Hotline’s GOP Presidential Power Rankings: Bush and Rubio Have Early Lead

In our first race rankings of the 2016 cycle, Paul and Walker round out the top tier of serious contenders.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush waves to the audience at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Florida, on August 30, 2012 on the final day of the Republican National Convention.
National Journal
Adam Wollner, Alex Roarty, Josh Kraushaar, Shane Goldmacher, Scott Bland and Tim Alberta
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Adam Wollner , Alex Roarty , Josh Kraushaar , Shane Goldmacher and Scott Bland and Tim Alberta
Jan. 4, 2015, 1:05 p.m.

From the first day of 2011, Mitt Rom­ney was the fa­vor­ite to win the 2012 Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial primary cam­paign. No one else was even close.

The 2016 out­look could not be more dif­fer­ent. Offered the choice to bet on one single can­did­ate to win the nom­in­a­tion versus the rest of the field, the choice would have to be “the field.”

For the first time in years, there is no one next in line. And without a former vice pres­id­ent or power­house former can­did­ate look­ing likely to run, Re­pub­lic­ans are shap­ing up to spend the next year and a half fight­ing in their most open nom­in­at­ing con­test in the mod­ern era.

That said, some can­did­ates have a bet­ter chance of se­cur­ing the nom­in­a­tion than oth­ers. Sur­vey­ing the can­did­ates’ strengths and weak­nesses, polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tions, poll num­bers, and es­pe­cially the odds that they even de­cide to run, our first pres­id­en­tial power rank­ings of the 2016 sea­son rank 16 po­ten­tial con­tenders based on how likely we think they are to be the one ac­cept­ing the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion two sum­mers from now.

In some cases, the space between two slots in the rank­ings is small; in oth­er places, it’s huge. An­oth­er way to think about these rat­ings is in tiers. The top four or five can­did­ates start in a class of their own, while the next five or six start out in the second tier but have the abil­ity to jump. The 2012 tick­et of Mitt Rom­ney and Paul Ry­an is still lower, des­pite their star power, be­cause of their slim chances of ac­tu­ally run­ning. And will someone from the next, fourth, tier sur­prise?

Without fur­ther ado, our first no. 1 rank­ing goes to:

1. Jeb Bush

Bush’s Decem­ber an­nounce­ment that he plans to “act­ively ex­plore” a run for the pres­id­ency shook up the GOP primary. First, ma­jor GOP donors have already star­ted flock­ing to him, a de­vel­op­ment that could squeeze po­ten­tial rivals. Second, the move made it clear how ser­i­ous the son and broth­er of pres­id­ents is about run­ning after years of ru­mors that he would ul­ti­mately seek an­oth­er of­fice once his term as Flor­ida gov­ernor had ended.

Bush has ser­i­ous strengths, in­clud­ing the sup­port of donors from New York to Flor­ida to Texas. But he’s also got crit­ic­al weak­nesses with the con­ser­vat­ive base on policy is­sues such as Com­mon Core that could be im­port­ant in the primary. By be­ing the first Re­pub­lic­an out of the gate, he is giv­ing him­self the op­por­tun­ity to at­tract as much of the es­tab­lish­ment as he can to his side. If he can’t do that, Bush may not end up run­ning at all. But, right now, he could be the best-po­si­tioned GOP can­did­ate by a hair.

2. Marco Ru­bio

The sen­at­or from Flor­ida has the highest up­side of any­one on this list. His com­bin­a­tion of bio­graphy, demo­graph­ic pro­file, and rhet­or­ic­al skill had con­vinced many Re­pub­lic­ans in the wake of his 2010 Sen­ate vic­tory that he was the fu­ture of the Re­pub­lic­an Party. He still could be. Ru­bio has as­sembled a top-notch polit­ic­al team and is plan­ning a ma­jor me­dia blitz in mid-Janu­ary to pro­mote his new book, Amer­ic­an Dreams. These would seem to be sure­fire signs of an im­min­ent pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. But Ru­bio’s fu­ture sud­denly looks un­cer­tain now that Bush has entered the race and is threat­en­ing to suck Flor­ida’s donor com­munity dry.

