Surveying the Field


Since the silly season of the 2016 presidential election is in full swing, I thought I’d kick off my own coverage of the nominating contests.  Since the field of candidates is so big, I thought I’d start off by doing a “flyover” and giving brief thoughts about each of the candidates in the race.  Anybody who knows me knows what side of this election I’m on, but I’m going to restrict this post to analysis rather than opinion.  As we get further along in the process, I’ll focus my analysis on the biggest contenders for the nomination.  I’ll probably also do a breakdown of House, Senate, and gubernatorial races, similar to what I did in 2014.  Also, just for fun, I’ll say who I think is the most likely winner of the first four nominating contests: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, & Nevada.  After the disaster that was my 2014 picks, I’ll probably revise those picks in December or January, when they’ll be much easier to make 🙂

Let’s start with the Blue Team.  I’m going to go through the candidates in the order of what I believe their likelihood is of winning the nomination.  I’m also excluding Joe Biden for now, as he isn’t officially in the race.  I have a feeling he’s not going to run, but I didn’t feel like waiting for him to decide before doing my analysis.  I may scratch out a Quick Hits post that covers him if he does run.

Hillary ClintonHillary Clinton: I suppose my 2016 coverage has technically already started, because I wrote a post back in April about the mistakes Hillary Clinton made in her 2008 campaign. Her résumé is well documented: First Lady of Arkansas and America, Senator, Secretary of State.  Clinton is the heavy favorite to win the Democratic nomination due to her unprecedentedly vast establishment support, which is somewhat funny because the “next-in-line” method is usually the Republicans’ MO.  Her campaign hasn’t been without its bumps, however, as her use of a personal email account rather than an official one during her time as Secretary of State has drawn intrigue and even an FBI probe.  I have a tough time believing that the Obama Administration really would prosecute Clinton and ruin her candidacy, but stranger things have happened.  Clinton is also drawing a stronger-than-expected challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (more on that below).

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders: Sanders has emerged as the liberal alternative to Clinton in this campaign, and her stiffest challenger.  Bernie is unique among the 2016 candidates in that he is actually an independent (and self-described Socialist), though he caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate.  His campaign reminds me a lot of Ron Paul’s in 2008; he has a lot of passionate, grassroots support.  Like Ron Paul, he is drawing big crowds and getting most of his money from small donors.  Also, many of his supporters seem to think that if only everybody who liked him would get behind him and if only the media would pay attention to him (which it is), he would win, a sentiment that sounds very familiar.  It turns out that some Democrats are really liberal, and they like a really liberal candidate like Sanders.  This could propel him to wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, which would completely scramble the race.  But unless he is able to expand his support beyond his mostly white liberal base, his bid will fall short.  There is some evidence that he might be able to expand his base, though; polling shows that most Americans agree with his ideas (though that’s been true of most Democratic Party planks in the past), lending credence to his populist strategy.  His poll numbers against the Republican candidates, while not as good as Clinton’s, aren’t awful either.  Because his name recognition is still relatively low nationally, he has room to grow.  While the Republican nomination process is drawing most of the media attention, Sanders could make the Democratic race even more interesting if he catches a few breaks.

Martin O'Malley

Martin O’Malley: Here we get into the “vanity candidates,” those where there doesn’t seem to have much reason for their candidacy, beyond a personal desire to run.  O’Malley left his latest post as Governor of Maryland with middling to bad approval ratings, so there’s little reason to believe that someone who isn’t even all that popular in his home state can win a nationwide contest.  His own Lieutenant Governor even lost his bid to succeed him in a deeply blue state.  O’Malley has made some waves by attacking Sanders’s record on guns, but don’t look for him to do much else.

Jim WebbJim Webb: In contrast to Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb is hoping to run to Hillary Clinton’s right.  He served as Secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, and supported both Republican and Democratic candidates in the past.  He also holds views on gun control, foreign policy, and illegal immigration that put him outside the Democratic mainstream.  He was a good fit to serve in the Senate from a purple state (Virginia), but the national party has moved away from him now.

Lincoln Chafee

Lincoln Chafee: Lincoln Chafee suffers from the same problem as O’Malley.  The former Senator from Rhode Island left the Republican Party after his defeat in 2006 and won the governorship as an Independent.  After completing his party switch and becoming a Democrat in 2013, he declined to run for reelection amid sagging approval ratings.  If his own state doesn’t like him, why would the rest of the country?  Look for Chafee to make some noise in debates, but bow out quickly.

Way-too-early primary predictions:

Iowa: Hillary Clinton

New Hampshire: Bernie Sanders

South Carolina: Hillary Clinton

Nevada: Hillary Clinton

Now, on to the Elephants.

Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush: If the brother of George W. Bush and the son of George H.W. Bush were to win the Presidency, he would be the unprecedented third member of the same family in the White House.  This is probably his campaign’s biggest weakness, though.  Bush fatigue is real, especially given how unpopular his brother was when he exited office.  Jeb has staked out some more moderate positions on education and immigration, but unlike some past candidates (cough, Mitt Romney, cough) he is owning them rather than running away from them.  He is also prone to verbal gaffes that are toxic in a political campaign.  Despite these weaknesses, he will probably emerge as the establishment favorite because of his family name, and he has already raised boatloads of money compared to the other Republican candidates.

