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.