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2016 GOP Presidential Update: A New Name at the Top

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    (Photo: Reuters/Luis Galdamez)
    Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a press conference at the Presidential House in San Salvador, El Salvador February 18, 2004. Bush is on a tour in Central American countries to promote the investments and the commercial exchange between the region and the state of Florida.
By Larry Sabato, CP Guest Contributor
March 20, 2014|9:30 am

In our first ranking of the very large and very unsettled 2016 Republican presidential field back in April of last year, we decided to not even include the name of one of the brightest stars in the GOP universe: Jeb Bush. We just didn't think, at the time, that the former Florida governor and brother and son of presidents was all that interested in running.

But during 2013 and into this new year, we've gotten the sense, like many others, that things might be changing. So much so that we now consider Bush the leader of the field if he decides to run.

Why?

There are several reasons, and one of the most important does not have much to do with Bush, at least on the surface: Chris Christie's bridge scandal.

To understand the potential importance of l'affaire bridge in determining whether Jeb Bush might run for president, we need to look back at the 2012 presidential cycle.

In the late summer of 2011, the Bush family surveyed the seemingly finalized Republican presidential primary field and apparently didn't like what they saw. As reported by Dan Balz in Collision 2012 and Mark Halperin and John Heilemann in Double Down, Chris Christie received a phone call from former President George W. Bush in August 2011. Bush and Christie talked for 45 minutes about the pluses and minuses of running for president. Shortly thereafter, Christie's wife, Mary Pat, got a call from former First Lady Barbara Bush, who described the benefits of raising a family in the White House. Christie also sat down with Bush consigliere Karl Rove and consulted with other Republican heavyweights, some close to the Bushes and some not.

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Christie, who at the time was in the middle of just his second year as New Jersey's governor, eventually decided to pass on the race.

While many have observed that Christie's recent troubles have created an opening for Jeb Bush, there's another connection to be made: With Christie damaged, the Bush family might have lost its preferred 2016 candidate, leaving a void that only a Bush can fill. Enter Jeb, who apparently shares - or at least shared - his family's affection for Christie ("I love the guy," Bush said of Christie in March 2013).

In mid-November, as Christie was basking in his 60 percent reelection victory, Politico's Ben White reported on Jeb Bush's not-quite 50/50 chances of running, citing several Wall Street and Washington sources. One factor in Bush's decision-making was Christie, whose star at that precise moment could not have shined brighter. Essentially, if Christie was obviously putting together a strong campaign, that would probably keep Bush out; but if he wasn't, that could induce Bush to enter.

Of course, we know what happened in the months that followed: Christie took a major hit as the bridge-closing story exploded. Christie's problems have only elevated Bush by comparison, and the two men would occupy similar space in a hypothetical primary contest: The same voters and states that backed the successful nominations of John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 - i.e. the ones with smaller concentrations of "very conservative" and white evangelical voters like New Hampshire, Florida and many Midwestern states - would probably be inclined to back one of these two or someone like them.

For all the sturm und drang regarding the Tea Party in the Republican nominating process, it's going to be hard for someone who lacks widespread establishment support - like Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) or Ted Cruz (R-TX) - to win the nomination. Political science research indicates that endorsements from sitting officeholders and party leaders can be quite predictive of presidential nominees.

And that leads us to another reason to take a potential Bush candidacy seriously: The establishment loves him.

In recent months, we've noticed an unmistakable and widespread desire among some of the Republicans we talk to, particularly ones who would be classified as members of the establishment on and off Capitol Hill, for a third Bush nominee in less than three decades. In one conversation, we mentioned several other potential candidates on our list, but the chatter kept coming back to Jeb. He was the only candidate with whom these party leaders appeared to be comfortable.

A preference for a Bush candidacy is inspired, we think, by a natural conservatism among political party leaders in searching for presidential candidates. The parties want someone who is a proven commodity capable of running a strong campaign and raising a Fort Knox of gold without much handholding. It's a preference for the safest choice, and it's got nothing to do with a political belief system. The desire amongst the vast majority of Democratic leaders for Hillary Clinton to run in 2016 stems from the same kind of "conservative" impulse. Compared to riskier nominees, Clinton, like Bush, would be an anodyne choice. This is the kind of establishment impulse that drives activists, particularly conservative ones, batty. But it's also a decent strategy for actually winning elections - the "no surprises" approach.