We’re still bet­ting that Ru­bio will jump in. He’s too tal­en­ted—and too am­bi­tious—to pass up a race that could define the GOP for a gen­er­a­tion. Still, a Ru­bio run isn’t the sure thing we thought it would be a few months ago. And al­though we think he’s the can­did­ate with the most po­ten­tial if he does run, the sud­den doubt over wheth­er he will bumps him to No. 2 for now.

3. Rand Paul

Paul has ce­men­ted him­self as one of the most in­triguing GOP fig­ures in Amer­ica. He’s also al­most cer­tainly run­ning in 2016, hav­ing hired ad­visers in early-primary states and gathered his team for a strategy sum­mit in Novem­ber. Paul enters 2015 with an en­vi­able floor of sup­port—both fin­an­cial and in the polls—that he in­her­ited from his fath­er’s two runs. And he’s been sys­tem­at­ic­ally try­ing to ex­pand his ap­peal, from the Cham­ber of Com­merce to Jew­ish lead­ers, while also present­ing him­self as a new kind of Re­pub­lic­an who can win over dis­af­fected Demo­crats and in­de­pend­ents. Still, a Paul nom­in­a­tion would mark a sharp de­par­ture, es­pe­cially on for­eign policy, for the GOP, and that may be a bridge too far for the tra­di­tion­al­ist party.

4. Scott Walk­er

Walk­er checks vir­tu­ally every box in a Re­pub­lic­an primary: He has ex­ec­ut­ive ex­per­i­ence, boasts a fisc­ally con­ser­vat­ive re­cord as gov­ernor, is con­ser­vat­ive on so­cial is­sues, and be­came a right-wing fa­vor­ite by fight­ing or­gan­ized labor in his first term. Moreover, Walk­er may be unique in his abil­ity to ap­peal to both the act­iv­ist and es­tab­lish­ment wings of the GOP.

But that could make Walk­er a man without a coun­try. So­cial con­ser­vat­ives like him, but not as much as they like Ted Cruz or Mike Hucka­bee. The es­tab­lish­ment likes him, but not as much as Bush or Chris Christie. Walk­er could over­come this with a con­vin­cing win in an early-primary state; but, there again, the Wis­con­sin gov­ernor does not seem an ob­vi­ous fit in Iowa or New Hamp­shire or South Car­o­lina. Walk­er has the mak­ings of a strong can­did­ate, but his path to the nom­in­a­tion is harder to ima­gine than that of many oth­ers.

5. Chris Christie

Christie entered 2014 rid­ing high. He’d just swept to reelec­tion in a blue state and es­tab­lished him­self as a pres­id­en­tial front-run­ner. Then Bridgeg­ate broke. The gov­ernor was sucked in­to the vor­tex of a scan­dal that made head­lines na­tion­wide, and he was soon de­luged by at­tacks and in­vest­ig­a­tions. So far, he’s emerged only bruised, though ques­tions of tem­pera­ment have lingered. An on­go­ing fed­er­al probe also looms. In the mean­time, Christie used his post as chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation to travel the coun­try, gath­er chits, and can­vass for donors. The Novem­ber GOP land­slide means he now has al­lies in gov­ernor’s man­sions across the na­tion. But Jeb Bush’s Decem­ber sur­prise could lock up the donors who would oth­er­wise fuel a Christie run.

6. Mike Pence

Pence seems to be every­one’s fa­vor­ite dark-horse can­did­ate. And for good reas­on. As gov­ernor of In­di­ana, he has de­veloped a sol­id con­ser­vat­ive re­cord on edu­ca­tion, right-to-work, and so­cial is­sues. He is well liked among both the busi­ness and tea-party com­munity, and he has al­lies at power­ful con­ser­vat­ive or­gan­iz­a­tions, such as the Koch broth­ers’ polit­ic­al net­work and the Club for Growth. It’s un­clear how likely Pence, who’s also up for reelec­tion in 2016, is to jump in­to the race, or how he’ll per­form on a na­tion­al stage. But if he de­cides to pull the trig­ger, he may well vault in­to our top tier.

