Thursday, January 22, 2015

Presidential hopefuls

In this post I'm going to briefly handicap potential 2016 presidential hopefuls. I'm going to rank them according to first-tier, second-tier, and third-tier candidates. 

I'm not ranking them on the merits. For the most part, I'm ranking them on electability. The fact that I put some hopefuls in the top tier and others in lower tiers isn't a statement of approval or disapproval. An intrinsically better candidate may be less electable while an intrinsically worse candidate may be more electable. That's not fair, but politics isn't fair. My distinction between second and third-tier candidates is admittedly somewhat arbitrary. 

There are several criteria:

i) The electability of a GOP candidate may depend in part on their Democrat opponent. 

ii) A stronger candidate in GOP primaries might be a weaker candidate in the general election. 

iii) Each candidate typically has strengths and weaknesses. 

On the Democrat side, the presumptive nominee is HIllary Clinton. She would be a fairly weak candidate. Zero charisma. Has more baggage than DFW airport. 

However, that doesn't mean she can't win. There are lots of voters who will rubber-stamp the Democrat agenda–whoever the standard-bearer is.

A stronger candidate would be Jim Webb. He's probably the most formidable candidate the Dems can run against whoever the GOP will nominate.

Top Tier

Jeb Bush

Pluses. Was a successful governor of a major state. Generally conservative. Might carry Florida, which is nearly key to winning the general election. Smarter and more articulate than his brother. More at ease in front of a camera. More commanding stage presence than his brother.

He will be the establishment Republican candidate. Will have the backing of the GOP establishment. Raise heaps of money. 

Minuses. Not a charmer. Favors amnesty, which is anathema to the base. Favors Common Core, which is anathema to the base. Makes no effort to cultivate the base. Uneven on social issues. 

Rand Paul

Pluses: Appealing to libertarians and independents. After 8 years of Obama, many voters will desire a radical scale-back. 

Minuses: Hawks hate him. Having withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, his anti-war credentials lack urgency. 

Not a terribly fluent public speaker. Not as smart as his dad. 

His libertarianism limits his social conservativism. 

Will have passionate supporters and passionate opponents in the primaries. 

Scott Walker

Pluses: A folk hero for defeating public sector unions. Successful governor. Battle-hardened. 

Minuses: Sketchy on social issues. Untested on the national stage. 

Mike Huckabee

Pluses: Winsome, articulate, eloquent. Culture warrior. Natural standard-bearer for social conservatives. His TV show has given him a continued following. Devoted supporters. Finished second in the GOP primaries. A good debater. 

Minuses: His support has depth without breadth. Libertarians hate him. Independents will be put off by a Baptist minister. Like Rand Paul, he's a polarizing figure, with passionate supporters and opponents. 

Hard to see how a Baptist minister can win the general election. 

Second Tier

Rick Perry

Presumably he will be better prepared this time around. Rugged charm. Strong record as major state governor. Weak on immigration. 

His primary problem is that he lacks the distinctive advantages of the top-tier candidates. 

Ted Cruz

A natural ideological leader for conservative voters. Smart. Articulate. However, he has to vie with Jeb for "moderate" voters and vie with Huckabee for value voters. 

Moreover, he doesn't seem to be a very savvy political tactician. A number of his congressional maneuvers have backfired. He may be like Gingrich: a better talker than doer. 

Bobby Jindal

Super-smart. Hands-on governor. Catholic social conservative. Outspoken opponent of Common Core. Would make it harder for Dems to play the race card.

However, he's not photogenic. And Huckabee tends to co-opt the social conservative base, which Jindal needs to build on. 

Marco Rubio

Smooth, articulate, photogenic. Generally conservative. Might be a drawing card for Latino voters. Might carry Florida.  

However, he's damaged himself on "comprehensive immigration reform." Also, hard to see how he can elbow his way into a field with other candidates who co-opt key voting blocks. Between Jeb, Rand, Walker, and Huckabee, all the niches are taken.

Third Tier 

Mitt Romney

He's vetted. Really for prime time. Can raise big bucks. But time has passed him by, and there's a deep field of rival candidates.

Chris Christie

Articulate. Feisty. A natural establishment Republican. A pick for country-club Republicans. 

Too liberal to appeal to the base. Too chummy with Obama. Perceived to be a Quisling. Too much competition.

Ben Carson

He should be very interesting in the primary debates. But I don't see him rising to the top of the pack in a crowded field. 

John Kasich

A natural establishment candidate. Successful governor. Good on economics. 

But I think Jeb presently owns the establishment slot. And Kasich is too lackluster to rise above the crowd.

Rick Santorum

A worthy contender, but for whatever reason he rubs too many voters the wrong way.

Mike Pence

Ditto: Kasich. 

John Bolton

Hawkish foreign policy wonk. Would make interesting secretary of state. Libertarians hate him. Too obscure to be a successful candidate. 


  1. Jindal reminds me of Tim Pawlenty. He has a lot of potential, but isn't polling well.

    Bush and Paul have a big family problem, Bush with his brother and Paul with his father. They might handle it well, and it might not do much damage, but the other candidates don't have the problem to begin with.

    Santorum and Carson shouldn't run. Their chances are horrible, and they'd probably hurt the Republican effort more than they'd help it as candidates. In Santorum's case, that's largely not his fault. But, justified or not, he has too bad of a reputation to run. (The same is true of Cruz.) He would be more effective doing something else. So would Carson. The idea of Carson running for president is absurd.

