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Election 2016 National

Presidential Power Rankings: December Edition

It’s been about six weeks since we checked in on the Republican presidential race, and a bit longer since we talked about the Democrats. So let’s get started!


While the summer treated Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton poorly, the autumn has stabilized her position as the overwhelming Democratic frontrunner. Her performance at the House Benghazi hearings and the first presidential debate quashed a push by anxious Democrats to draft Vice President Joe Biden for the race, and she has regained national polling consistently in excess of 50%. No poll has shown Senator Bernie Sanders within fifteen points of the frontrunner in nearly two months, and Clinton has reasserted a lead in Iowa while closing New Hampshire, Sanders’s strongest state, to a dead heat after Sanders led for several months. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley remains mired in the low single-digits, and shows no sign of becoming a significant force in the race. In our opinion, only a “black swan” event could shake Clinton’s iron grip over the nomination: her odds of losing have been halved since October, to just one chance in twenty.

  1. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: 95% (90% on 29 September)
  2. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders: 4% (7%)
  3. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley: <1% (2%)
  4. Field: <1% (2%)


The autumn giveth stability to the Democratic race, and so it must taketh away from the Republicans. We will return to our October methodology of dividing the Republican field into “lanes.”

Lane 1: The Establishment Conservatives: 65% (74% at the last debate)

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has taken leadership of this lane, but we believe that some commentators have become overzealous in declaring him its victor. He has been an uninspiring frontrunner, failing to outshine Texas Senator Ted Cruz, let alone Donald Trump. He sits in a three-way fight for second place in current national polls with Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson, far behind Trump. Granted, his 13% share exceeds the sum of his establishment rivals, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (5.6%), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (2.9%), and Ohio Governor John Kasich (2.5%). But it is hardly a dominating showing, and a sub-par showing in Iowa and New Hampshire could easily result in Rubio falling to another candidate, particularly anyone who decisively outpolls him in New Hampshire. We give Rubio a roughly 70% chance of leading this lane, and a 45% chance of taking the nomination.

While Jeb Bush’s campaign continues to be anemic, he still has the best resources to capitalize on Rubio’s potential fall. Do not underestimate the panic that establishment Republicans will feel if they lack a solid candidate after, say, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump win Iowa and New Hampshire. Even if the Jeb Bush campaign essentially becomes a less inspired version of Mitt Romney’s, that could be enough to win. We give him a 9% chance at the nomination.

In October, we noted the possibility that John Kasich or Chris Christie could emerge with a strong showing in the Granite State; we still find this outcome possible, but believe that Christie is decisively more likely to pull it off. His reputation has soared in the state as he has talked a tough line on ISIS and emphasized the state’s growing heroin problem. He hit double-digits in a state poll last week, but more importantly, he polled the highest net favorability rating (61% favorable/22% unfavorable) among Republican voters, priming him for a breakout. We give him a 8% chance at the nomination. John Kasich, on the other hand, has kept himself in the high single-digits in the state, but his favorability scores have fallen to barely above-water; this bodes poorly for him and we have dropped his chance at the nomination to 2%.

The final 1% of the establishment allotment goes to the potential for a compromise choice (perhaps Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney) at the Republican convention, after no candidate earned a majority. Given (as we will discuss later) the possibility for an extended three-way race, we don’t find the possibility of a brokered convention entirely implausible.

Lane 2: The Movement Conservatives: 25% (21%)

This is the traditional insurgency of the party, the one that gave us Barry Goldwater in 1964. Its standard-bearer is almost certainly Texas Senator Ted Cruz (24%), who has risen sharply both in Iowa and nationally. He is poaching the support of the falling Dr. Ben Carson (<1%) and appeals to the evangelical voters in Iowa who gave Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (<1%) and Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (<1%) their caucus victories in 2008 and 2012. His rise has made him the most noticeable target of Marco Rubio’s attacks in recent weeks, and we think he can do a much more effective job of leveraging an Iowa victory than Santorum did against Mitt Romney. As we have above indicated, we give little chance to the other movement and religious conservatives (Carson, Huckabee, and Santorum) remaining in the race. The last other candidate who we felt could maybe base a victorious campaign from this lane in Iowa, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, has exited the race just before the embarrassing victory of Democrat John Bel Edwards to succeed the term-limited and exceptionally unpopular Jindal as the Bayou State’s chief executive.

Lane 3: The Best Lane, presented by Donald Trump: 10% (5%)

We had previously sorted real estate mogul and reality television host Donald Trump (10%) with Cruz and Carson under the header “Insurgent Outsiders.” But we have decided that this grouping is fundamentally misleading. Ted Cruz fundamentally fits the Goldwater archetype, and while Carson is stylistically an idiosyncrasy, his voter base is pretty much the same. Trump, on the other hand, is not a movement conservative or a far-right candidate. Poll after poll shows him doing better among self-identified “moderate” Republicans than “very conservative” ones, while Cruz cleans up Iowa’s “very conservative” voters.

Trump appeals to a different tradition: that of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, with his own additional twist of being irascible, obnoxious, and insulting. But while he does have an element of angry right-wing voters in his coalition (see Breitbart, for example), he mainly appeals to nativist white working-class voters without a college degree who have felt betrayed by both Democrats (due to immigration) and Republicans (due to free trade). This strategy relies on getting a ton of people who don’t vote in primaries to do so, but Trump’s cult of personality could help greatly with that. And given a race where he could win primaries with 40% of the vote, he wouldn’t need to make tremendous inroads to win in a field where Rubio and Cruz divided the rest of the vote.

The Endgame

What happens when the lanes narrow? A PPP poll of New Hampshire gives us some (small) idea of where the coalitions are breaking down now.

Three-way race: Trump 35% Rubio 32% Cruz 22% Not sure 11%

Two-way race: Trump 45% Rubio 45% Not sure 10%

Two-way race: Cruz 44% Trump 41% Not sure 16%

Two-way race: Rubio 43% Cruz 37% Not sure 20%

What does this tell us? Firstly, these are not simple coalitions, and all three candidates could potentially win a race that whittled down to these candidates. We still believe that the process will skew toward a more traditional candidate as it goes on and voters become more engaged and serious about the process, but it has long since become time to take Trump seriously. He could certainly be nominated.

  1. Florida Senator Marco Rubio: 45% (46% on 27 October)
  2. Texas Senator Ted Cruz: 24% (16%)
  3. Real estate mogul Donald Trump: 10% (5%)
  4. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush: 9% (18%)
  5. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: 8% (4%)
  6. Ohio Governor John Kasich: 2% (4%)
  7. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson: <1% (5%)
  8. Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina: <1% (1%)
  9. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee: <1% (<1%)
  10. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum: <1% (<1%)
  11. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul: 0%
  12. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham: 0%
  13. Former New York Governor George Pataki: 0%
  14. Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore: <0%