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Republicans in 2016: Rubio Edges Ahead of Walker

For Republicans looking ahead to 2016, Florida is the pivotal state in the Electoral College. Naturally, we can’t know exactly what will happen a year and a half from now, but from our current vantage point, it appears very likely that the GOP must win the state to have a shot at winning 270 or more electoral votes and control of the White House.

Given the state’s importance, particularly to the Republicans, it seems appropriate that the top two contenders for the party’s presidential nomination in the Crystal Ball’s rankings now hail from the Sunshine State.

Moving into the number two spot on our GOP list is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The state’s junior senator has enjoyed a solid couple of weeks since announcing his candidacy on April 13, and his new position in our candidate list reflects that. He jumps ahead of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, while ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush remains at the top, though it’s important to stress just how tenuous Bush’s slotting remains at this very early point. This trio (Bush, Rubio, Walker) continues to make up our first tier, and they are tightly bunched together.

New survey data reflect Rubio’s improved stature. Prior to his announcement, Rubio had last seen double digits in national GOP primary polling in February 2014. Based on RealClearPoliticslist of polls, Rubio’s average in the nine 2015 polls taken before April 13 was 5.9%. In the three surveys since his official entry, Rubio averaged 13% and held a (slim) lead in two of them. It’s true that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz got a similar poll bounce after his entry in late March, which seems to have receded somewhat, so it’s entirely possible that Rubio is just the latest benefactor of an announcement bounce.

On the other hand, there’s little question that Rubio is relatively well-regarded by a wide variety of Republicans, from Tea Party stalwarts to establishment types. His potential to receive support from a broad swath of Republicans is one major reason Rubio is a top-tier candidate. In our reaction to Rubio’s entry, we mentioned that Rubio was actually relatively unknown compared to some other GOP contenders, leaving him room to grow as potential voters got to know him. Now that he’s an official candidate, one might say that his poll numbers are catching up to expectations.

This is not to say that Rubio won’t face major challenges. His murky stance on immigration — Rubio has pulled back from a reform plan he once touted — leaves him open to attack on his right flank and could undermine his support among Tea Partiers. Having worked on comprehensive reform in the Senate, many Republican donors have been happy to oblige him with checks. But the GOP grassroots are suspicious of any dealings regarding immigration, calling the 2013 Senate bill that Rubio helped pass “amnesty.” Considering the hit he took during that episode, where Rubio ends up on this issue could make or break him in the long run.

Immigration has also impacted the man Rubio leap-frogged in our rankings, Scott Walker. The Wisconsin governor got into some trouble for coming across as being in favor of reducing legal immigration, an off-putting move for the business wing of the party (as evidenced by criticism from The Wall Street Journal). Walker has suffered some growing pains, demonstrating how he still needs to work on his polish as a national candidate.

Yet it’s important to remember that Walker remains a formidable presence for many of the same reasons as Rubio. In fact, National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar made a strong case last week for why Rubio’s biggest concern maybe shouldn’t be Bush, a mentor and fellow Floridian, but rather Walker, who also appeals to a wide variety of elements in the GOP (although we suspect the party’s DC insiders would prefer the more polished Rubio). Moreover, given the poll bounces some others have received, Walker may be in line for a boost himself once he officially enters the race, and he is still second behind Bush in the national polling average. He has already received positive polling news in Iowa, where the most recent surveys find him leading. So Walker’s drop to third in our rankings should not be taken as a sign that he’s in some sort of downward spiral. There will be many ups and downs in the months to come for all potential and actual GOP candidates, and our analysis will reflect these changes.

As for Bush, he continues to raise an enormous amount of money, telling donors this past weekend that his unofficial campaign has set a new record for 100-day fundraising. We’ll let others parse the numbers regarding that claim, but the point is that Bush will almost surely have more money than any other candidate. He will also likely have strong backing from large parts of the establishment wing of the GOP. But as we said above, Bush’s hold on the top spot is tenuous. Despite leading national polling, Bush is at around 15% in both major averages, which certainly isn’t a dominant position. And there’s no doubt that the grassroots base isn’t thrilled with his candidacy. In this new era of unparalleled campaign spending, most major candidates are going to have a lot of money to throw around, either directly through their campaign or via affiliated groups. The questions for Bush are, how much support can his money “buy” and how large will the diminishing returns be on his spending? Bush will have to disprove The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love.”

Our revamped second tier is now composed of just Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. But Cruz has moved ahead of Paul, a reflection of our continued skepticism about Paul’s ability to put together a winning coalition in the Republican primary as well as our view that Cruz may actually be a more mainstream GOP candidate than Paul, despite the “Outsider” label that applies to both.

Paul’s fall to fifth in our ranking has happened in part because of his early struggles on the trail, getting into tiffs with interviewers and coming across as irascible. He has demonstrated less finesse than other high-level contenders, and while Paul has plenty of passionate supporters, it’s increasingly difficult to see him winning the nomination. To even get into a position to compete, Paul is trying to cut a Gordian knot by getting the support of libertarian Republicans and social conservatives while not thoroughly alienating the GOP establishment with his foreign policy positions.

