Walker, Bush Emerge As Early Frontrunners In A Crowded 2016 Field

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 1 –

  • Romney’s exit works just fine for Bush, Walker
  • Not so great for Rand Paul
  • Expect a strong GOP field in 2016

Feb. 10, 2015
To: Our readers

From: David Freddoso

A note to our readers: This is our first update of the year, looking at the emerging presidential picture after our post-election hiatus. The Briefing will be back full-time, publishing weekly, starting March 2.

President 2016

It’s 2015. That means we’re back in the presidential cycle again at last. This could be an exhilarating or depressing reality, depending on your temperament.

But Republicans and conservatives can at least expect a presidential primary cycle that will make them cringe a lot less than they did last time. This time, the candidates are real. The quality is a lot higher. In fact, this promises to be the best crop of serious candidates in an open GOP primary since at least 1988.

The 2000 election cycle was relatively empty, with nearly all hopes pinned on George W. Bush. But there’s a different reason for the weakness of more recent cycles. Big Republican losses in 2006 badly depleted the GOP field of 2008. Both the 2006 and 2008 results further depleted the GOP field for 2012, when the freshly elevated winners from 2010 were just still too fresh to compete. But big Republican wins in 2010 and 2014 have finally replenished the Republican field. They have also wiped out most fresh-faced Democratic hopefuls for 2016 (and perhaps 2020), but that’s for another day.

So even if Republicans enter 2016 with an uphill climb in Electoral College terms — Democrats basically start with about 240 electoral votes almost guaranteed — the GOP has much better chances in terms of candidate quality than in recent elections. 

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Mitt Romney, the 2012 nominee, has dropped out. Recall that Romney’s success in 2012 was based largely upon a weak candidate field in which he was by far the best and perhaps the only palatable choice. For reasons described above, that simply wouldn’t have been the case in 2016. Let’s look at who gains and who loses among the Republican candidates based on Romney’s exit and other factors.  


Jeb Bush: Mitt Romney’s exit definitely helps Bush, but not as much as one might expect. It’s a lesson in the difference between institutional and grassroots advantages.

Bush’s fortunes depend on his ability to use the party’s moderate money to convince its conservative voters that he really is a conservative, based on his record as governor of Florida. He has a decent case to make here.The most important consequence of Romney’s exit for Bush is that there is now one less 800-lb. gorilla competing for the same big GOP money and top-notch campaign staff. But Romney’s exit doesn’t unlock a large voter base that would otherwise be unavailable to Bush. In fact, Romney dropped what at least seemed like subtle hints that he might be more likely to back someone else anyway.

Bush is a very strong candidate. His recent speech in Detroit was quite strong. His political skills are superior to Romney, John McCain, and his brother George — stronger than anyone the Republicans have run for president since at least his father. He talks with confidence. He is clearly knowledgeable and intelligent.  

Scott Walker: Even if it helps Bush more directly, Romney’s exit is part of a series of events that has landed Walker in the top tier without much warning. Some recent polls don’t even include him, yet the Bloomberg/DMR poll of Iowa has him in the lead, as does a local media poll in New Hampshire. It would CIB010815-Walkernot be unreasonable to view him as an unlikely frontrunner rather than a dark horse.

How does Romney’s exit help Walker? There are a couple of ways. As bizarre as it sounds, there was always a danger that a certain kind of conservative — the immigration hawk — might embrace Romney (whose record as a governor was quite liberal) as a more conservative and more plausibly winning alternative to Bush (whose record as a governor was quite conservative). Romney might be more appealing here than Walker, whose immigration rhetoric is somewhat weaker than “self-deport” — note that it already has him taking heat from Mark Levin

Perhaps more importantly, Walker has the opportunity to compete for the same resources as Bush. He is already working on it. He could well benefit from Romney’s exit the exact same way Bush will.

The case that Romney’s absence from the field makes a Walker victory less likely because he isn’t the moderate or establishment choice depends upon something we consider a misconception — the notion that Romney has grassroots support somewhere that Bush will simply inherit. Again, this just isn’t so. Those who pick Romney as a soft favorite now will be split between multiple candidates in the weeks to come. 

Importantly, Walker is not just an Iowa candidate — say, a Mike Huckabee. He will not necessarily scare away the establishment money just because he is a conservative. In fact, Walker is strikingly similar to Jeb Bush in many ways. Both are effective, winning conservative politicians. Neither one overwhelms with charisma, but each one makes up for this problem with political discipline and intelligence that exceeds that of the 2012 field. Walker has one advantage Bush lacks — a massive base of more than 300,000 grassroots donors who have given him money in the three elections he has run between 2010 and 2014. 

Walker was a hit at the recent Iowa event, and as noted above he already leads in an early Des Moines Register poll. In fact, he was the first choice of 15 percent of Iowa Republicans and the second choice of another 10 percent, with Romney included. The New Hampshire poll has him ahead at 21 percent. That means little this early, but it’s more than enough to create what Walker has been missing up to now — buzz around his candidacy and a belief that he might just have it in him. It comes at just the right moment, with Romney bowing out. Walker was an asterisk quite recently — now people are even asking whether he’s peaking too soon (a strange idea, given that he’s still hiring staff).

