category: politics

Wait, Just Who Is The GOP Frontrunner? Depends On Whom You Ask (UPDATED)

Is it too early to talk about 2016? Of course. That said… let’s talk about 2016! Such certainly seems to be the prevailing attitude among pollsters, the media, and voters who can’t help but ponder, predict, and wonder. Like a teenage girl who starts planning every detail of her senior prom during sophomore year, we simply cannot stop ourselves.

But proms are important (sort of) and so are elections. So let’s get down to brass tacks crystal-balling.

Just who is the frontrunner for the GOP nomination all depends on whom and what you’re reading. “I read it was Rand,” you might say. “Wait, I read it was Jeb,” another might retort. Both would be right.

Is it former Governor Jeb Bush? While National Review’s Jonah Goldberg rightly notes that nothing short of a name-change would appease the Tea Party base, an eyebrow-raising New York Times/CBS poll last week, yielded Jeb at the top of the pack, with a strong 41% of Republicans answering “yes” on whether they would like to see him run for president in 2016 (Rand came in a close second with 39% and Rubio with 32%; interestingly, only 24% of Republicans answered affirmatively to Cruz’s name).  And an early February article in The Week, entitled “It’s Over: Jeb Bush will be the GOP nominee in 2016,” seems begrudgingly resigned to the idea, albeit through process of elimination.

The Fix’s Chris Cillizza contacted several Romney voters last week: “Every single Romney donor… listed the former Florida governor as their top choice. The donors said that – like Romney – Bush’s time as governor proved that he can be an effective leader and manager.”

Is it Senator Rand Paul? In addition to his impressive runner-up showing in the aforementioned poll, Rand received support from influential heavyweights last week: while discussing the matter recently on Glenn Beck’s show, Beck and Sean Hannity agreed  that, if given the choice to pick the GOP nominee now, it would be between Rand and Ted Cruz. And, ranking the potential GOP field last week, Cillizza placed Rand Paul in the number 1 slot, rightly noting that the ‘non-establishment’ field among the would-be contenders is actually quite scarce, with only Cruz and Rand. (Jeb Bush comes in at number 9 on that list, behind only Rick Perry – yet compare that to the NYT/CBS poll mentioned above.) As for those Romney donors, according to Cillizza, there is quite a bit of buzz among them about Rand.

And, last week, an article in the National Journal entitled, “Rand Paul is the GOP’s Early President Front-Runner,” made the case that the Kentucky senator is becoming quite the force. In it, Republican strategist Scott Jennings described Rand’s “knack for finding populist issues showing why the government is stupid, and people like it.” With Paul’s focus on civil liberties, unique amongst his fellow contenders, such a description is hard to deny.

Is it Senator Ted Cruz? A large online poll of the Tea Party last month, while not scientific, does indicate the Texan senator’s enormous popularity with the grassroots base. Cruz topped the poll at 84%, with Rand right behind him at 80%.  (Chris Christie and Jeb ranked dead last – out of 22 potential candidates). Still, Cruz’s electability in the general election, and the ability to win over moderates, is unlikely, given his relation to the government shutdown and the view, by some, of his ‘scorched earth’ style of politics.

Is it Senator Marco Rubio? Sure, Rubio was once the clear-frontrunner, the Republican “savior” gracing the cover of TIME Magazine. Then came his ill-advised push for immigration reform and Rubio (rightly so, according to many on the Right) fell from grace (or, rather, plummeted). But maintaining a low profile for a while – as well as immigration reform’s current limbo situation – can work wonders. MSNBC’s Benhy Salin argues that Rubio is getting a ‘second look’ from the party for 2016, enjoying a surge due to his powerful and popular remarks on Cuba, Venezuela, and the Ukraine. As a writer once noted about Ben Affleck film-overload, ‘Ben, you first have to go away so we can miss you.’ That’s exactly what Rubio did – and it may have worked.

Some could argue, however, that the GOP never stopped looking at Rubio. In fact, a February 1 report, “GOP insiders back Rubio in 2016” noted that several GOP “fundraising heavyweights” are solidly behind Rubio. That has always been the case. Most Republican mega donors were, after all, in favor of immigration reform – did Rubio ever fall out of favor with that class? While Rand and Cruz’s strength is in grassroots drives, perhaps the smart money is where the big money is.

(Lest we forget, Rubio is, in many ways, Jeb’s personal protégé. That alone should make the next two years quite interesting.)