These Republican factions have some obvious incompatibilities. For example, libertarians are more socially liberal while social conservatives strongly oppose gay marriage and abortion (Paul sides with social conservatives on those two issues). Libertarian-minded Republicans have tended to support an isolationist-tinged foreign policy, anathema to neoconservative mainline Republican attitudes in that arena, especially given recent world events. Paul’s self-described “libertarian-ish” positions aim to attract broader support than his father’s failed presidential bids, but they may wind up doing the exact opposite by alienating core supporters while failing to lure support from other wings of the party. The fact Paul received no obvious polling bounce from his presidential announcement, unlike Cruz or Rubio, might indicate the limitations he faces.

Meanwhile, we increasingly see Cruz’s position in the GOP field as one that is actually fairly traditional for a prominent conservative — especially in a time when the GOP has moved further to the right. While he has been the scourge of the establishment as a member of the Senate, Cruz has staked out positions that are appealing to social conservatives and defense hawks, a more familiar set of domestic and foreign policy views for a Republican presidential candidate than Paul’s. Cruz has also shown that raising money won’t be much of a problem for him, which many analysts (including us) considered a potential hindrance to his national ambitions in light of the distaste establishment Republicans have for him. Considering Paul’s problems and Cruz’s potential to appeal to classic Republican viewpoints, we’ve made Cruz the top dog in our second tier.

The field is only getting bigger

We’ve reshuffled our list a little bit this week to split our old “Outsiders” tier into two different categories. The aforementioned Cruz and Paul remain as the outsiders in the fourth and fifth positions on our list, but we wanted to take the other three — former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and Dr. Ben Carson — and put them into their own category lower down the list. These “evangelical favorites” are all quite unlikely to win the nomination, but they might play a role in determining who wins some key states, such as evangelical-rich Iowa and South Carolina, as well as other states that have a high number of religious conservatives. These states include many of the states that Mitt Romney lost in his successful bid to win the GOP nomination in 2012.

It should not shock anyone if one of these three evangelical favorites actually managed to win Iowa in a splintered field, especially because two of these candidates already have won Iowa in previous nomination contests: Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012. But these contenders will have little to no support from party leaders and lack the wide appeal to compete among non-evangelicals. As such, they are consigned to a marginal status that is exacerbated by the likelihood that they will be stealing votes from each other (and others in the field including Cruz and Paul). Carson is expected to officially enter the race next Monday in Detroit, Huckabee has an announcement coming a day later in Arkansas, and Santorum effectively announced back in December.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich is now in the sixth spot on our list, leading a group of sitting and former governors who, while having collectively small odds at winning the nomination, are more plausible nominees than Huckabee, Santorum, or Carson even though they often poll behind those bigger-name candidates at this point.

The Buckeye State governor appears closer to running than not. Kasich has been making the rounds in the early states, and he also has an outside group backing his candidacy, New Day for America, with former New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu at its helm. We explored the Kasich candidacy in depth last month, and some of the basic challenges — such as fundraising and his vocal support for Medicaid expansion in his home state — remain. At this early stage, we can’t see how he jumps in front of Bush, Rubio, or Walker. But no one should discount the governor of Ohio, or a politician who has maneuvered successfully around the shoals of national politics for a quarter-century. Ultimately, Kasich is someone who has long coveted the presidency. That driving ambition is as good a reason as any for him to run.

Kasich is followed in this tier by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. This is a slight upgrade for Perry and a slight downgrade for Christie, who is trying to become John McCain 2.0 by hitting a low point and bouncing back by barnstorming New Hampshire. Christie might be able to do well there, but just as the appeal of a Huckabee, Santorum, or Carson seems confined to evangelicals, Christie’s appeal seems restricted to the party’s relatively small number of liberal/moderate voters. Christie just doesn’t have much wide appeal in the party, and his current standing in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls — 5.6%, down from the low double digits during 2014 and a high point of 20% in December 2013 — is well below McCain’s lowest point, 10.3%, during the 2008 contest. Perry, meanwhile, is another heavy underdog, but his Super PAC just added one of the party’s best pollsters, Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies, to his already impressive team. Perry is probably too damaged from his disastrous 2012 candidacy to make an impact in a field that’s better than the one the party had four years ago, but he’s a legitimate candidate building a substantial campaign — and he’s much more in line ideologically with the GOP electorate than Christie.

Further down the list, we’ve brought back Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, whom we removed last month but who is now making some noise about potentially running. We’re not exactly sure what Snyder’s path to victory is — he starts behind other unlikely nominees in our ratings — but his inclusion now pushes our total number of candidates up to 20.

And it’s possible we should have 21. We haven’t mentioned him much until now, but business mogul and TV celebrity Donald Trump appears to actually be taking some steps to enter the race. He is holding events in early states and is opening an office in New Hampshire, and his political team is doing outreach across the country. (Full disclosure: we met with members of Team Trump last week in Charlottesville.)

