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?
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.’
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.