This cycle’s Republican presidential primary was notable for its historic volatility and sheer unpredictability—as would be any contest featuring the improbable rise (and inevitable fall) of Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. Even Donald Trump, the nation’s chief “birther” and No. 1 self-promoter, briefly led a national poll or two.
Still, compared with the chaos that might envelope the party four years hence, Republicans could be left yearning for those simpler times.
The GOP, with the possible exception of vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who has said he will return to the House, doesn’t have an heir apparent. That alone is a disorienting prospect for a party that has traditionally anointed a previous primary challenger, the next-in-line candidate, to become its standard-bearer four years later—as was the case for Romney this year.
More broadly, however, that fearsome sense of the unknown is tied to the party’s future course. Will party members come to believe, as some conservatives are already arguing, that the GOP’s past two nominees have been insufficiently conservative? Or will they mandate that their next presidential nominee find a way to broaden the party’s appeal, particularly among minorities, even if that requires a softening of conservative doctrine? The Republican candidates will become vessels of these competing beliefs and others.
One thing that Republicans can feel good about: Even if the next presidential primary looks unpredictable, their bench of hopefuls is much deeper and more talented, and they are likely better able to connect with a wider swath of voters than the last contenders.
There’s Ryan, who, despite having been a part of a failed ticket, managed to raise his national profile during the last few months; he remains a fresh face and well-regarded within the Republican Party as an intellectual force. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, although still burdened by his family name, has nonetheless earned a reputation as a wise man and a pragmatist within the GOP who early on sounded the alarm over the party’s growing Latino problem.
New Jersey’s straight-talking, budget-slashing Chris Christie has become a national GOP favorite since becoming the Garden State’s governor in 2009. Despite being one of the most oft-deployed and hardest-hitting Romney surrogates, Christie had nothing but warm words for President Obama in the closing days of the race and is governing with a high approval rating in a blue state. Although that might hurt while he’s trying to barrel through a GOP primary, what Republicans might be craving after Romney is a little bit of authenticity.
“We need people who can speak to a modern audience in a forthright, honest way so when our candidates talk, voters think they’ve learned something ... not full of cliché, hokey, tired talking points,” said GOP consultant Ed Rogers. “Romney didn’t speak to a modern audience very well; he just didn’t.”
Then there are the candidates who would help the GOP rebrand itself as not just the party of old white men, a classification that stings more and more with each passing election cycle as minorities, young people, and women compound their importance in the electorate. “Right now, [Republicans] have a national coalition that is limited,” said former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, a moderate Republican. “They’re going to have to expand their footprint to some of these minority groups. We have not done a good job of reaching out there.”
Among those who would help in broadening the GOP coalition: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American and lauded orator who electrified the crowd with his speech at the Republican National Convention; New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Mexican-American from a middle-class background; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, an Indian-American conservative with a penchant for wonkery; South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was another active surrogate for the Romney campaign and even incoming Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another Cuban-American.
But don’t count social conservatives out. In the eyes of these activists, what the party really needs is a true conservative nominee. Santorum, the second-place primary finisher, is planting the seeds for a future run by remaining actively involved with his political action committee, Patriot Voices, and making frequent visits to Iowa, South Carolina, and other early primary states. Indiana Gov.-elect Mike Pence and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, both popular with the tea party, also populate the wish-lists of many conservatives.
SEEKING A SUCCESSOR
Democrats, meanwhile, will be contemplating the particular challenges of securing the presidency for a third consecutive term—an unusual feat that has been accomplished only once since World War II, by George H.W. Bush, who then failed to make it four in a row.
Pundits have to follow a certain order of operations to determine what a prospective Democratic field would look like. And, undoubtedly, the first step is answering the question that has percolated in Washington for years: What will Hillary Rodham Clinton do?
The former first lady and U.S. senator currently serving as secretary of State has publicly denied any further interest in the nation’s top job. Two decades in the public’s withering glare are a lot for any politician, and the broad-based popularity she now enjoys would surely be drained by another campaign.