    Christie is far from my first choice, and I doubt he'll even come close to getting the nomination, but it's somewhat understandable that he'd run. Like Newt Gingrich, Christie has a lot of potential to have good moments in a debate. Given the inordinate influence of factors like personality and soundbites in politics, there's some merit in a Christie candidacy. I doubt he'll win, but his candidacy at least makes more sense than, say, Santorum's or Carson's.

    I have a somewhat similar view of Romney. He's not my first choice, but there's some significant merit to his candidacy. He's familiar, safe, a good communicator, experienced on the national stage, etc. He's good as a back-up candidate, and he might be able to win with minority support in a crowded field. I suspect most Republicans will look to support an alternative to Romney first, but would be willing to turn to Romney if needed.

    Rubio has a lot of potential, but he should wait for another year. The same media who were so unconcerned about Obama's inexperience in 2008 probably would put a lot of emphasis on contrasting Rubio's inexperience to Clinton's experience. In addition to what the media would make of his inexperience, Rubio hasn't been tested enough yet and doesn't have enough accomplishments he can cite. The experience issue is a problem for Rubio on many levels. The same is true of Paul and Cruz.

    Huckabee and Perry are too easily stereotyped, Huckabee as an overly religious candidate and Perry as another George Bush. They're probably too damaged from previous runs, though their electability problems aren't as bad as Santorum's or Cruz's.

    Bolton is too unknown, he's too associated with foreign policy, which probably won't be the policy focus in 2016, and I don't see how he'd build up much support. I haven't seen any polling data on him as far as I recall, but I suspect he'd poll very poorly.

    Kasich and Pence have some significant potential. They're not as unknown as Bolton, but they don't come up much in discussions about 2016. They're good to have around as potential back-up and vice presidential candidates.

    At this point, Jindal is my first choice independent of polling, but the polling has to be taken into account. So, I'd go with Walker for now and hope that Jindal starts getting better polling results.

    1. Both Rand and Huckabee have a solid floor of support, but both have a low ceiling of support. They hit their heads pretty quick. The challenge is how to raise the ceiling.

      Rand didn't help himself by schmoozing with Al Sharpton. That shows a monumental lack of judgment.

      Cruz might be a draw for the Latino vote. But it's hard to see how he breaks into what I call the top tier. To succeed, I think a candidate needs a preexisting constituency just to get off the ground. If Rand monopolizes the libertarian niche, Huckabee monopolizes the value voter niche, and Jeb monopolizes the establishment Republican niche, I doubt there are enough remaining cards in the deck to deal him in.

      Jindal has a similar problem, which is a pity because I think he has a better chance of winning the general election–if he can get through the primaries–than Perry and Huckabee.

      I agree with you that at the moment, Walker has the best shot.

    2. I should perhaps clarify my ranking system. I put Jeb, Rand, Walker, and Huckabee in the top-tier because I think they have the best shot at winning the nomination. Obviously, that's the first hurdle a candidate must clear before moving onto the general election.

      Of the four, I think Jeb and Walker would probably be competitive in the general election. I think Huckabee and Rand would lose the general election.

      if the second-tier candidates could win the nomination, they'd all do better than Huckabee or Rand in the general election, and do at least as well as Jeb–if not Walker.

      Same might be true for Kasich and Romney.

  2. It might be ideal to have someone like Jeb or Walker as the nominee, and his VP someone like Huckabee, Cruz, or Jindal.

  3. Bush has a reputation for being antagonistic toward the base of his party. I don't know how much of that is a result of actual disagreements with the base and how much is misconception, media distortion, etc. I suspect it's some of each. But he probably needs to reposition himself sooner rather than later. The polling I've seen suggests that Romney is more popular than Bush among Republicans by at least several points. That can easily change, but it's the way things are at this point. Romney has the advantage of being able to continue where he left off in 2012. Bush, on the other hand, has to try to reposition himself with the base of his party and decide how to present himself on a lot of issues and in a lot of contexts he hasn't addressed yet. Romney's already done a lot of that work and can build off of what he's already accomplished.

    In addition to his name problem, Bush has a weight problem. What a candidate looks like matters, especially when the voters are as shallow, undiscerning, and corrupt as American voters are. Christie has the same problem. I doubt it's a coincidence that all of the presidents of recent decades have been either thin or only a little overweight. Part of that is what's physically required to run for the office and hold it, but I think the false priorities of the voters are a factor as well. A candidate's weight does have some significance, because of its association with character issues like self-control and how well a candidate could physically fulfill the responsibilities of the office, for example. But I suspect that most voters give the issue inordinate attention and do so for worse reasons than the ones I just mentioned. With somebody like Christie, a weight problem might be overlooked because people like some aspects of his personality, such as his courage, aggressiveness, and humor. What compensating qualities does Bush have that would be recognized as such by most voters?

    And from what I've heard from him over the years, I don't think Bush is much of a communicator. That's another advantage Romney has.

  4. It's very early, but here's a current Zogby poll:

    (The poll of 223 likely primary voters was conducted online January 16-18 and has a margin of sampling error of +/-6.6 percentage points.)

    Romney 16%
    Rubio 13%
    Bush 13%
    Christie 11%
    Huckabee 9%

    My preference would be for one of the non-Bush governors to get the nomination (Walker or Jindal, especially). But if Rubio can capitalize on this "surprise 2nd place", then he may gain some momentum.