7. Ted Cruz

The main reas­on Cruz falls in­to a slot this high is that he is among the most likely on this list to ac­tu­ally run for pres­id­ent. But un­til he proves he can ex­pand his ap­peal bey­ond his core base, he doesn’t stand a great chance of mov­ing up. Cruz is still a star among the tea party, and he is in a prime po­s­i­tion to win the sup­port of evan­gel­ic­als. That is not enough to win the GOP nom­in­a­tion, but it would en­sure that Cruz would be a force to be reckoned with in states such as Iowa and South Car­o­lina. Still, he will have his work cut out for him, com­pet­ing with Rick Perry and Jeb Bush for sup­port among donors in Texas. A for­eign policy-fo­cused cam­paign could give Cruz a chance to sep­ar­ate him­self from the field, but that re­mains to be seen.

8. Mike Hucka­bee

The former Arkan­sas gov­ernor’s an­nounce­ment that he’s quit­ting his gig with Fox News makes him look pretty likely to run for pres­id­ent again, and if he does, the 2008 Iowa caucus win­ner starts as the fron­trun­ner in the first state, ac­cord­ing to some polls. That’s be­cause he might be able to lock down the biggest slice of an im­port­ant con­stitu­ency: evan­gel­ic­al voters. That’s no small thing. But there are also a few ques­tions (in­clud­ing wheth­er he ac­tu­ally pulls the trig­ger on a bid) to pon­der: Can Hucka­bee broaden his ap­peal bey­ond so­cial con­ser­vat­ives? And will eight years out of polit­ics give him trouble as a can­did­ate, in­clud­ing po­ten­tially from primary voters who might yearn for a fresh face?

9. Rick Perry

Don’t un­der­es­tim­ate Perry, who has been work­ing tire­lessly to shed his bum­bling im­age from the 2012 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, punc­tu­ated by lackluster per­form­ances in de­bates. He has brought in a new team to pre­pare for 2016, and has been cram­ming in brief­ings run by some of the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment’s lead­ing thinkers. Perry is au­then­t­ic, likable, and has a 15-year gov­ern­ing re­cord in a state that boasts one of the coun­try’s strongest eco­nom­ies. But the memory of 2012 still seems fresh, which nar­rows his mar­gin for er­ror con­sid­er­ably, and Perry’s abil­ity to raise the mil­lions of dol­lars ne­ces­sary would be hampered by Bush’s Texas fam­ily con­nec­tions.

10. John Kasich

Bush’s en­trance in­to the race com­plic­ates the path for Kasich, al­though he still would bring a com­pel­ling pro­file (at least on pa­per) to the race. His biggest as­set is that he just won a land­slide reelec­tion in a Mid­west­ern swing state, win­ning 25 per­cent of the black vote and even car­ry­ing solidly Demo­crat­ic Cuyahoga County, where the 2016 GOP con­ven­tion will be held. He touts him­self as a “com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ive” who sup­ports gov­ern­ment spend­ing on the poor and dis­ad­vant­aged, while also bal­an­cing a budget. That’s a sol­id re­sume for a gen­er­al elec­tion. Kasich has two prob­lems. His sup­port for Medi­caid ex­pan­sion and oth­er het­ero­dox views would be a tough sell in a primary, es­pe­cially one with many oth­er es­tab­lish­ment-track can­did­ates run­ning. And he’s a no­tori­ously off-the-cuff speak­er, something that hasn’t hurt him much in Ohio, but would cause prob­lems giv­en the level of na­tion­al scru­tiny in a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

11. Mitt Rom­ney

The 2012 GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee would rank much high­er on our list if he were cer­tain to run again. But des­pite re­cent mur­murs, con­sider us skep­tic­al that we’ll see Rom­ney launch an­oth­er cam­paign. He has said “no” re­peatedly, for one, and run­ning in 2016 would mean a third straight gruel­ing na­tion­al cam­paign for the 67-year-old. And even if does run, he’s not guar­an­teed suc­cess: Fa­cing Bush and Christie, Rom­ney would have to fight just to re­claim his base. More broadly, the 2016 field will likely be deep­er and more tal­en­ted than last time. Still, if Rom­ney’s in, he’s as for­mid­able as they come.

