GOP Off to the Races Early

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at the American Legislative Exchange Council's 40th annual meeting, Friday, Aug. 9, 2013,
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at the American Legislative Exchange Council's 40th annual meeting, Friday, Aug. 9, 2013, in Chicago. Bush defended new achievement standards for students around the nation while calling for an expansion of school-choice initiatives in states. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

The Republican Party and the political media world are already off to the 2016 horse races. With endless fascination, the latest polling from Iowa and New Hampshire is examined under the microscopes of the pundits and sweeping pronouncements are made as to who the eventual frontrunners will be. Of course, it is way too early for any real analysis of the public's mood, but that doesn't stop the oddsmaking within the Beltway. After all, the Democratic nomination race is setting up to be a snoozer, so why not get started obsessing over the Republican race?

Instead of opining on what I think the chances of Scott Walker will be an entire year from now (as everyone else seems to be doing of late), I thought it would be timely to make a few "big picture" comments on the Republican race. Mostly because everyone seems to be actively forgetting quite a few basic rules of thumb, most of them learned the last time around.

The first and most important of these is that nothing much matters right now. People -- ordinary, non-obsessed, non-wonky Americans, in other words -- just aren't paying all that much attention to politics right now. And they're right. Why should they? We've got a whole year before things heat up, anything could happen in the political world in the meantime, and pretty much everything all the candidates do in February of 2015 will be long forgotten by the time the first ballot is cast. So take pretty much all the pundits' talk right now with several large grains of salt.

To prove the meaninglessness of all the frontrunner talk now all you have to do is take a look back to four years ago, as the 2012 Republican nomination campaign was in its infancy. Then, like now, there was no "anointed one" within the party, and the race was wide open. From the polling done back then, here were the four frontrunners in February, 2011: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Michele Bachmann. Of these four, only two would turn out to be serious contenders (Gingrich and Romney). All were polling below 20 percent. A similar field exists today, as no Republican candidate is currently polling over 20 percent. So to be a "frontrunner" right now really only means "has a few percentage points more than everyone else." Compare this to the Democratic race, where Hillary Clinton regularly polls above 60 percent among Democratic voters. No matter who is going to eventually wind up the Republican nominee, they've got a long way to go to get there.

The second big thing the pundits are ignoring (perhaps willfully, to provide exciting storylines later on) is that the field is nowhere near set yet. There are a whole lot of names of possible candidates who haven't announced yet who could still easily get in the race. This may even be true six or seven months from now. Nobody really has any idea who will eventually run, other than those who have made it obvious, and there could well be some surprises late in the game. This could include both serious and realistic candidates, and it could also include a few fringe "celebri-candidates" (Donald Trump, I am looking in your direction...). The race is so wide open that late entries will remain a real possibility at least throughout the summer, especially if the public sours on any of the frontrunners.

There will likely be a "media darling" candidate at some point, which could also be defined as "a Republican so moderate and serious-minded that everyone at all the inside-the-Beltway cocktail parties has decided that they would be the perfect candidate." This candidate will have glorious stories written about what a wonderful Republican president they would make, bringing American together again to get things done, but they will then go absolutely nowhere in the polls. Whoever this turns out to be, their numbers will struggle to crack five percent, no matter how adorable their family members are. The last time around, this slot was filled by Jon Huntsman. This time around, it remains open -- but at some point, Washington conventional wisdom will gel around some candidate or another, possibly a Midwestern governor or senator. Who will then go on to lose badly in the primaries.

If 2016 is anything like 2012 (and it is shaping up to be, from what I see), there will be one big-money candidate and a whole bunch of successive challengers. Mitt Romney was, obviously, this candidate the last time around and, just as obviously, Jeb Bush is going to be the big-donor favorite. This will lead the frustrated base voters (those more conservative than Bush) to coalesce around candidate after candidate who fits the "anti-Bush" category. People forget how many of these there were the last time around. In chronological order, the "anti-Romney" vote moved from Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich, before finally settling (very late in the game) on Rick Santorum. All of these (except Bachmann) led Romney in the polling at one point or another (I wrote an amusingly irreverent wrapup of this phenomenon, after it was clear to all that Romney was going to win). All of these candidates rode a wave of approval to the heights of frontrunner status, but then all of them crashed and burned in one fashion or another. Rick Perry had his "oops" moment. Herman Cain's behavior towards women was exposed. And so on.