But Clinton and her husband remain the preeminent force in Democratic politics this side of the Obamas, and she would surely begin the race as the front-runner. This time around, the historical significance of the party nominating its first female presidential candidate wouldn’t be eclipsed by the prospect of nominating its first black standard-bearer. “If she were to make the decision to seek the presidency, she’s going to be the prohibitive favorite,” said Tad Devine, a veteran of six presidential campaigns. “It’s going to be very difficult for anyone in the Democratic Party to match her in any meaningful way, except for possibly the vice president.”
So far, Joe Biden’s presidential aspirations have been far less ambiguous than Clinton’s. He routinely joked on the trail this year about another campaign (it would be his third for the Oval Office), telling a reporter on Election Day that he expects to have another chance to vote for himself in 2016. But to many Washington Democrats, the odds of another Biden run are regarded at least as even—certainly better than the betting line on a Clinton candidacy.
The vice president’s chances would hinge on the perceived success of Obama’s second term, Biden’s role in it, and whether his gaffe-prone demeanor becomes disqualifying. But two-term vice presidents who seek their party’s nomination are traditionally formidable contenders, as witness Al Gore in 2000 and George H.W. Bush in 1988. Biden’s entrance might not clear the field the way Clinton’s would, but it would still give other would-be contenders pause.
“All of the gravity will be revolving around Biden and Clinton,” said Matt Bennett of Third Way, the centrist think tank. “Until they make a decision one way or another, it will be very difficult for anyone else to do anything else, frankly, other than some basic groundwork-laying.”
That process has already begun in earnest among some Democrats eager to fill the void should neither Clinton nor Biden run. Consider the parade of elected officials who visited the Iowa delegation during the Democratic National Convention earlier this year: Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and even Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker.
Among them, O’Malley is the best equipped to launch a presidential bid. The charismatic two-term governor has made a name for himself as a fierce attack dog for Obama’s agenda and has filled his Rolodex as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. “If you were to line up Martin on the environment, on education, transportation, energy, on the core domestic issues, he’s got a decent record, so that’s one of the ingredients,” said John Willis, a political analyst at the University of Baltimore.
Andrew Cuomo, the disciplined New York governor and son of iconic Democrat Mario Cuomo, is a name also frequently on the lips of Democratic operatives when it comes to 2016. His first years in office, highlighted by his successful push for gay marriage, are considered a major success, and his approval rating hovers in the 70s. If Cuomo runs, he could very well be the race’s early front-runner. But speculating about his ambitions remains premature, given that Cuomo is only halfway through his first term. “He’s not thinking about this. What he’s thinking about is how to make sure he’s in position to think about it,” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.
The wish list for liberals nonetheless stretches even longer to include those who will be waiting in the wings as the Obama administration embarks on its second term: Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren of the Bay State, and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
None of the potential contenders—save for Biden, Clinton, and the well-connected Cuomo—have the infrastructure, organization, or fundraising prowess required to launch a presidential bid, but perhaps the biggest encouragement for these long shots comes from recent history: An obscure state senator from Illinois managed to build a formidable campaign and ascend to the White House as the first African-American president in only four years.
The Democratic lineup is striking for two reasons. For one, it’s not deep. Aside from Biden and Clinton, the only first-tier candidates generally expected to run are Cuomo and O’Malley (and again, Cuomo has been governor for only two years). Although Patrick, Warner, and a few others could rise to that category, their candidacies are little more than rumors for now.
But perhaps most glaringly, with the exception of Clinton, the field lacks a significant minority or female candidate. That’s a startling—and embarrassing—void in a party that prides itself on diversity. Obama won the nomination in 2008 by stitching together blacks, upscale whites, and young voters. It was a first-of-its-kind coalition in the Democratic primary, a race that had always been claimed by the candidate who won blue-collar whites (the “beer track” candidate versus the more white-collar “wine track”). Right now, no Democratic hopeful appears readily capable of replicating his formula in a competitive primary.
The primary contenders will have to find a way to build a coalition among at least two groups, according to Joe Trippi, the chief strategist for Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. It could be any combination of Latinos, union members, upscale whites, blue-collar whites, or women, he said, adding that the jockeying for the support of African-Americans might be the primary’s fiercest fight. “Even though there isn’t a logical person,” he said, “the person who puts that coalition together or a relative semblance of it, that’ll be the nominee.”
This article appeared in print as "2016 Begins Today."
This article appears in the November 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.