12. Paul Ry­an

If the GOP’s 2012 vice-pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee de­cided to mount a White House bid of his own, he, like Rom­ney, would shoot to the top of this list. But don’t count on that hap­pen­ing. Ry­an has made it clear—most dir­ectly in a series of in­ter­views with Na­tion­al Journ­al—that he is not pre­par­ing to run for the pres­id­ency. He’s just been handed his dream job at the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, and he is con­vinced that he can have the greatest im­pact on the 2016 elec­tions by craft­ing a tax-re­form pack­age that be­comes an ideo­lo­gic­al lit­mus test in the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­at­ing con­test.

13. Rick San­tor­um

The second-place fin­ish­er in 2012 is a long way down our list. But for all of San­tor­um’s un­ex­pec­ted suc­cess last time, he will still struggle this time to raise money, re­cruit top-flight staffers and con­vince Re­pub­lic­ans he stands a chance against Hil­lary Clin­ton. Not that the former sen­at­or from Pennsylvania cares: He likes be­ing the un­der­dog. San­tor­um is a long shot, but he’s still in sig­ni­fic­antly bet­ter shape now than he was four years ago, when most Re­pub­lic­ans laughed off his can­did­acy. They’re not laugh­ing any­more.

14. Bobby Jin­dal

Jin­dal is try­ing to ap­peal to all sides of the Re­pub­lic­an Party but has struggled to make in­roads as he mulls a pres­id­en­tial bid. His re­cord of fisc­al and edu­ca­tion­al re­forms in Louisi­ana is im­press­ive, and his re­sume is un­matched. But polit­ic­ally speak­ing, he’s stuck between be­ing seen as the in­tel­lec­tu­al power­house who ran Louisi­ana’s health care sys­tem at age 25 and com­pet­ing against Ted Cruz to de­liv­er the harshest anti-Obama jibes in talk­ing points ac­cess­ible to the av­er­age voter. Will he run as a GOP re­former or as a tea-party pop­u­list? Jeb’s en­trance in the race sug­gests the lat­ter.

15. Ben Car­son

We can’t dis­pute that the fam­ous pe­di­at­ric neurosur­geon is a rock star among con­ser­vat­ives. Polls of the GOP field ac­tu­ally show Car­son draw­ing more sup­port than many of his pro­spect­ive op­pon­ents. In Iowa, voters have a his­tory of buck­ing es­tab­lish­ment fa­vor­ites and back­ing evan­gel­ic­al-friendly out­siders in big num­bers (San­tor­um, Hucka­bee, Buchanan). But, for now, we con­sider Car­son closer to a con­ser­vat­ive celebrity than a can­did­ate with a ser­i­ous chance to win the nom­in­a­tion. If he builds a big-league polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tion and stops com­par­ing the United States to Nazi Ger­many, our opin­ion will change.

16. Carly Fior­ina

Fior­ina stands out as the only CEO and the only wo­man on this list, just as she would on an oth­er­wise all-male 2016 GOP pres­id­en­tial de­bate stage. In 2010, the former HP ex­ec­ut­ive ran for the Sen­ate in Cali­for­nia and lost, but she has kept close ties to the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment ever since. In 2014, she dabbled in some early-state vis­it­ing. But dab­bling isn’t con­tend­ing, even if she is hir­ing a polit­ic­al team. Fior­ina can be a com­pel­ling speak­er, but it’s tough enough to win the pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion as an ex­per­i­enced politi­cian; it’s next to im­possible when, like Fior­ina, you’ve nev­er held elec­ted of­fice ever be­fore.

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