The February 1 Iowa caucuses are four months away. Can you feel the excitement? Time for a new gimmick; between now and then, on the first of each month, I will rank all the Republican candidates in chances to get the nomination. I’m eager to see how my opinions shift each month as the narratives develop. For today’s ranking, I can reference my countdown from July on the old blog. Let’s get to it. Here is first PPFA GOP Power Ranking.
Tier 5: The Recently Departed
16. Scott Walker–I have him ranked 16th here because 15 candidates are still in the race, but honestly, the chances of him jumping back in at some point, or getting drafted from the convention and winning the nomination, are higher than those of the “Tier 4” candidates below.
Tier 4: The Hopeless No-shots
15. George Pataki (Ranked last in July)–He’s polling better than numbers 13 and 14 (meaning, his 0.3 average is better than 0.2 and “not registering”), but as the only pro-choice candidate in the field, he does not have a chance of winning the Republican nomination.
14. James Gilmore (Ranked next to last in July)–At least Pataki made the last afternoon debate.
13. Lindsey Graham (Ranked third to last in July)–I loved his second debate performance, but his boasting of pragmatic politics and cross-party legislating is not en vogue in the year of Trump, Carson, and the resigning John Boehner. Side note: these three candidates again ranking in the bottom three of the active field will be a rare case of me sticking to my July guns. A prominent case where I haven’t done so is . . .
12. Rand Paul (Ranked 5th)–Yikes. How did I think the Republican Party would go for this guy? Check out the trend in his favorable/unfavorable split among all polls (black dots are favorable numbers, reds are unfavorable):
Not a good trend. As I noted heading into the last debate and then confirmed by the debate itself, he has again switched gears and re-embraced his libertarian streak. What’s good for his conscience, however, is terrible for his campaign for the Republican nomination. He’ll hope that emphasizing his libertarianism will remind voters that he is the most consistent conservative in this race, but even if that were true, he is just too out of step with the Republican Party. Too much of the party actively dislikes him.
Tier 3: The Evangelical Long-shots
11. Rick Santorum (13)–He moves up two spots thanks to Walker withdrawing and Paul tumbling, but he’s no more likely to win the nomination than he was in July. His Iowa numbers are nowhere (he’s registering one percent in most of its polls), and he should not be counting on another surprise late surge like in 2012 because Iowans already know him this time and have said “not again.”
10. Mike Huckabee (12)–Both Santorum (2012) and Huckabee (2008) hit their absolute ceiling in their previous runs — a consolidation of evangelical voters, winning Iowa, then coming in second to a better funded, more mainstream, more acceptable candidate. That second place ceiling is even more unlikely now considering the evangelical competition this time around. His poll numbers are also looking pretty bad these day; in the last five national polls, he’s only hit 2 or 3 percent.
9. Bobby Jindal (10)–Yes, Bobby Jindal, currently polling 0.5 nationally, has moved up a spot to #9. He’s really just here by default. Santorum and Huckabee had their chance in the last two primaries. The voters know those candidates and are not falling for them again. Jindal might yet be the Santorum/Huckabee of 2016–a candidate that wins over Iowans in the last week or two of the campaign and then earns an “Iowa bounce” in the polls. It’s worth noting that his Iowa numbers have looked a bit more promising as of late; whereas the six Iowa polls between August 6 and August 30 had him hitting only 1 and 2, he has since earned 4 or 5 three times. Still, I have him ranked as a long-shot for a reason.
Tier 3a: The Inexperienced Wildcards
8. Ben Carson (8)–He hasn’t budged! That’s because nothing has changed in my mind; he’s merely in the midst of his turn at a surge. In my July entry on him, I noted that he had excellent polling numbers for quite some time. A lot of people in the party like the guy, so his inevitable pop was no surprise. Yet, I still think it’s only a brief love affair. I say now what I said then: “Will a requisite amount of Republicans really pull the lever next to his name and help a doctor with no political or military experience become the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most powerful and active military? I just don’t see it.”
7. Donald Trump (11)–I’d say my three biggest missteps of this primary have been 1) My over-rating of Scott Walker; 2) My over-rating of Rand Paul; and 3) my assumption that the Trump surge, which was already underway when I ranked him #11, wouldn’t last more than a month. Here we are, more than two months later, and he continues to lead all national, Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina polls. Sorry about that. Nevertheless, I STILL think he’s a collapse waiting to happen. Things turn south for every campaign at some point. When it happens to his, I think we’ll see a rapid drop-off. Another candidate overtaking him might do it. I can see him flip out, play the blame game, and look less presidential than ever. There’s a realistic scenario under which he drops out of the top tier then takes himself out of this race before getting embarrassed in Iowa.