The implications of a Bush candidacy would be wide reaching, and - to be clear - we don't know if he's running. He probably doesn't know himself. The reason we're putting him first now is that if he were to run, we'd see him as a modest favorite over the other potential candidates in the field, and he might be the one Republican whose entry could keep other candidates out. For instance, Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) are close, and many observers doubt that they would run against one another in a presidential contest. (Bush's son, George P., just appeared at two Palm Beach fundraisers for Rubio; the younger Bush is running for land commissioner, a statewide elected office in Texas.) That said, stranger things have happened in politics than a hypothetical Bush vs. Rubio matchup in a GOP primary field: Political alliances are often written in pencil, not pen.

Perhaps Christie will recover to the point where he is again seen as a viable contender, in which case Bush could take a pass and back him or someone else (like Rubio). Granted, that seems preposterous given how damaged Christie is now. Yes, Christie retains the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association, but he rarely appears in public in that role these days. For instance, he ducked the national press at the recent National Governors Association conference in Washington, and earlier this week the RGA sent out a statement praising vulnerable Gov. Rick Scott's (R-FL) economic record not from Christie, but from Gov. Brian Sandoval (R-NV). Presidential candidates usually aren't nominated if they reside in the isolation ward.

Christie benefits from Americans' very short attention spans and his own political talent, which is considerable and probably superior to anyone else mentioned as a candidate. But he might be cooked nationally, anyway - it's just not obvious to us one way or the other at this point. In a way, Bush's machinations going forward might be as much of an indication of how national Republicans view Christie's viability as anything else.

Perhaps another weathervane is Bush's mother, Barbara, who recently softened her stance against the idea of another Bush presidency after saying last year that the country has "had enough Bushes."

Aside from moving Jeb Bush to the top of our list, we left the rest of the list mostly the same. Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) remains, to us, an intriguing option for Republicans, although he has a liability we have heretofore not mentioned: Walker never finished college, although it's worth noting that only 47 percent of Americans who voted in 2012 were college graduates, according to the exit poll. Walker has a useful comeback, of course: The last president not to have a college degree was Harry Truman, and he's ranked "near great" by most historians. Okay, we can already hear Democrats chanting, "We knew Harry Truman, he was a friend of ours, and Scott Walker, you're no Harry Truman!"

Finally, a recent e-mail dump in an investigation of Walker's associates for campaign shenanigans didn't really contain any major red flags as far as we could tell. It also goes without saying that Walker needs to win reelection this November to be a presidential contender.

After moving Bush from our wild card column all the way up to No. 1, we are adding a couple names to the wild card portion: Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Gov. Susana Martinez (R-NM). Both would bring a bit of diversity to the field: Portman through a notable issue position (he supports gay marriage while otherwise being a stalwart conservative) and Martinez through her background (in addition to being Hispanic, she's the only woman on the list and also, depending on how one classifies Texas, the only westerner). One of us spelled out Portman's potential in a recent column for Politico Magazine. Ultimately, we think Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) is the likelier Ohioan in the field (assuming he wins reelection), and Martinez is probably more of a vice presidential contender at this point. But both merit mention on an ever-growing list of possibilities.

We fully admit that we may be underestimating our "Also Rans." Rick Santorum's blunt, social conservative substance and style has undying appeal to Republicans who would rather be right than be president. "Compromise, hell no!" is their slogan. And Rick Perry is bouncing back as a much better candidate, at least in his early outings, than he appeared to be in his disastrous 2012 incarnation. Observers should never underestimate the fierce conservatism of much of the Republican base. Yet we think most of the GOP, after its 2008 and 2012 drubbings, is determined not to make a mistake in picking its 2016 candidate; the party is looking for a nominee who can actually get to 270 electoral votes in November, and not just in their pre-election imaginings.

Reality check: There are 963 days to the 2016 presidential election. So there will be plenty of time to read the tea leaves, and the Republican field remains highly fluid. We've moved up Jeb Bush, but this is in no way, shape or form a firm prediction he'll be the nominee. Rather, we just wanted to reflect what we've been hearing in the early stages of 2016's "invisible primary." If anything, the elevation of Bush - who very well may not even run - is just another indication that while Republicans should have a decent chance to win the White House in 2016, they will probably have to sort themselves out in a rather dramatic primary first - not to mention use good judgment and accept some painful realities about the changing American electorate.

We have no updates at this time to our rankings of the 2016 Democratic contenders - the field remains contingent on Hillary Clinton's decision - but for an assessment of the prospects of Vice President Joe Biden (D) and a broader look at the vice presidency as a presidential stepping stone, please take a look at Joel Goldstein's piece in today's Crystal Ball.

Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik are analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. You can read more of their reviews of political races at www.centerforpolitics.org.
 

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