social conservatives
•Southerner in Southern-based party
•Disliked by establishment for economic populism and social views — party leaders don’t think he’s electable
•Small fundraising base
•Social conservatives have many other options

Ben Carson
Neurosurgeon and activist

•Adored by Tea Party grassroots
•Diversity + conservatism
•Good on TV
•No political experience whatsoever
•Little chance of establishment backing and funding

Rick Santorum
Ex-Senator, PA

•Strong support from social conservatives
•2nd place finisher in 2012 — next in line?
•Been around primary track
•Harder to stand out in much stronger 2016 field
•Lost last Senate race by 17%
•Chip-on-shoulder attitude
•Social conservatives have flashier options
Fourth Tier: The Governor Alternatives
John Kasich
Governor, OH
•Long moderate-conservative record plus two terms as swing-state Ohio governor
•Could be fallback for GOP establishment forces
•Supported Medicaid expansion
•Long record includes gaffes + controversial votes, plus lots of video from time as Fox host
•Nobody’s first choice as yet

Mike Pence
Governor, IN

•Extensive federal and state governing experience
•Excites conservatives, particularly social conservatives
•Low name ID nationally
•Would have to give up governorship to run

Rick Perry
Ex-Governor, TX

•Running vigorously and has strong campaign team
•2012 campaign so poor that he may now be underrated
•Indictment? Could rally right if vindicated
•Indictment gives establishment chills
•Bombed in much weaker 2012 field
•Hard to make a second first impression

Bobby Jindal
Governor, LA

•Diversity + conservatism
•Southerner in Southern-based party
•Deep and wide experience
•Knows how to toss red meat to base
•Better on paper than on stump
•Controversial tenure in Louisiana
•His star has been brighter in the past; hasn’t yet lived up to national potential
Rick Snyder
Governor, MI
•Right to Work in major labor state
•Washington outsider
•Supported Medicaid expansion
•Zero national profile
•Not known to most national party power-brokers
Fifth Tier: The Gadflies and Golden Oldies

Lindsey Graham
Senator, SC

•Prominent Obama critic
•Generally liked by party leaders/establishment
•Media savvy and hawkish views on foreign policy
•Vehemently disliked by grassroots
•Immigration reform efforts hurt him with conservatives

Carly Fiorina
Former business executive

•The only woman in the field, party leaders want her on stage
•Very wealthy, could self-fund
•Lost only race (2010 Senate) badly
•Probably too moderate
•Largely unknown, no base of support

Peter King
Representative, NY

•Foreign policy expertise — and hardline views
•Media savvy; frequent TV appearances
•Probably not conservative enough
•Small base of support (candidates from House rarely win)
•“Pete Who?”

George Pataki
Ex-Governor, NY

•Very long elective experience in a big (Democratic) state — plus 9/11 experience •Time has passed him by: “George Who?”
•Zero grassroots excitement

Jim Gilmore
Ex-Governor, VA

•Record as tax-cutter
•Military record, intelligence officer during Cold War
•Not strong on the stump
•Left office in 2002: “Jim Who?”
•Lost 2008 Senate race by 31 points

Bob Ehrlich
Ex-Governor, MD

•Federal and state government experience •Lost twice to…Martin O’Malley
•No rationale for candidacy

John Bolton
Ex-Ambassador to the United Nations

•Foreign policy experience and hawkish views •All foreign policy, little domestic profile
•No electoral experience or donor base