6. Carly Fiorina (14)–Okay, okay, I’ve made four big missteps in this campaign. In July, I had already heard that Fiorina was running a solid campaign, but I never thought she’d convert that into a surge without making the big debate. What I didn’t realize was just how strong of a debater she would be in that first matinee one. She wasn’t just good in these debates; she was uniquely prepared. Her surge is well-earned. However, just like Carson and Trump, I don’t think the Republican Party gives the executive branch and all it entails to someone with no political experience. Meanwhile, her Hewlett-Packard record is mixed, to say the least. Her response at the debate to that accusation was excellent, but if she moves to the top of the polls, the media will take a relentlessly close look at it, and she’ll get hurt. Another cap on her potential is that I don’t think she’ll take the hard offensive against the actual front-runners in Tier 1. She’s in a great position to be the VP nominee (female attack dog against Hillary Clinton, and someone who can bring in outsider support), so she won’t want to burn any bridges in a desperate attempt to prolong the campaign.
Tier 2: The Buy Lows
5. John Kasich (6)–Kasich is putting all his chips into a New Hampshire basket. For a while, it was working. There was a stretch from the end of July to right before the debate where he hit between 9 and 15 in all New Hampshire polls. That included finishing second only to Trump a couple of times and consistently in the top three or four. His campaign is making two assumptions: 1) The anti-establishment surge, especially Trump’s, will fade as we get closer to serious voting; and 2) Jeb Bush will never gain the traction many were expecting. If those two things happen, Kasich can win New Hampshire. Assuming the Iowa winner is unpalatable to much of the establishment (Trump, Carson, Huckabee), Kasich becomes the experienced governor of a swing state around which it can rally. However, his last debate was flat and he dipped to 7 in the only post-debate New Hampshire poll we’ve seen. He also is delivering a moderate message that is not connecting with any Republicans outside of New Hampshire. If Bush’s moderate approach never gets going, it’s quite possible that Kasich’s won’t either.
4. Chris Christie (4)–STICKING TO MY GUNS, BABY! His write-up is similar to Kasich’s with some exceptions. While he’s also betting on New Hampshire, his numbers climbed there — from 2 to 5 points — after the second debate. Moreover, Christie is hitting all the conservative notes, giving him a higher upside. With Fiorina and Rubio, his second debate was a top three performance. The voters have taken notice, and his favorability rating has steadily climbed. Only two candidates with political experience are currently trending up. Marco Rubio is one, and Chris Christie is the other. We could be at the beginning of Christie’s slow climb. If he was a stock, he’d be dirt cheap and worthy of an investment.
3. Ted Cruz (7)–I keep meaning to write a column on Ted Cruz’s promising campaign. Next week. Promise. In short: watch out for Ted Cruz.
Tier 1: The Technical Favorites
2. Jeb Bush (1)–I really wanted to put him #1 again. When he and his SuperPAC eventually unload their massive treasuries on the airwaves and George W. hits the campaign trail and the non-politician surge inevitably ends, I want to say, “See? I never lost faith that Jeb Bush was the most likely nominee!” But as the weeks and months go by, it becomes increasingly clear that however competent he was as Florida’s governor, however much money he’s raised and insider support he has, it’s not translating to national success. He lacks charisma, he lacks authority, and he seems soft up on that debate stage. I’m not sure it’s something he can fix. It’s who he is. These traits took down Scott Walker, and they might take down Jeb Bush, too. (If he DOES mount a comeback, let’s forget this post ever happened.)
1. Marco Rubio (3)–While I’ve avoided buying into the Trump, Carson, and Fiorina surges and consider them transient moments of a long primary season, I am buying Marco Rubio’s rise. He’ll be the favorite of the hawk wing, he’s palatable enough to the Tea Party and establishment, he’s been excellent in the debates, and, considering his youth, passion, story, and residence in the election’s biggest swing state, he’s one of the best candidates to match up against Hillary Clinton, or any Democrat, in November. The only box he doesn’t check is that he works in Washington during an election cycle that favors outsiders, but he’s so strong everywhere else that once it comes time to actually vote, I expect the party to sober up and vote for someone with political and foreign policy experience. By no means is he the likely nominee, but at this point he has inherited from Bush the mantle of “least unlikely.”