Predicting Next Republicans to Exit the Race

So we're down to the paltry number of "only" 15 Republican candidates for president, as Scott Walker has now joined Rick Perry on the sidelines of the race. I must admit, I'm doing a pretty horrible job of picking who will exit the race in what order, as when I wrote about the subject last month, neither man was on my list of the first five candidates I thought would drop out earliest. Both Perry and Walker had substantial support from the billionaire class, which meant both had plenty of funds pouring in to super PACs to support their candidacy. The problem for both men, in the end, turned out not to be lack of funds to air television ads, but rather lack of funds to keep the lights on and pay their official campaign staff. Before their respective exits, Perry put almost all his campaign staff on a volunteer basis (because he couldn't afford the payroll) and Walker announced he was pulling back everywhere but Iowa, and shrinking his campaign staff accordingly. So even with millions sitting in super PAC coffers, what killed their campaigns in the end was lack of financial support for the campaign itself.

This was not foreseen by much of anyone, least of all me. In that previous article I wrote:

Both Rick Santorum and Rick Perry seem to be out of money already (Perry reportedly just put all his campaign staffers on volunteer basis, since he couldn't make the payroll). But while running out of money usually stops a candidacy in its tracks, this is not always true. Some candidacies are closer to crusades than anything else -- true-believers in one cause or another that won't quit no matter what happens (at least, until the primaries get underway). And in the new Citizens United world, super PACs mean even a technically-broke candidate can still be out there running television ads. So picking the early exits isn't as easy as it might seem.

I then went on to more-or-less confidently predict:

Surprisingly, even with his current money troubles, I don't think Rick Perry will be among the first five to leave the race. Perry's campaign may be broke, but his super PAC has already raised at least $17 million, which many of the other candidates can't match.

Obviously, I was flat wrong, except for that bit about crusades. More on that in a moment. I picked the following as the first five Republicans to exit the race: Jim Gilmore, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal. What I failed to realize was the nature of the different campaigns that are out there -- whether successful or not. There are serious politicians running for president who care about their future in politics, and then there are others who either already have a secure political future or have no political future whatsoever. In either of those last two cases, calculations about future political careers don't really apply to the decision to get out of an unwinnable contest. In both cases -- secure political future or no political future -- there's not much to lose by staying in, to put it another way.

Even with all the money pouring into politics after the Citizens United case, there is still supposed to be a dividing line between actual campaign organizations and super PACs. There are some things that super PACs are not allowed to pay for -- although even these limits are going to be tested in this campaign by various candidates. Even so, things like renting an office, paying staff who schedule appearances and plan the campaign, traveling to and from those appearances and all the other mundane nuts-and-bolts costs of campaigning absolutely must be paid for by the official campaign and not super PACs. This is why even with millions in a super PAC's bank account, Rick Perry and Scott Walker found it increasingly hard to pay their staff.

This only matters, of course, if a candidate is running a serious campaign for the presidency. It absolutely does not matter for candidates who never had a chance in the first place. If you're running just to see your name on the ballot, then it is irrelevant whether you even have any campaign appearances or staff. Likewise, if you're running on some personal crusade for an individual issue, you are likely not going to be stopped by having no money -- your cause is so great, you'll keep going no matter what happens, because you see the issue as larger than yourself.

With this in mind, let's try to predict who could leave the race next. To do so, I'm first going to divide the candidates up into three groups: vanity campaigns, crusaders and serious candidates. On that last one, by "serious" I mean the attitude of the candidate, and not how popular or successful any particular campaign currently is (just to be clear).

I'd put six Republicans in the "vanity" category, three of whom are doing quite well right now and three of whom are not. The three who have not caught fire: Jim Gilmore, George Pataki and Bobby Jindal. The three who are doing phenomenally well right now (they're leading the pack, in fact): Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and Donald Trump. These six are thus currently both at the top and the bottom of the polls. That may, of course, change (it certainly has for Fiorina). But it doesn't change the fact that at heart all of these candidates were essentially running just to see their name on the ballot. Six months ago, nobody gave any of them any chance to actually win the race, but they didn't care and jumped in anyway.

