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.
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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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