2016: Bumpy roads ahead to the nominations

Posted2/8/2015 1:00 AM

Less than a year from now, voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere will gather in town centers, gymnasiums, local libraries and school cafeterias to kick off the 2016 presidential sweepstakes. Ever since the modern political process made running for president a four-year job, this is the time when potential candidates started making their public moves. So how are the two parties' races for the nomination shaping up?

Let's start with the Republican Party. With 2012 GOP nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's decision not to run in 2016, I wouldn't place too much stock in any polls that show former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker leading the Republican field. Their leads reflect knee-jerk name recognition, brand loyalty, or flavor-of-the-month enthusiasm -- not the kind of support that is going to see them through the next year.


If you're a Republican of my generation, you have probably voted for six presidential tickets with a Bush on it. At this point, Republicans don't so much choose a Bush as they initially acquiesce in the choice of a Bush, so a lot of what appears to be support for Jeb Bush is simply resigned indifference. If you were an active Republican in 2012, whomever you preferred for the nomination, you probably eventually ended up working hard, supporting and arguing on behalf of eventual nominee Romney. So the question is, how will you respond when faced with new and different choices?

When it comes to polling, I would be much more interested in how Republicans respond when some of the candidates are described, rather than named. For instance, what if a survey described Ohio's Gov. John Kasich's credentials? Mail carrier's son, former chairman of the House Budget Committee, two-term governor of the pivotal state of Ohio, re-elected overwhelmingly with support from Democrats and independents. Republican primary voters need to start looking at the resumes of their candidates with the names removed.

Of the Republicans' two legacy candidates -- Bush, and Rand Paul, whose fathers both ran for president -- it's hard to predict who will have an upper hand with conservative voters. I predict that Bush's establishment support will melt away. His residual rank-and-file support will find its way to Paul and other candidates. But it's hard to write off Bush. People who have made careers writing off Bushes have generally had short careers.

Although he has a steep hill to climb, Bush is at ease with himself and with regular people. His rapport with Latino voters is just what the Republicans need. He's the former governor of the crucial swing state of Florida, and he has a conservative reformer's record that Republicans can take into a general election. His problem is whether, for voters in the general election, three Bushes are one too many, particularly since most voters remember the eight Clinton years more fondly than the 12 combined Bush years.

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As has been the case in recent elections, the Republican field is crowded with minor candidates who generate a lot of smoke but never seem to catch fire for long. They tend to be rabble-rousers, holy rollers, regional candidates and Fox News favorites. Most of them stand an excellent chance of succeeding, but only in their real goal, which is either to push the party in the direction of their agenda or to use their candidacy to raise their own profile and potential in the world of conservative media.

On the Democratic side, it's likely we end up with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and a few others. Clinton is the front-runner before anyone -- including her -- has even begun running. She's way ahead even while everyone is still at the starting line. Clinton could have a Democratic challenger coming at her from the left or from the right, but whoever it is, they would have to come at her from way below her in the polls. The main questions for the Democrats are if Clinton will be challenged within the party and whether that would help or hurt her.

It's possible that a credible primary challenger could help Clinton sharpen her campaigning and debate skills before the general election contest begins. But she hardly lacks campaign experience, and primary contests can be costly. People say that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but in presidential primaries, if it doesn't kill you, it still drains your campaign war chest.

While the Republicans face a tough battle with each other, Clinton has what is the equivalent of a first-round bye in the playoffs. The fact that Democrats have a clear front-runner and the Republicans don't is a problem for Republicans, and a clear advantage to Clinton. Before the Republicans can beat her, they have to beat each other -- and as we saw in the vicious GOP primary battles of 2012, they have a tendency to beat each other rather severely. The Republicans face a bruising primary season. The only things liable to get bruised on the Democratic side are egos.

The upshot is that at this point, neither party has much of a race. The Democrats have a lopsided contest (but not a foregone conclusion), and the Republicans have less of a race and more like something that resembles a rugby scrum. It remains to be seen if the eventual winner in 2016 is someone whose candidacy was seemingly ordained, or one who emerged from a chaotic clash.

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