Top Dogs and Underdogs

There’s no true GOP front-runner—but that doesn’t mean the primary playing field is level.

The closest thing the GOP has to pack-leaders: Rubio, Bush and Walker.
National Journal
June 5, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

An­oth­er polit­ic­al ana­lyst and I re­cently de­cided just for fun to write down what per­cent­age chance we would give the top con­tenders for the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion. My col­league was bold, giv­ing Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er a 35 per­cent chance of get­ting the nod, Sen. Marco Ru­bio a 30 per­cent chance, former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush a 25 per­cent chance, and “someone else” a 10 per­cent chance—spe­cific­ally say­ing that this in­cluded Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. I con­fess to hav­ing been less cour­ageous, giv­ing 25 per­cent chances each to Bush, Ru­bio, and Walk­er, a 10 per­cent shot to Cruz, and a 15 per­cent chance to “who knows?” An­oth­er well-re­garded polit­ic­al ana­lyst sep­ar­ately (and even more boldly) pegged Walk­er’s chances at 40 per­cent, Bush’s at 35 per­cent, and Ru­bio’s at 25 per­cent.

The closest thing the GOP has to pack-lead­ers: Ru­bio, Bush and Walk­er. (An­drew Bur­ton, Joe Raedle and Joe Raedle/Getty Im­ages)So what does this sug­gest? My in­ter­pret­a­tion would be that, first, this is a con­test that is very much in doubt, with no single, dom­in­ant play­er, no “one to beat” this early out. This is un­usu­al for Re­pub­lic­ans, who tra­di­tion­ally have be­haved in a very hier­arch­ic­al man­ner, tap­ping the es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ate—or, as many have put it, “who­ever’s turn it is to be the nom­in­ee.” It also sug­gests, however, that des­pite the lack of a clear front-run­ner in a crowded and noisy field, there are few­er than a half-dozen pro­spects at most who are per­ceived to have a plaus­ible chance at win­ning the nom­in­a­tion.

The news is not likely to get bet­ter for the un­der­dogs. Ob­vi­ously, this is a busi­ness where sur­prises are more the norm than the ex­cep­tion, but a field of 15 to 20 can­did­ates makes it even more dif­fi­cult for any­one who is not near the top at the be­gin­ning to rise and sep­ar­ate from the pack. De­bate rules will make it even more ex­clu­sion­ary. The top three or so can­did­ates are draw­ing in­terest from re­l­at­ively broad swaths of Re­pub­lic­an voters; the rest of the hope­fuls are carving out smal­ler niches or pock­ets with­in the GOP primary elect­or­ate, of­ten with very nar­rowly tailored ar­gu­ments that don’t have much elasti­city. Think of the way cable chan­nels “nar­row­cast” with pro­grams that very clearly tar­get cer­tain groups, while broad­cast net­works go for a wider, more gen­er­al audi­ence. While Sen. Rand Paul’s sup­port among those with strong liber­tari­an views is likely to be very high, will he be able to di­ver­si­fy his sup­port bey­ond that group? Can former Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Hucka­bee or former Sen. Rick San­tor­um ex­pand their ranks bey­ond those Re­pub­lic­ans who are most con­cerned with so­cial and cul­tur­al is­sues?

(RE­LATED: Rand Paul’s Risky Polit­ics

Bey­ond Bush, Ru­bio, and Walk­er, if there is to be a fourth real con­tender, my money at this mo­ment would be on someone from the most con­ser­vat­ive third of the GOP, with Cruz the most likely, though an ar­gu­ment can be made for Hucka­bee as well. With his late and slow entry, Kasich has ceded ground to the top three that could have been his.

The volat­il­ity that we see in the Re­pub­lic­an race is matched by the un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing the gen­er­al elec­tion. An ABC News”Š/”ŠWash­ing­ton Post poll—con­duc­ted May 28 to May 31 among 836 re­gistered voters—looked only at a Clin­ton-Bush match­up and found Clin­ton lead­ing by 3 points (with­in the mar­gin of er­ror), 47 per­cent to 44 per­cent. In ABC”Š/”ŠPost sur­veys in April 2014, as well as in Janu­ary and March of this year, Clin­ton’s lead had been either 12 or 13 points—a totally un­real­ist­ic spread that more likely meas­ured the elect­or­ate’s feel­ings to­ward a former sec­ret­ary of State (and someone who hadn’t been a polit­ic­al can­did­ate in a half-dozen years). The cur­rent, more plaus­ible num­bers meas­ure Clin­ton as a polit­ic­al can­did­ate—off the ped­es­tal. A CNN”Š/”ŠORC poll taken at al­most the same time—May 29 to May 31, but of 1,025 adults (a lar­ger sample but one not lim­ited to re­gistered voters)—had Clin­ton lead­ing five Re­pub­lic­ans by as little as  1 point and as much as 9 points. Clin­ton ex­ceeded 50 per­cent against two: She bested Cruz by 9 points, 52 per­cent to 43 per­cent, and Bush by 8 points, 51 per­cent to 43 per­cent. In­ter­est­ingly, she held identic­al 3-point mar­gins over Ru­bio and Walk­er—Clin­ton with 49 per­cent, Ru­bio and Walk­er with 46 per­cent. Voters gave her a mere 1-point edge over Paul, with Clin­ton up 48 per­cent to 47 per­cent.’

(RE­LATED: A Few Bits of In­form­a­tion to Re­mem­ber When Elec­tion Time Rolls Around Again

This raises the is­sue of com­par­ab­il­ity of polls, the im­port­ance of com­par­ing apples to apples, not or­anges. Samples in­clud­ing all adults, as op­posed to those lim­ited to re­gistered voters, tend to be more fa­vor­able to Demo­crats and in­clude a lot of people who don’t fol­low polit­ics as much or vote as of­ten. It’s just a hunch, but I sus­pect that if the CNN poll had been lim­ited to re­gistered voters, that 8-point lead over Bush might have looked more like the ABC”Š/”ŠPost‘s 3-point lead.  At the end of the day, I pre­dict that the only way this race isn’t go­ing to be with­in 3 or 4 points is if one side nom­in­ates an aw­ful can­did­ate; the es­sen­tial dy­nam­ics are set­ting it up to be at least as close at the 2012 con­test.

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