Last week, we did the Democratic power rankings. This week, it’s time to line up the Republican candidates, and we’re going to take a different approach and divide the field into “lanes.”
Lane 1: The Establishment Candidates (80%)
Despite the turbulence of the Republican field, we think the most-likely outcome will be for a nominee that is broadly satisfying to the Republican establishment. Neither party has nominated a truly insurgent candidate in forty years, and it has been seventy-five since a total outsider (Wendell Willkie) gained a major-party nomination.
The two candidates in the best position to do this are Marco Rubio (40%) and Jeb Bush (30%). Rubio has risen to third in the RealClearPolitics polling average, behind the outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Perhaps more importantly, he is broadly acceptable within the party, regularly having the second-lowest “unfavorable” score among Republican primary voters (behind Carson); just 12% of Republicans viewed him unfavorably in the latest CBS poll, compared to 29% for Trump and 38% for Bush. Rubio is also best-positioned to pick up donors and campaign staff from the now-deceased Scott Walker campaign, which should help him on one of his weak points: a relatively paltry $6 million take in the third quarter. Bush’s advantages are fairly straightforward: an unprecedented pile of cash for a primary campaign and deep familial connections in the Republican Party. Even in the face of today’s insurgent conservatives, these are strong advantages that should enable Bush to be one of the last two or three candidates standing.
While someone from the establishment lane has a strong advantage at taking the nomination, the lane isn’t very wide. We doubt that more than two candidates from this wing of the party will make it past New Hampshire. So the other two viable candidates in this lane, John Kasich (6%) and Chris Christie (4%), have to pull a surprise showing in either Iowa or New Hampshire; both are better-suited for New Hampshire. Kasich jumped to second in the New Hampshire polls after an early ad buy, but has receded to sixth, boding ill for his ability to outperform Jon Huntsman in the state. Christie faces more ingrained hostility from the Republican grassroots than does Kasich, but his disapproval numbers have been dropping somewhat. Both face headwinds, but have a clearly defined path to the nomination: outperform Bush in New Hampshire, and then take his place. This makes them more plausible, in our opinion, than the insurgent outsiders hoping to blaze a virgin trail to the nomination. Hypothetically, you might say that this would be the right lane for Lindsey Graham (0%), Jim Gilmore (0%), or George Pataki (0%). In the same way, you might say that a nice French restaurant would be the right venue for my date with Jennifer Lawrence.
Lane Two: The Insurgent Outsiders (15%)
Maybe the base really is too angry this time. Maybe this is the year that the fox-toupeed real-estate mogul really can win a major-party nomination. As Britain just saw with Labour’s coronation of Jeremy Corbyn, the unthinkable does happen sometimes. But we think it’s awfully unlikely that Donald Trump (3%) or Ben Carson (3%), the two frontrunners in current polls, actually carry the nomination. Like Republicans’ spurt of fancy with Herman Cain in the last election, we think that the approach of actual voting will cause more traditional candidates to rise and that, ultimately, the core of the Republican primary electorate just isn’t ready for The Donald.
If an insurgent really does get the nomination, we think that Ted Cruz (9%) is the more obvious choice. He stands capable of appealing to supporters of Trump and Carson—he has pointedly refused to criticize Trump—and fits more into the models of Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, which have actual succeeded in getting an insurgent to the general election. Cruz is sitting firmly in the second tier of the national polls (with Rubio, Bush, and Carly Fiorina).
Lane Three: The Iowan (2%)
We considered the possibility of John Kasich or Chris Christie catapulting out of the bottom tier of the polls through a strong showing in New Hampshire. But the candidates who seem right for Iowa are a decidedly less impressive bunch. The one most likely to catapult from Iowa to the nomination, in our opinion, is Bobby Jindal (1%). He has technocratic bona fides that the others lacked, can appeal to evangelical voters, and was viewed as a rising star in the party until his tumultuous tenure in Louisiana. But it’s tough to win when the Republicans running to replace you are openly disavowing your tenure. What’s left is the smoldering remains of Rand Paul’s (<1%) presidential ambitions and lackluster former Iowa winners Mike Huckabee (<1%) and Rick Santorum (<1%).
Lane Four: The (Carly?) Compromise (3%)
There’s one candidate who I haven’t mentioned yet, because I’m not sure whether she fits better into Lane One or Lane Two: Carly Fiorina (2%). On the one hand, she’s running a campaign as a spirited outsider without an ounce of politician in her. On the other hand, that’s a bit rich coming from John McCain’s national finance chair who already ran for a Senate seat in California. We’re more inclined to see this as a lose-lose (inexperienced in government, but not a genuine “insurgent”) than a win-win for her; after all, does anyone see her getting support from the ideological cousins of the House Freedom Caucus? In addition, Fiorina has already lost a quarter of her post-debate peak in the polls, and is incredibly vulnerable in her private-sector record; we see her presence in the race as largely ephemeral.
We distribute the final ~1% of our analysis to the Wild Card: the undeclared candidate. Think Eric Baker, from that episode of The West Wing. A hopelessly deadlocked brokered convention ends with a compromise nominee riding in on a white horse. Perhaps Mitt Romney? Or Paul Ryan, who’s being touted for the same role in the House? Scott Walker allies even floated the idea of him returning to save the party from a brokered convention, but we think that’s a bit farfetched for even a Slate pitch.
And so, without spilling further digital ink, we present the October power rankings:
- Florida Senator Marco Rubio (40%)
- Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (30%)
- Texas Senator Ted Cruz (9%)
- Ohio Governor John Kasich (6%)
- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (4%)
- Real estate mogul Donald Trump (3%)
- Neurosurgeon Ben Carson (3%)
- Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina (2%)
- Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (1%)
- Field (2%)