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio: A pair of Floridians lead off the GOP rankings.  Rubio has far less political experience than Bush, which is going to make it harder for him to raise as much money.  But, he has shown himself to be poised and charismatic, especially in the first debate.  He actually reminds me somewhat of the Republican version of Barack Obama circa 2008… a fresh, young first-term senator who gives great speeches, but gets knocked a little off-kilter when he doesn’t have his Teleprompter.  He also has pivoted to the center on immigration, which could help him win over independents.  Personally, I think that if the GOP is serious about winning in 2016, Rubio gives them their best shot.  He could run on the “compassionate conservative” platform that got George W. Bush elected.  His polling hasn’t been great so far, but I have a feeling his numbers will rise once the field gets winnowed down a bit.

Scott Walker

Scott Walker: The Wisconsin Governor became a conservative champion after defending his passage of a state budget that dramatically limited the collective bargaining rights and decreased the take-home pay of many state employees.  Despite many vocal protests and a recall attempt in 2012, Walker survived and ultimately won his fight.  While I could see any of the top three candidates winning the nomination, I ranked Walker third because he is the most conservative of the three, and thus could have a problem attracting a wide network of support (similar to Bernie Sanders’s problem above).  In addition to the labor fight above, the state budget that Walker signed defunded Planned Parenthood and a 2013 law he signed required doctors to give a mother a pre-abortion ultrasound that shows an image of the fetus.  He also signed a strict voter ID law in 2013.  His foreign policy credentials have been called into question, as he has little experience in that area.  Walker is currently in first place among candidates not named Trump in Iowa polls, where very conservative candidates usually do very well, so it will remain to be seen if he can use that as a launching pad to the nomination.

John Kasich

John Kasich: Many are calling John Kasich the Jon Huntsman of 2016.  Huntsman, a former Utah governor and ambassador to China, ran on a centrist Republican platform, and was often fond of telling his fellow Republicans they were wrong on many issues.  Kasich, while much more conservative than Huntsman, has adopted a similar tactic.  This will likely turn him off to voters enough that he won’t win the nomination, but his excellent performance in the first debate should give him a bounce into at least the upper second tier of this bloated field.  Kasich expanded Medicaid in his state as Governor of Ohio, and has been the only candidate thus far to discuss prison reforms in the wake of many shootings of unarmed African-Americans in many inner cities.   If he is able to remind voters of his conservative policies on many issues, he could be a dark horse nominee.  But he’s got to tone down the rhetoric.  It’s okay to criticize your party, but if you do it in an arrogant way, primary voters will find someone else to support.

Chris Christie

Chris Christie: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is another candidate who probably helped himself in the first debate, but I think he’s got too much baggage to overcome.  His campaign logo and slogan reflect his direct, in-your-face style.  Christie is nothing if not blunt and honest, and many voters respect that.  But, as with John Kasich, it’s going to turn off many voters too.  His blunt style doesn’t play well in the early states, which means his campaign may never really get any traction unless he blows away expectations in New Hampshire.  His favorability ratings have also tanked ever since the Bridgegate news broke, and he is probably the most moderate of the front-runners.  I think he’s got one too many hurdles to overcome, but could be an alternative if any of the candidates above him flames out.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump: One might wonder why I have the current polling leader ranked so low.  Mostly, it’s because I view him as the flavor of the month.  Many candidates have seen polling surges like Trump’s, and have faded just as quickly (just ask Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain).  Trump’s incendiary comments about Mexicans, women, and John McCain have garnered him lots of media attention as well as poll numbers.  While he is probably tapping into the frustration and anger of a small group of Republican voters, he has zero mass appeal, as evidenced by his terrible poll numbers against both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.  The Republican National Committee knows this, and is going to go nuclear on Trump if it looks like he might win a primary or, God forbid, the nomination.  If you think they’ve already tried that, trust me, they haven’t.  As the field narrows, Trump will most likely lose ground in the polling and cede the race to Bush, Rubio, or Walker.  However, he has repeatedly threatened to run on a third-party ticket should that happen, which would likely drain votes from the Republican nominee and put a Democrat in the White House.  Stay tuned, everybody.  This roller coaster is just getting started.

Rand Paul

Rand Paul: Rand Paul might have been much higher in these rankings just a week earlier.  Alas, his debate performance left much to be desired.  His attempt to interrupt and attack Trump backfired, and he appeared shrill and smug for most of the night.  This element of his personality has always rubbed some voters the wrong way, but he does offer the libertarian wing of his party with an option, as he has taken similar non-interventionist and anti-surveillance state views to his father Ron Paul, who ran for President in 2008 and 2012.  He will probably influence the conversation around these issues, but I don’t see that carrying him to the nomination.