Rand Paul: Senator Paul has spent the last five years selling a more mainstream version of the libertarian philosophy that his father was never able to parlay into a Republican presidential primary victory. He has enjoyed a lot of success here. And for 2016, provided he figures out a good way to run, he starts with CIB020615-Paula leg up because he has much of his father’s solid base — a higher floor than most other candidates have. 

But as the representative of an esoteric strand of conservatism, he is also less likely to find converts within the party. He thus has a lower ceiling in primaries than most other candidates will.

Assuming he finds a way to solve his problems with the Kentucky ballot laws, Paul’s path to the nomination is easier than his father’s was, but still very much uphill. He will be competing with other conservatives for the conservative mantle, yet much of the conservative vote he could pick off will be off-limits to him if other credible and impeccably conservative alternatives are competing for it without clashing as much with conservative orthodoxy on national security.

This remains the case even if he would be more appealing in some ways to certain swing voters in a general election. Paul benefits from a certain amount of chaos and the most crowded field possible. Thus, Romney’s exit hurts him, if only slightly, for the same reason anyone else’s exit would. He is the least likely to gain support in the polls based solely on this event. He has less chance than most others of getting his hands on any of the resources that would have otherwise gone to Romney — and in terms of courting big donors, he seems to have recently blown a good opportunity with the Koch Brothers set. His recent comments on vaccinations don’t help his cause either — not because he opposed compulsion, but because he, a medical doctor, took the opportunity to pander to anti-vaccination activists by suggesting there is validity to their cause.


Mike Huckabee: He won Iowa last time he ran, and his poll numbers there reflect at least enough CIB020615-Huckabeeresidual support to keep him off the bottom of the barrel. That doesn’t necessarily mean he can get the band back together and do it again eight years later, and it probably doesn’t mean he has a chance in any of the later primary states.

Walker should be especially concerned about Huckabee, whose appeal to religious conservatives aims at the broadest base in Iowa. But Huckabee’s appeal is limited. He is the unusual social conservative politician in that he has gone so far out of his way to antagonize the party’s economic and limited-government conservatives. This usually just doesn’t happen, and there’s a good reason for that — the Right consists of a coalition that works better together. 

Marco Rubio: He lost his attraction for the immigration-hawk crowd some time ago, but he is the first CIB020615-Rubiochoice of many conservatives for whom national security and foreign policy are paramount. There are only so many of these, but they matter. Rubio probably can’t beat Bush to the big money, but he is known, liked, and could still catch fire. He also looms as anyone else’s potential choice as a running mate.

Republican primary voters might well warm up to him and move him to the top tier by the end of this summer. Even so, he is young and probably not ready for the presidency in 2016. He will have more opportunities later.


Rick Perry: Another candidate who deserves to be taken seriously — but only if he runs, and there are big hints that he won’t. Texas’ longest-serving governor has been working to reinvent himself, right down toCIB100214-Perry his hipster glasses. He was viewed as a potential savior at one point as a late entrant among a weak 2012 field. This time, he would be a dark horse.

Perry seems to have learned from his failures last time around, but he has little room for error this time. His biggest problem is obvious: If he couldn’t succeed in 2012, when there were few other good options, it’s hard to see how he comes out on top of a much stronger crop of rivals. Then again, having done this before is an advantage unto itself. As John McCain’s unlikely and late rise in 2008 demonstrates, nothing is impossible.

Chris Christie: If you bought stock here, probably best to sell now. He won a cake-walk re-election in a Blue State, and he ran a great cycle as RGA chairman. But he has also been damaged by a couple of CIB011315-Christie-1024x535scandals. One recent one makes him look rather venal — fitting the stereotype, actually, of the middle class guy who grew up in a Duff household but has acquired McAllan tastes. The other involves a new federal investigation into whether he blocked criminal investigations of his supporters. Not good for his prospects.

But what’s most telling is that none of the scandals are the real reason Christie now looks like such a longshot. His real problem is that he’s the answer to a question no one is asking — whom else can we support, because Jeb Bush is too conservative? That no one is asking this question so far is a demonstration of how the party’s center has drifted rightward since the beginning of last decade.

Bobby Jindal: He certainly doesn’t lack the ambition to be president. He even has a decent record in
Louisiana, but he’s now very unpopular at home. The stridency of his rhetoric increases in inverse proportion to his chances — which is to say, the wilder his public comments, the worse off he thinks he is. Jindal has most of the things you’d want on paper, but he’ll have a hard time convincing people that he has something that those higher on this list do not. Also, he has never quite lived down his widely panned State of the Union response in 2009. 

Ted Cruz: Yes, he obviously has ambitions to be president. And yes, no one considers him ready in 2016.
Republicans are unlikely to take a chance on Cruz after he’s only been in the Senate for two years, the way Democrats did with Obama in 2008. The Democratic nomination process has a propensity to choose outsiders like Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. The GOP process is much more geared toward picking someone who can legitimately say it’s his turn. This is true independent of ideology — whether that person happens to be a Ronald Reagan or a Gerald Ford.


Then there’s the bottom of the barrel tier. Bob Ehrlich, George Pataki. Lindsey Graham. Peter King. No, no, no, no. Carly Fiorina is probably more interesting than these, and generated some interest in Iowa, but she’s more likely running for Secretary of Commerce.

Sarah Palin is not running and will find almost no support if she does. Ben Carson is a non-starter — his relatively strong performance in early polls is purely illusory.