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Handicapping the Presidential Fields

The Politic takes its first look at the race to replace President Barack Obama.

The Iowa caucuses are in eleven months, and candidates are starting to load up on fundraising and staff. While we won’t start formally handicapping races until the fall, it’s time for a preliminary look at both fields.

Democrats:

First Tier: Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has this tier to herself. Running at close to 60% in both national polls and in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton is running both far ahead of her 2008 polls (she hovered in the mid-30s during February 2007) and even further ahead of her stance in Iowa, where she was polling in the mid-20s, barely ahead of then-Sen. Obama and John Edwards. While Clinton has not yet announced a bid, she has begun fundraising and hiring for a national campaign; we see little chance that she won’t launch a bid this summer. She will be the prohibitive favorite: we peg her chances at the nomination at roughly 90-95%.

Second Tier: Vice President Joe Biden has not yet ruled out a race; he has scheduled events in early states but hasn’t build any sort of campaign infrastructure. We find it unlikely that he would challenge Clinton, and it would be a steep uphill battle for him. He would, however, begin with national name recognition and would be the nominal frontrunner if she did not run.

Third Tier (Running): The three Democrats who seem primed to launch bids are ex-Governor Martin O’Malley (MD), Senator Bernie Sanders (VT), and ex-Senator Jim Webb (VA). Sanders seems primed to tap into the energy of progressives who find Clinton’s hawkish views on foreign policy and close ties to the financial services industry unseemly, in lieu of Senator Elizabeth Warren, who seems unstirred by draft movements on her behalf. Webb has a more populist focus on white working-class voters in the Rust Belt, while O’Malley’s base of support in the party seems unclear—he seeks to focus on his technocratic governance in Baltimore as mayor and Maryland as governor. But none of the three pose a viable challenge to Clinton; Sanders will likely attempt to pull Clinton leftward on financial regulation and defense, while Webb and O’Malley will try to shape the debate in their own ways and possibly angle for a cabinet post—or even the vice-presidency.

Clinton-Doesn’t-Run Tier: If Clinton fails to run or implodes for reasons unforeseen, a number of potential candidates who have ruled out runs may rethink. We will explore them in more detail in a later article, but would include Senators Elizabeth Warren (MA), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Mark Warner (VA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), as well as ex-Governor Deval Patrick (MA).

Republicans:

First Tier: Former Governor Jeb Bush (FL) and Governor Scott Walker (WI) are currently at the front of the Republican pack. Bush has begun the year with an ambitious fundraising push, seeking $100 million in donations by the end of March. With these funds, name recognition, and a powerful resume as a two-term governor of Florida, Bush should sit in the top tier through the rest of the year. Joining him in the top tier is Scott Walker, whose anti-union push in Wisconsin has earned him credibility with the Republican base. With three victories in four years in light-blue Wisconsin, Walker can credibly claim to have successfully enacted a conservative agenda in a left-of-center state. And with a strong performance at the Iowa Freedom Summit, he has catapulted into the lead in the Iowa polls.

Second Tier: Senator Marco Rubio (FL) is the most likely candidate to step into the first tier if Bush or Walker falter. While many have questioned whether Rubio wants to give up his Senate seat to run for president (especially since Bush is winning support from most Florida Republicans), Rubio is building a campaign infrastructure and seems to be priming a run. If either of them jumps into the race, we would put a pair of Midwestern governors, John Kasich (OH) and Mike Pence (IN), in this tier. Kasich won a resounding reelection victory in Ohio in 2014—though the total implosion of his Democratic opponent’s campaign certainly padded his margin—and has been on a nationwide tour in favor of a balanced-budget amendment, though he hasn’t built a campaign infrastructure. Pence seems less likely to run, but he is popular with the Christian right and could jump into Walker’s place if he can’t stand up to the heat.

Third Tier: This tier includes Governor Chris Christie (NJ), Senators Ted Cruz (TX) and Rand Paul (KY), and ex-Governors Mike Huckabee (AR) and Rick Perry (TX). Perry still has all of the attributes that made him an instant top-tier contender when he entered the race in 2012, but will have to grapple with his embarrassing performance in debates that caused his first presidential bid to flounder. Cruz has an energetic base of supporters, but is deeply unpopular with the Republican establishment and will have difficulty winning outside the “very conservative” bloc. Huckabee will have a strong base in Iowa and among the religious right, especially if he can keep Rick Santorum on the margins, but his culture-warrior positions are polarizing and his fiscal record in Arkansas has earned him the ire of small-government groups like the Club for Growth. Paul has sought to expand his libertarian coalition to include traditionally Democratic voters like college students and racial minorities, but it will be difficult for him to shed his fringe image, as his recent stumbles over vaccines demonstrate, especially due to his father. And we’re pretty bearish on Christie’s chances, due to his ethics problems, rising unpopularity at home, and the volatile mixture of a year-long national campaign and bombastic personality. While we have serious doubts about all five, they all appear to be running and have the financial means and base of support to make serious bids.

Fourth Tier: At this point, we’re just listing names. In a few months, we’ll have a better idea about who is running (if Rick Snyder runs, for instance, we’d push him up to the third tier), and which of these candidates will emerge (or reemerge, as is the case with Rick Santorum) as real contenders. But for now, the following individuals have floated (or been floated for) a run: Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, ex-Governor Bob Ehrlich (MD), ex-Governor Jim Gilmore (VA), Senator Lindsey Graham (SC), former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, ex-Governor Bobby Jindal (LA), Representative Peter King (NY), ex-Governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin (AK), ex-Governor George Pataki (NY), ex-Senator Rick Santorum (PA), Governor Rick Scott (FL), Governor Rick Snyder (MI), and real estate magnate Donald Trump.

 Note: A prior version of this article failed to mention Mike Huckabee. As Rick Perry might say, “Oops.”

 

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