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz:  Cruz is one of a few extremist candidates in the race that loves to engage in rhetorical bomb-throwing that pleases the base.  He was one of the key architects of the 2013 government shutdown, one of many actions that alienated him from his Republican and Democratic colleagues alike.  It’s unlikely he’s going to get much establishment support, and thus I can’t see him winning any primaries, much less the nomination.  Even if he could win the nomination, he would get trounced in the general election.

Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina: Thus begins the fringe candidates.  I put Carly Fiorina at the top of this list because many believed her to be the winner of the “JV” debate among the candidates whose poll numbers didn’t rise above the threshold Fox News designated for entry into the main debate.  Fiorina was panned by many publications as one of the worst technology CEOs of all time after her tenure at Hewlett-Packard, and lost the only election she’s ever ran in by 10 points, though she was running against an incumbent Senator in deeply blue California.  She probably saw a unique opportunity to make a splash since she is the only woman in the Republican field, and could possibly make direct attacks on Hillary Clinton more effectively than other candidates.

Rick Perry

Rick Perry: Rick Perry had many reasons to run in 2012: he was popular, he was governor of a large state, and… oops, I forgot the rest.  While he had a brief surge to the top of the polls in 2012, he flamed out on the big stage, and the above-referenced debate gaffe was the final nail in his coffin.  This time, he’s in a much more talented and crowded field, and despite his new look, he probably won’t make many waves.


Mike HuckabeeMike Huckabee: Even though he made it to the main stage in the first debate, Mike Huckabee’s chances to win more than a few Southern states are pretty remote.  Evangelical Christians don’t have the sway they used to, and even they have some problems with the tax increases he passed while Governor of Arkansas.

Lindsey Graham

Lindsey Graham: Lindsey Graham is one of a few candidates whose time has passed.  Back in 2008, when terrorism was more at the forefront of voters’ minds, maybe he might have had a shot.  But his hawkish, destroy-ISIS-at-all-costs attitude doesn’t resonate with voters as much as it might have then.  While he has been willing to reach across the aisle and forge compromises during his Senate tenure, this sadly probably won’t do him much good in our polarized times.

Bobby Jindal

Bobby Jindal: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has always excelled at throwing red meat to the base, like Cruz.  But, like Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee, his approval ratings have deteriorated at home, and he was only ranked third in recent primary polls there.  His second gubernatorial term has been controversial, and ultimately Republicans have better options for their standard-bearer.

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum: Rick Santorum’s standing in his home state crumbled to the point where he lost reelection to his Senate seat by 17 points to now-Senator Bob Casey.  Like Huckabee, his brand of fiery social conservatism isn’t really what voters are looking for in their candidates now, especially as public opinion on issues like gay marriage and abortion has turned against them.

Ben Carson

Ben Carson: I’m not sure I see any rationale for Ben Carson’s candidacy.  An accomplished neurosurgeon, he occupies an ideological space that’s already occupied a few other candidates.  Perhaps if he had been elected to something, he could make a persuasive argument to voters.  He is African-American, which distinguishes him some.  But I don’t think it will be enough.

Jim Gilmore

Jim Gilmore: I’m somewhat familiar with Jim Gilmore, as I lived in Virginia when he was governor.  I remember him mostly for his aggressive push for cuts in the state car tax.  But if he couldn’t even come within twenty points of Mark Warner in the 2008 Senate race, what credibility does his presidential run have?  Answer:  Zero.

George Pataki

George Pataki: Pataki is another candidate whose time has passed, as he left the New York governor’s mansion nine years ago.  Even if it hadn’t, he is the most liberal Republican in the field by far, having supported abortion rights, gay marriage, and environmental protections.  In today’s polarized political atmosphere, he has no shot at securing the Republican presidential nomination.

Way-too-early primary predictions:

Iowa: Scott Walker

New Hampshire: Jeb Bush

South Carolina: Scott Walker

Nevada: Jeb Bush




  1. I thought this was a very thorough and well-written column (bias alert: the author carries 1/2 of my gene pool). Your column exemplifies the truism that a talented amateur can produce a product better than many professionals. I loved the Rick Perry joke.
    This is Hilary’s second “triumphal march” to the Democratic nomination. With the e-mail scandal getting traction, she might be in real trouble in a more crowded field. But I just can’t see any of the declared candidates giving her a run, and time is running short for anyone else to jump in.
    I agree that it is likely to be Walker, Rubio or Bush for the Republicans. I am tempted to think Bush’s bushels of cash will carry the day, but he is gaffe prone and lacks charisma. But if he gets his sea legs, he could clinch the nomination and give Hilary a run. Rubio or Walker could mount a strong campaign against the presumptive Democratic nominee. I tend to give Walker more of a shot because he seems the favorite in Iowa if Trump fades (and I think he will). On the other hand, in a crowded field, a candidate with 25% can win some caucuses and primaries. But Trump would do well to remember that a lead in balmy August is usually long gone when snow is on the ground in Iowa.

  2. […] has been among the wildest and most unpredictable in history, and many events have transpired since my initial post surveying the presidential field. I’ll give my take on the state of play in each presidential […]

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