Trump has made noise several times in the past about running for president, and he has a “boy who cried wolf” problem. So we’re not going to include him on our list until he formally announces, even though the bar for entry to our long roster of candidates is not high (as evidenced by the return of Snyder to our list and also the inclusion of improbable candidates such as former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Rep. Peter King of New York, and others). Trump, unlike these other candidates, has never run for or held high office before, and he delights in keeping his name in the spotlight. So we’re holding him to a somewhat different standard than other announced and potential candidates.

One big problem for Trump is that he’s not very well liked even by Republicans: A Monmouth University poll found his favorability was 28% favorable, 56% unfavorable among Republicans; another survey, from NBC News/Wall Street Journal, found that only 23% of Republicans could see supporting him versus 74% who could not.

At the very least, a Trump candidacy would be a spectacle, and it would throw one more curveball into a GOP presidential contest that might end up as the most crowded and competitive of any in the modern era.

Meanwhile on the sparse Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is finally getting an announced challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Though he sits with the Democratic Senate caucus, Sanders isn’t a full-fledged Democrat. Instead, he’s a democratic socialist and may well show Americans who do not remember Norman Thomas (a six-time Socialist presidential candidate from 1928 to 1948) what that label means. Sanders has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination, as he would himself admit, and his candidacy is all about pulling Hillary to the left on issues such as income equality and trade. To see our current Democratic rankings, click here.

Table 1: Crystal Ball 2016 Republican presidential rankings

Our new ranking of the GOP contenders features a number of changes. In our first tier, “The Leading Contenders,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is now second and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin is third, a reversal of their previous positions. The second tier, “The Outsiders,” has been reduced to just Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, with Cruz now ranked ahead of Paul.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich now leads the third tier, “The Governor Alternatives,” with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry ranked second. They both move ahead of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Rejoining our list is Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who slots in at the tail end of that group. The new fourth tier, “Evangelical Favorites,” contains former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Dr. Ben Carson, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; the trio previously made up latter part of the second tier. Lastly, our old fourth tier is now the fifth tier, “The Gadflies and Golden Oldies,” and its order is unchanged.

First Tier: The Leading Contenders
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Jeb Bush
Ex-Governor, FL
•Conservative gubernatorial resume
•National Bush money and organization, has already raised huge sums
•Personifies establishment, which typically produces GOP nominees
•Bush fatigue is real
•Support for Common Core and immigration reform
•Personifies establishment, which grassroots loathes
Marco Rubio
Senator, FL
•Dynamic speaker and politician
•Potential appeal to party insiders and outsiders
•Went left on immigration, hurt him with base
•Increased stature in field will attract opposition attacks
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 $
•Criticism of legal immigration might scare party’s business wing
•Does lack of college degree matter? (We don’t think so)
•Needs to prove he knows foreign policy
Second Tier: The Outsiders
Ted Cruz
Senator, TX
•Dynamic debater and canny, often underestimated politician
•Anti-establishment nature plays well with base
•Hard for anyone to get to his right
•Too extreme?
•Disliked on both sides of the Senate aisle
•Strong Tea Party support ensures establishment resistance to candidacy
Rand Paul
Senator, KY
•Strong support from libertarian and Tea Party wings
•National ID and fundraising network; benefits from father’s previous efforts
•Hawks, rather than doves, in vogue in current GOP
•Association with out-of-mainstream father
•Might also be losing some of his father’s support by moderating
Third 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, backs Common Core
•Long record to scrutinize
•Time running out for him to get real as a candidate
Rick Perry
Ex-Governor, TX
•Running vigorously and has strong campaign team
•2012 campaign so poor that he may now be underrated
•Bombed in much weaker 2012 field
•Hard to make a second first impression
Chris Christie Governor, NJ •Commanding speaker
•Made a lot of friends with successful RGA stint
•Honeymoon in NJ is long over
•Fallen behind Bush and Rubio in establishment race
•Weak national numbers
Bobby Jindal
Governor, LA
•Deep and wide experience
•Knows how to toss red meat to base
•Better on paper than on stump
•Controversial tenure in Louisiana
Rick Snyder
Governor, MI
•Right to Work in major labor state
•Washington outsider
•Supported Medicaid expansion
•Zero national profile
Fourth Tier: Evangelical Favorites
Mike Huckabee
Ex-Governor, AR
•Already vetted in 2008 and well-known from his Fox News program
•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
Ben Carson
Neurosurgeon and activist
•Adored by Tea Party grassroots
•Good on TV
•Little chance of establishment backing and funding
Rick Santorum
Ex-Senator, PA
•Strong support from social conservatives
•Been around primary track
•Harder to stand out in much stronger 2016 field
•Not as economically conservative as others
Fifth Tier: The Gadflies and Golden Oldies
Lindsey Graham
Senator, SC
•Prominent Obama critic
•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
•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)
George Pataki
Ex-Governor, NY
•Very long elective experience in a big (Democratic) state — plus 9/11 experience •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

List changes

Additions: Gov. Rick Snyder (MI)