Wide-Open Race in 2016 Offers Ocean of Possibilities

Speculation abounds over who will run for president. While Democrats want Clinton, the GOP list keeps growing.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 01: Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks on stage at the Pennsylvania Conference For Women 2013 at Philadelphia Convention Center on November 1, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
National Journal
Charlie Cook
Nov. 11, 2013, 3:13 p.m.

It’s hard to re­mem­ber in­terest in a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion be­gin­ning to build so early. Wide-open pres­id­en­tial con­tests — that is, those without an in­cum­bent seek­ing reelec­tion — aren’t that in­fre­quent; they’ve oc­curred a total of six times in the post-World War II peri­od, four of those in the past 50 years. However, all the spec­u­la­tion about “will Hil­lary run” among Demo­crats and the curi­os­ity on the Re­pub­lic­an side about Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, and, most re­cently, New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie is rather ex­traordin­ary a year be­fore even the midterm elec­tions.

It’s not en­tirely idle spec­u­la­tion. With a su­per PAC back­ing Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton already open­ing up a headquar­ters and hir­ing staff, guided by a half-dozen or so widely re­cog­nized people who are close to the former sec­ret­ary of State and former Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton, this isn’t a bunch of name­less op­por­tun­ists look­ing to get an in­side track on a job (in the way the “Draft Kennedy” move­ment in 1979 was the year be­fore Sen. Ed­ward Kennedy chal­lenged Pres­id­ent Carter for the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion).

Wash­ing­ton’s con­ven­tion­al wis­dom is that Clin­ton is ab­so­lutely run­ning. Some folks even act con­temp­tu­ous at the mere sug­ges­tion that she might not run. But here, too many people think all de­cisions are 100 per­cent polit­ic­al and that no oth­er con­sid­er­a­tions need ap­ply. If this is truly just a polit­ic­al de­cision, there is no doubt she will run; the polit­ic­al in­dic­at­ors are all show­ing green. But it’s pos­sible that health con­cerns will be a factor. Giv­en her hus­band’s quad­ruple heart by­pass and two im­planted heart stents, along with her own per­son­al health scare last year, no doubt due to ex­haus­tion dur­ing the fi­nal months as the na­tion’s chief dip­lo­mat, Clin­ton has cause for at least some hes­it­a­tion. After all, she will turn 69 just a couple of weeks be­fore the 2016 elec­tion, the same age Ron­ald Re­agan was when he first won the pres­id­ency in 1980. This is not to sug­gest that the age is­sue would be ef­fect­ively used against her (it cer­tainly didn’t work so well against Re­agan), but that she would have to feel up to a chal­lenge that will be con­sid­er­ably more phys­ic­ally de­mand­ing than be­ing sec­ret­ary of State. My bet is that she prob­ably runs, but I ser­i­ously doubt if she has made or will make a de­cision be­fore next year’s midterms. Plus, she ac­tu­ally has the lux­ury of be­ing able to wait un­til well in­to 2015 to de­cide, something the oth­er likely can­did­ates can­not af­ford.

If Clin­ton runs, no doubt she will have op­pos­i­tion, al­though most think that if she is in the race, fel­low New York­ers Gov. An­drew Cuomo and Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand will stay on the side­lines; it would seem less likely, however, that the oth­er po­ten­tial fe­male con­tenders, folks such as Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Min­nesota and Eliza­beth War­ren of Mas­sachu­setts, might hold back. My hunch is that Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden, who will be turn­ing 74 two weeks after the 2016 elec­tion, would pass on run­ning if Clin­ton is in the race. But there is no way that Clin­ton would get a free ride for the nom­in­a­tion; it is no secret that former Ver­mont Gov. Howard Dean has been angling for an­oth­er stab at run­ning, as have Govs. John Hick­en­loop­er of Col­or­ado, Mar­tin O’Mal­ley of Mary­land, and maybe even former Montana Gov. Bri­an Sch­weitzer. At least one or two of these guys would likely choose to take Clin­ton on, know­ing that the ex­pect­a­tions are low, but that she could stumble or light­ning could strike. Should Clin­ton not run, watch for every name men­tioned above, plus oth­ers, to ser­i­ously look at the race.

On the GOP side, the first two ques­tions are wheth­er former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush and Christie will run. Al­though Bush would prob­ably be a very for­mid­able can­did­ate not­with­stand­ing his last name (an is­sue Clin­ton would have to con­tend with as well) and is said to love the idea of run­ning for and ac­tu­ally serving as pres­id­ent, my bet is that he doesn’t run, that he has too many fam­ily con­sid­er­a­tions that ar­gue against it. The time when male can­did­ates got away with ig­nor­ing the wishes and needs of their fam­il­ies is pretty much gone. Bush’s ab­sence would be a loss for the GOP. Next comes Christie, who would clearly be well po­si­tioned to win a gen­er­al elec­tion, win­ning votes from both in­de­pend­ents and mod­er­ates (the lat­ter a group that Mitt Rom­ney lost by 15 points) as well as likely pick­ing off a few Demo­crats. However, as strong as I think he could be in a gen­er­al elec­tion, two things hold me back from say­ing Christie is the front-run­ner: First, will a party that ser­i­ously con­sidered nom­in­at­ing Michele Bach­mann, Her­man Cain, Rick San­tor­um, Rick Perry, and Newt Gin­grich really turn around a re­l­at­ive cent­rist like Christie? Should Re­pub­lic­ans do so? Yes. Will it be likely? No. Christie could win a GOP nom­in­a­tion only if hard-char­ging, take-no-pris­on­ers con­ser­vat­ives lead the party to a massive elect­or­al de­feat, trig­ger­ing a hard turn to the middle, as Re­pub­lic­ans made in 1968, after the 1964 Barry Gold­wa­ter de­bacle, or as Demo­crats did in 1976, after George McGov­ern led Demo­crats over the cliff in 1972.

I frame a more likely Re­pub­lic­an field by sort­ing the po­ten­tial can­did­ates in­to three buck­ets or cat­egor­ies. First, 2012 nom­in­a­tion re­treads: Rick San­tor­um and Rick Perry are the most likely two, and pos­sibly, but not likely, Rep. Paul Ry­an, Rom­ney’s 2012 vice-pres­id­en­tial run­ning mate. Next come the newly elec­ted tea-party Sen­ate fresh­men, Cruz, Paul, and Ru­bio, al­though the Flor­idi­an may have hurt his chances enorm­ously by com­ing out for im­mig­ra­tion re­form and ef­fect­ively tak­ing one for the team. Ru­bio might ul­ti­mately get vin­dic­ated, but prob­ably not by 2016. Then come the gov­ernors: Louisi­ana’s Bobby Jin­dal, Ohio’s John Kasich, In­di­ana’s Mike Pence, and Wis­con­sin’s Scott Walk­er.

With the stated dis­claim­er that pres­id­en­tial-nom­in­a­tion spec­u­la­tion has an ac­cur­acy rate of only about 5 per­cent (plus or minus 5 per­cent), my money at this point is on Rand Paul from the sen­at­ors brack­et and Scott Walk­er for the gov­ernors. I’m not sure the re­tread brack­et is con­nec­ted in­to the fi­nals.

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