It’s still two years before the next president takes the oath of office, but the contest that will determine who raises his right hand that day started in earnest last month for Republicans, with a grassroots gathering in Iowa and a meeting of high-dollar donors in California.
With that, it’s time for my highly anticipated ranking of the Republican primary field. Okay, okay—that might be a stretch. These are probably unanticipated rankings. But with the Iowa caucuses less than a year away Republicans across the country are already abuzz about the possibilities. The assessments below are based on dozens of conversations with grassroots conservatives in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina; with Republican officeholders at virtually every level of government; with national Republican strategists, fund-raisers, and operatives; with advisers and consultants to the emerging campaigns; and in several cases with the candidates themselves.
So in reverse order—from least likely to most likely—here’s a look at the prospective GOP nominees.
Donald Trump. Trump seems convinced that there is a groundswell of support for a Trump White House. And he seems confident, well, about pretty much everything. “Over the years I’ve participated in many battles and have really almost come out very, very victorious every single time,” he once said. “I’ve beaten many people and companies, and I’ve won many wars. I have fairly but intelligently earned many billions of dollars, which in a sense was both a scorecard and acknowledgment of my abilities.” Clown show.
Paul Ryan. The Wisconsin congressman and 2012 vice presidential nominee has taken himself out of the race. He still has a better chance of being the nominee than Donald Trump.
George Pataki/Bob Ehrlich. Former Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich lost to Martin O’Malley by 14 points in 2010, a very favorable year. Any thought that Maryland was simply unwinnable for a Republican was invalidated in 2014, when a relatively unknown GOP activist named Larry Hogan defeated heavily favored Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown 51-47. It’s unclear what George Pataki, another former governor, could possibly be thinking.
Lindsey Graham/John Bolton. If Lindsey Graham decides to run, he will do so largely to ensure that a hawkish, internationalist approach to national security issues remains part of the debate. The same is true for John Bolton. They are different kinds of hawks. Bolton is harder-edged and less taken with democracy promotion than Graham, a more eager soft-power interventionist. They differ on other issues, too (interrogation, immigration, and gay marriage, to name a few). Neither man will be the nominee, but if either one appears in debates next fall, his presence will be sure to boost the foreign policy content of the proceedings.
Carly Fiorina. The former Hewlett-Packard executive in 2010 lost her bid to serve as senator from California, an unfriendly state to Republicans even in a good year for the party. She’s highly intelligent and has a lot of money but little chance of catching a wave. This feels like a play to make sure (a) Republicans have a smart woman in the debates, and (b) Fiorina is considered for a top position in a future GOP administration.
Rick Santorum. The 2012 Iowa caucuses went to Santorum for two reasons: His social conservatism was attractive to like-minded voters, particularly in the northwest part of the state, and he wasn’t Mitt Romney. Santorum is still not Mitt Romney, but with several viable candidates in the field this time, that won’t take him nearly as far as it did in 2012. As a champion of social conservatism, Santorum will be competing with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee for the same political space. If Santorum couldn’t win the nomination in 2012 with a very weak field, it’s hard to see how he wins in 2016.
Ben Carson. The accomplished neurosurgeon is wildly popular with the conservative grassroots. As Fred Barnes reported in these pages, Carson’s book outsold Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices by nearly 100,000 copies. He talks to voters like a normal person and emphasizes a kind of everyday common sense that is in short supply in Washington. But his main asset may also prove to be his main liability. A little political incorrectness can be refreshing, but only a little. Carson has said that living in the United States under Barack Obama is “very much like Nazi Germany.” No, it’s not. But when he was asked whether he stood by his assessment, Carson wouldn’t back down.