WASHINGTON — Barack Obama still has just under three years left in his presidency but you wouldn’t know that from the activities of Washington’s political elite. Their focus has already turned to this November’s midterm congressional elections and, increasingly, to the 2016 race for president. This may seem early to some but U.S. presidential campaigns have begun earlier than ever in recent years as prospective candidates assess their chances for winning and fundraising. This is particularly true for Republicans considering a run for the White House in 2016.
Democrats are frozen in place waiting for word from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. If she runs, as many Democrats hope and expect, it would appear the party nomination is hers for the asking. If she doesn’t, all hell could break loose. Vice President Joe Biden would get a new lease on his political life and we would hear an awful lot about little known Democrats like Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and former Montana governor Brian Sweitzer.
As for the Republicans, for the first time in a long time there is no clear frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination two years from now. Combine that with an ongoing power struggle within the party between mainstream leaders and insurgent Tea Party groups and you have the makings for an all-out struggle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party playing out during the 2016 presidential primaries. At this point it seems anywhere from eight to 12 Republicans are seriously considering a presidential bid in 2016 and while many of them seem longshots now, we have seen candidates in the past who have emerged from relative obscurity to win the highest office in the land.
John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a longtime observer of Republican Party politics, sees the 2016 presidential field as the most unpredictable and wide open in decades. “It depends a bit on how the conservative base is unified or divided and I think right now it is a relatively wide open race for seven or eight players to potentially rise to the top.”
Nominees from nowhere
In 1975, my college roommate was eager to work on a Democratic presidential campaign and took a call from an obscure former southern governor recruiting volunteers to work in some of the northeastern states. I was able to listen in on an extension as a man with a thick Georgia drawl began his pitch, “Hi Steve. This is Jimmy Carter.” Steve was excited but I wondered how an unknown was going to compete with better known Democrats like Morris Udall, Birch Bayh, Henry Jackson, Lloyd Bentsen and Sargent Shriver. Carter of course went on to win the 1976 election, defeating President Gerald Ford. He also blazed a political trail followed by another little-known southern governor in 1992 by the name of Bill Clinton.
Historically, Democrats have been more likely to nominate a relative unknown than Republicans. In addition to former presidents Carter and Clinton, Democrats also nominated George McGovern in 1972, Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Barack Obama in 2008. Republicans have generally been more orderly if you trace the genealogy from Richard Nixon to Gerald Ford to Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush to Bob Dole to George W. Bush to John McCain and Mitt Romney. As former President Clinton once said “Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line,” when it comes to picking their presidential candidates. But that may be turned on its head in 2016.
Republican dark horses
Many will consider former Florida governor Jeb Bush a frontrunner for the Republican nomination should he decide to run. Other mainstream Republican favorites include New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2012. Christie was seen by establishment Republicans as their best hope to reclaim the White House in 2016 before he got entangled in a political scandal in New Jersey brought about when some of his aides orchestrated several days of traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge, allegedly out of political revenge. Ongoing investigations could cloud Christie’s political future for months.
With no clear frontrunner for 2016, many Republicans are thinking about joining the fray. In the category loosely described as Tea Party favorites you can include Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Several governors are in the mix including Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, John Kasich of Ohio and maybe Mike Pence of Indiana. There’s another group of previous candidates who may make another try including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.
No shortage of potential candidates but also very little clue as to how Republican primary voters will react in 2016. Could an outsider like Rand Paul win over enough mainstream Republicans to become the nominee? Can Jeb Bush win over Tea Party supporters given his moderate views on immigration? Can Chris Christie win back some of the trust he’s lost because of the scandal in New Jersey? Could an unknown like Bobby Jindal or Scott Walker really capture the Republican nomination and then the presidency?
At the moment it looks as though much of the 2016 debate is likely to focus on domestic issues. In part that’s because a rough consensus has emerged in public opinion polls that Americans are tired after more than a decade of military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Carroll Doherty with the Pew Research Center says this sentiment seems to cut across party lines. “What is surprising to me in the polling is the non-partisanship of the public’s attitudes on foreign policy. Republicans and Democrats both want the United States to be less engaged in the world geopolitically. In terms of military approaches to problems, the decade of war has really taken a toll on the public’s psyche and there is just no interest for that kind of military intervention in most cases.”
Who emerges as the Republican nominee in 2016 is important because given historical trends the party should be competitive for the White House two years from now. Beginning with Dwight Eisenhower’s first election in 1952, it is rare for one party to hold the White House more than two consecutive terms. It’s happened only once since then—in 1988 when Vice President George H. W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan to keep the White House in Republican hands for three straight terms.
Democrats may like the odds for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but she could face plenty of headwinds if she runs including President Obama’s low approval ratings, the split in the country over the Obamacare health care law, and what could be a strong desire for change among Republican and independent voters. So it may be worth paying close attention to the emerging Republican field for 2016. They include several little-known figures that may or may not ready for the political big time. But if history is any guide, it’s at least possible that someone we currently know relatively little about could wind up taking the oath of office as the 45th President of the United States on January 20th, 2017.