In the "crusader" category, there are five candidates: Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. There are similarities between three of them (Santorum, Huckabee and Cruz), who are all hoping to attract the Christian right, the Tea Party or some combination of the two. Graham is running to become Field Marshal of America, in order to get America's foreign policy back on a "bomb as many countries as possible" strategy. Paul is largely following in the footsteps of his Libertarian father, challenging Republican orthodoxy on many issues. One way or another, all of these candidates are true believers in their cause, no matter what the polling says.

Which brings us to the "serious" (or perhaps "establishment" is a better term) candidates: Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Rick Perry. All of these men see a viable political future for themselves even if they don't win the nomination. Perhaps they'll run for senator or governor, or perhaps they'll just return to the elected position they already occupy. Either way, they're not just running as a lark, they truly thought they had a clear shot at victory.

Now, I realize that my placement of several candidates into these three categories is arguable. Bobby Jindal might be considered a serious candidate, for instance, or maybe Lindsey Graham belongs in that final category. Rick Perry might be classified a vanity candidate -- for the second time around, even. Maybe I've stacked the deck a little to support my final argument, in other words.

Even so, it struck me that the two who have already dropped out were both serious candidates. There is absolutely no reason why Jim Gilmore is still in the race, since he didn't even make either stage in the second Republican debate. What this tells me is that Gilmore (or Pataki, for that matter) likely won't be the next to exit. I could, however, see one of the three vanity candidates whose campaigns have taken off perhaps decide to drop out if and when their poll numbers crash back to single digits, to spare themselves embarrassment. But it's not really going out on a limb to say I don't think that Carson, Fiorina or Trump will be among the next to leave the race, since it'll take awhile for any of their polling spikes to dissipate, should it eventually happen.

Of the crusaders, my gut feeling is that the first to go would be either Santorum, Graham or Cruz. If polling within South Carolina or Texas started to show that Graham and Cruz were hurting their chances for re-election to the Senate, I could see them making a quick exit, in an effort to salvage their political future. Santorum is harder to make a case for, since he was one of the last Republicans to exit the race the last time he ran (though this was mostly due to his spike in polling happening after all the other "flavor of the month" candidates on the Republican side). But in reality, all of the crusaders look like they're having too much fun in the debates to pull the plug before the next one happens.

This leaves the serious candidates. Of these six, Walker and Perry are already out. Among the four remaining, there is one obvious choice for the next to go: Chris Christie. Christie's polling has been terrible, the niche he had planned to occupy (the loudest and most belligerent candidate in the race) has been completely taken over by Trump, and depending on the criteria used, he may not even make it to the primetime debate next time around, which would be a big demotion. Of the others, Jeb Bush is obviously in it for the long haul no matter what his polling looks like. John Kasich is enjoying a bit of a bump in polling in the crucial state of New Hampshire, so he'll likely stay in at least until their primary. This leaves Marco Rubio, who may indeed also stay in the race until the voting starts. However, Rubio is the only one with a very hard choice he'll soon have to make, because Florida forbids him from running for two offices simultaneously. This means that when the deadline for filing for office arrives, Rubio will have to choose between running for re-election as a senator and running for the presidency. If his polling hasn't budged by the time this deadline arrives, I could easily see him taking the safer route and attempting to continue his job in the Senate.

Taking all of this into account, I'm going to rashly predict the next three Republicans to exit the race. I realize I'm already 0-for-2 in doing so, but (much like the candidates currently polling at one percent or less) I'm sincerely hoping to improve those numbers. So my new prediction is that the first to exit will be Chris Christie. He'll slink back to New Jersey nursing thoughts of what might have been. Next out will be Bobby Jindal, who will run out of money and make news by laying off campaign staff (or putting them on a volunteer basis), just like Perry and Walker before him. And the third to get out, right before the Florida filing deadline, will be Marco Rubio, who will then jump into the Senate race to keep his seat.

Those are my humble predictions (very humble, I should say, after being so wrong in the first round). As always, feel free to share your picks in the comments. The way I figure it, with 14 Republican candidates still left to exit the race, sooner or later I'm going to guess at least a few of them right.


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