An Early Look at the 2016 Contest

by James J. Zogby Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute 03.02.2015

The election season has just begun and for those who have a consuming passion for presidential politics, the 2016 cycle promises to be a delight. A few months back, pundits were writing about the likelihood of a Hillary Clinton/Jeb Bush contest, but that speculation was clearly premature. While it appears that Mrs. Clinton will have little trouble winning the Democratic nomination, should she decide to run, the GOP contest is shaping up as a free-for-all.  

Polls are showing Clinton far and away as the strongest Democrat, with some saying that she is the only Democrat with a chance for the party to hold onto the White House. There are worries expressed about her "likability" or her positions on various issues, but these concerns fade when she is compared with her possible opponents. Those who have hinted that they may also run in the Democratic primaries are all individuals with solid credentials, but none of them appear to have the magic of a Barack Obama or a compelling enough personality, biography, or political platform that would elevate them as national contenders. 

The only Democrat who might appear as a serious challenger to Mrs. Clinton is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. She has a powerful progressive and populist message that made her the go-to star for Democrats running in 2014. Many compare her ability to excite voters to Barack Obama, but Warren has insisted that she will endorse Clinton and will not run against her.  

Without a strong opponent, Clinton will still face challenges from her party's liberal wing. Her organization and campaign war-chest should help her emerge victorious. In addition to her experience, she has, of course, the added assets of a husband who remains one of the most beloved figures in the Democratic Party, and the fact that her very candidacy will be seen as a breakthrough for the nation. 

Democrats want to win, and with a resume that includes being First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State, Clinton is seen as a hands down winner—if she runs. And all signs point to the fact that she will. Her supporters have already built a national network of millions of donors and she has assembled an all-star team of campaign professionals who are advising her and planning strategy for a quick primary win.

While the Democratic contest appears to be a lock for Clinton, Republicans suffer from a wealth of riches with more candidates suggesting they may enter the race daily. Those who have already taken some steps toward mounting a campaign or are hinting that they will so include: former Florida Governor Jeb Bush; former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee; New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker; former Texas Governor Rick Perry; and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. They are joined by Senators Rand Paul (Kentucky), Mario Rubio (Florida), Lindsay Graham (South Carolina), and Ted Cruz (Texas). Add to this list: former New York Governor George Pataki, surgeon Dr. Ben Carson and former Hewlett Packard CEO, Carly Fiorina. The contest is wide open, with a glut of candidates representing the various competing wings of the GOP.  And therein lays the problem; with too many candidates competing for support from the same groups of donors and voters, the race could get ugly very quickly.

Until Friday when he decided against making another run for the presidency, Mitt Romney has an insignificant lead in early polling largely due to his name recognition from his failed 2012 bid. The other serious contenders (Bush, Christie, Walker, Paul, Cruz, and Rubio) are bunched together. 

What's interesting is that the strengths of many of the leading candidates are also their weaknesses. Though Jeb Bush is seen as the brighter and more capable son the former President, but with the country suffering from "Bush fatigue" some view this "dynasty" connection as a liability. Christie has a strong and compelling personality, but too often his brashness gets him in trouble. Paul inherits his father's fervent libertarian following, but as he has attempted to distance himself from his father's positions some feel that he has lost his clarity. Cruz is known as a brilliant debater and a cunning self-promoter who knows how to play to a crowd and get headlines. But he has alienated many colleagues who see him as more of an irritant than a leader. This leaves Scott Walker. Though not well known nationally, he is a solid conservative who could be the Republican "dark-horse" candidate. At the same time, being less well known than the other "establishment candidates" (Bush, and Christie) and the other "social conservative" candidates (Huckabee, Cruz, and Santorum) puts Walker at a disadvantage in the early race for money and supporters.  

In addition to struggling to both define themselves in such a large field and raise the money necessary to compete, the Republican candidates must also contend with the problem posed by their hardline conservative electorate who increasingly demonstrate intolerance for candidates who don't “toe the line”. A combination of Tea Party activists, anti-immigration crusaders, and social conservatives from the Christian right will play a dominant role in the early Republican contests. With candidates like Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz in the mix, all of whom will play well with this crowd, the more mainstream conservative candidates will have their hands full trying to hold their ground while not alienating these voters. The GOP winner is assured a handsome campaign war-chest for the November, 2016 election—but he must first run the gamut of the primaries hoping to emerge unscathed and still electable.


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