This could be the model for the 2016 race as well, although it's premature to predict that it will end up the same way (with the big-money candidate winning after fending off all challenges). Many candidates may have their moment in the sun as the anti-Bush candidate, before fading (either due to shooting themselves in the foot, or due to the base voters becoming enamored of a different anti-Bush who seems even more viable). Currently, the pundits are putting Scott Walker in this category due to one speech he gave, but you've got to keep in mind that this spotlight can quickly shift.

One thing worth mentioning that is being forgotten right now is the influence a single deep-pocket donor can have on the longevity of what would normally be considered a fringe candidacy. The best example of this in the 2012 cycle was Newt Gingrich, who had one billionaire who really believed in him, and thus Gingrich was able to hang on in the primary calendar a lot later than he would have otherwise. What with the new post-Citizens United world we live in, there may be a handful of these candidates this time around as well. Not every big-money guy in the Republican Party is a Bush fan, so look for some of them to just write a check for twenty or thirty million dollars to the anti-Bush candidate of their choosing. This can keep campaigns viable long past their normal shelf-life.

My final observation (really only a generalization at this early point) is that the Republican base is not always what the media simplistically portrays it as. Many think in very simplistic terms of the Republican base voters -- they want the reddest of red meat, they are the most rabidly right-wing, etc. -- but the reality is a lot more nuanced. Romney, after all, did win the 2012 nomination, not Ron Paul or Michele Bachmann. Now, this isn't saying the Tea Party is dead or anything. There are several hardliner factions within the Republican ranks, in fact. They do indeed have an oversized influence on the first state to caucus. But beyond Iowa, their influence isn't as widespread.

There are two things to consider, when attempting to gauge the Tea Party influence (or the evangelical Christian voter influence, or whatever). The first is that a majority of convention delegates actually come from blue states, even for Republicans. And blue-state Republicans are a lot more moderate and willing to accept compromise than, say, Iowa or South Carolina Republican primary voters. This has an outsized influence on the nominating process that few bother to ever note. Rather than polls from Iowa, the real determining factor might be Republican polls from Ohio or New York or California, to put this another way.

The second consideration is that there is one thing that unifies Republican voters more than any other issue -- they really, really want to win this one. Oh, sure, they badly wanted to win in 2008 and 2012 too (especially in 2012), but this time around the pressure is going to be overwhelming to find the candidate who is most electable in the general election. So while they will flirt with various anti-Bushes, what they're really looking for is the ultimate "anti-Hillary."

Republican voters know that they are in danger of only being competitive in midterm elections, for the foreseeable future. Republican candidates have lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections, after all. If that becomes "six out of the last seven," complete with three solid consecutive terms of Democrats, there's going to be a lot of disappointment to go around. Anyone who thinks Republicans hated Barack Obama like they've never hated any other president is probably not old enough to remember the years when Bill Clinton was in the White House. To have his wife win the Oval Office is a fate the Republican base desperately wants to avoid. My guess is that the Republican voters at large will be able to accept more than one perceived flaw in a candidate's ultra-conservative credentials if it means also accepting someone who is polling competitively with Hillary Clinton.

If Democrats win this election, it will be monumental in a number of ways. If Hillary Clinton is our next president, she will obviously be the first woman in the job. It will also be the first time the White House has stayed in Democratic hands for more than eight years since Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman's record. Clinton could, if elected, significantly shift the power balance in the Supreme Court for decades to come -- from a split of four liberals, four conservatives, and one swing vote to a solid liberal majority of 5-4 (or even 6-3).

Republican voters know all of this, intimately. If they've forgotten, they're going to be reminded of it from the campaign trail. While the pundits in Washington obsess over the latest gaffe or poll surge in the coming months, keep in mind that we're only getting started. This race is indeed a marathon, so feel free to discount the stories of how badly each candidate is now sprinting. The race has indeed begun, but all the horses aren't even on the track yet. There will be plenty of surprises and upsets to come, so don't take anything you hear now too seriously.


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