Could it be Mitt Romney? Possibly, according to National Journal’s Matt Vasilogambros’s article last month. Regardless of Romney’s statement to CNN this month that he will not run again, the fact remains he is certainly acting like a man who has not definitively closed that door: as America reconsiders its opinion on Romney — buoyed by the “Mitt” documentary, the slow-jam with Jimmy Fallon (‘where was this easy-going guy during the election?’ we wonder); and his being proven right on a host of issues — Romney is suddenly everywhere. Greta Van Susteren noted on her blog weeks ago that she is “beginning to think both [Romney and Kerry] will try again” and many echo her curiosity. A Mitt Romney 2.0, or rather, 3.0, while unlikely, would not be shocking, either.

Could the frontrunner prove to be someone else? Naturally! Christie could bounce back from ‘Bridgegate’ (provided no smoking gun ever emerges and, at this point, it is unlikely) or another governor could throw his hat in (National Review’s Eliana Johnson reports that Governor Bobby Jindal is gearing up for the race). A DC-outsider’s appeal with the Tea Party? To quote Darth Vader, the force is strong with this one.

But do they all want to run? You bet. Rubio all but confirmed it to Wolf Blitzer this week; Christie claimed the scandal made him “readier” for a presidential bid; and so forth. None of the “Big Five” candidates (Rubio, Rand, Cruz, Jeb, and even Christie) will make the nomination struggle easier by bowing out – all are in it to win it. Add to the list the possibility of Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, and Rick Perry … and you have one crowded field.

So there you go – no one can agree who’s at the top. It’s anyone’s nomination to lose, and anyone’s to win. If this field doesn’t thin out, we can expect a primary tighter — and more brutal — than 2012.

‘Anything can happen from now to 2016,’ we are told. Well, let’s hope something does.

UPDATE (3/6): Well, sometimes I’ve got my pulse right on the news cycle and this was one of those times!
There have been a few related updates in the past 24 hours that I’d like to include on this post.

a) Rick Perry confirms he is ‘open’ to 2016.

b) a new Washington Post / ABC poll confirms my argument that the GOP nomination is wide open

c) On Rand Paul vs. Ted Cruz, see here for a great example of what I mean about Ted Cruz’s inability to connect with voters outside of the grassroots base. Chris Matthews: likes Rand, says Ted Cruz is ‘evil’. See here

d) On Marco Rubio: Buzzfeed’s McCay Coppins posted a piece yesterday on Rubio’s comeback (as I mentioned in my post, Rubio has received a bump in popularity following his Cuba and Venezuela remarks). However, I think Coppins overestimates the ‘bump’ by calling it a full-fledged comeback. Many conservatives I have spoken to (outside of the pundit and politico sphere) still express outrage at the idea of Rubio, due to his immigration reform / Gang of 8 push. HuffPo’s Jason Linkins has an excellent rebuttal to the comeback idea, yesterday evening.

d) As for that brand new WaPo/ABC poll, it shows 30% Republicans are resistant to Christie as the nominee. (Jeb Bush polls ahead of him.) As for voters across the board, half the nation is screaming “No!” at the idea of Jeb Bush. So no, I don’t see Bush having a chance.

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Ted Cruz fared better than one would think among registered voters (well, depending on how one looks at it). 36% of registered voters would consider voting for him but even more (39%) said they wouldn’t.

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Rubio had a healthy showing both among registered voters overall and among Republicans.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 9.32.35 AM Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 9.32.28 AM

Rand had a similar showing…

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 9.32.04 AM Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 9.31.54 AM

Check back for updates, as I will continue adding to this post as things change!

UPDATE II (3/9): Seems Mitt Romney maaaaaay be a potential candidate after all, as I’ve suspected. Seems he’s invited a good chunk of his campaign aides and advisors out for a ski weekend. All just fun and games… or a little strategy sessions? 🙂

UPDATE III (3/9): As many of us predicted, Rand Paul won the straw poll at this year’s CPAC.

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2 thoughts on “Wait, Just Who Is The GOP Frontrunner? Depends On Whom You Ask (UPDATED)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Good column. HOPEFULLY, the GOP will not continue this path of electing candidates who lost primaries (McCain ran against bush-lost, Romney ran against McCain-lost, Santorum ran against Romney…). I Really HOPE that Rand Paul is the Nominee at this point. From the perspective of a young, black, and new conservative… he could win it. I also appreciate that he is reaching out to ALL demographics. But as you said, anything could happen.

  2. Hi there, thanks and glad you enjoyed the column! That’s a very good point about nominating previous-primary-losers and the GOP’s poor record with it.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective on Rand — he’s currently at the top of my list, too :). I wholeheartedly agree with you that his approach is one that can appeal to all demographics, especially with his emphasis on civil liberties and his sensitivity to reforming drug-crime sentencing, etc.

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