Handicapping the 2016 presidential field

November 7, 2012

The 2012 election is behind us. Let the 2016 speculation begin! (Heck, if Jon Stewart can talk about it, why can't we!)

(As we wrote in "The Gospel According to the Fix", the line of demarcation between people who like politics and people who are obsessed with politics is that the former's eyes glaze over when talk of the next election begins soon after the end of the last election while the latter's eye take on a wolfish intensity that might scare some. And, yes, we just worked in an oh-so-natural plug for our book.)

With Obama's victory, 2016 will be a race without an incumbent president and, depending on what Vice President Joe Biden does (more on that below), we could be looking at a race as wide open as 2008 for both parties.

Here are the five most likely -- and strongest -- contenders for the Democratic and Republican nominations. They are listed in no particular order.

REPUBLICANS

* Chris Christie: The idea circulating in some conservative circles that Christie's kind treatment of President Obama during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy somehow led to Mitt Romney's loss is preposterous. (A look inside the exit poll numbers show that Romney's loss is directly attributed to the large structural problems the GOP has with Hispanics and women.) If Christie can win re-election next year -- and that's a big "if" given the possibility that Newark mayor and Twitter super hero Cory Booker might run -- he has a strong case to make for the GOP nomination. At that point he would be a two-term blue state governor with a demonstrated appeal to the conservative base and the party establishment. One worry for Christie: Does a close inspection of his record as governor take some of the shine off of him for conservatives?

* Jeb Bush/Marco Rubio: It's hard to see both Florida Republicans running in 2016 since Bush has long been a political mentor to Rubio. Given that relationship, Bush probably has the right of first refusal in the race but our guess is he stays away himself -- Jeb doesn't really love politics -- and instead plays a leading role in guiding Florida's junior senator through the process. In his speech at the Republican National Convention, Rubio showed that rhetorically speaking he is in a different class than his potential 2016 competitors -- delivering a speech that overperformed even the high expectations surrounding it. And, Rubio now has a real opportunity to try to lead his party to its next stage by pushing for a reassessment of the GOP's relationship (or lack thereof) with the Hispanic community.

* Bobby Jindal: The Louisiana governor seems all-but-certain to make a bid for president in 2016 and he's got a strong argument in his favor. He's Indian American (Republicans badly need non-white faces in top positions), he's compiled a decidedly conservative record as governor of the Bayou State and he's among the wonkiest members of his party. Jindal's time on the national stage hasn't exactly been filled with star turns -- his 2009 Republican response was super awkward -- but we've always been impressed with his ability to move seamlessly between politics and policy, a rare gift in politicians. 

* Paul Ryan: Mitt Romney, in his concession speech, said everything you need to know about his running mate's interest in national office;  "I trust that his intellect and his hard work and his commitment to principle will continue to contribute to the good of our nation," Romney said of the Wisconsin Congressman. Translation: Paul Ryan is running for president.  Ryan acquitted himself well in his brief time on the national ticket and in so doing raised his profile with donors and activists within the GOP.  His announcement that he would return to the House in 2013 to chair the Budget Committee suggests that Ryan will spend the next two years or so burnishing his reputation as the "ideas guy" within the GOP and, perhaps, as the most high-profile foil to President Obama and his policies.  

* Rand Paul: The Kentucky Senator will pick up the standard laid down by his father -- sort of like Robb Stark and Ned Stark -- and, in so doing, ensure himself at least 10-15 percent of the vote in every early-voting state in 2016. Those close to the Paul political world cast Rand Paul as Ron Paul 2.0; the son has all of the core beliefs of the father but with a much healthier dose of charisma and a willingness to occasionally couch his views in order to court skeptical voters. Dismiss Rand Paul at your peril; if he runs, we believe he has a clear path to the 2016 top tier.

DEMOCRATS

* Hillary Clinton: The race for the Democratic nomination begins -- and could end -- with what decision the soon-to-be former Secretary of State makes. If she runs -- and she has said she is not interested -- it's hard to imagine some of the people listed below making the contest. (Biden could be a notable exception.) Clinton would bring all of the strengths she had in 2008 -- money, organization, an incredible political brand -- with the added bonus that there's no Barack Obama-like figure waiting in the wings (at least not yet) to challenge her dominance. Nothing will move in this race until Clinton either gets in or makes an airtight decision to stay out.

* Joe Biden: Just in case you had ruled out the possibility of Biden running in 2016 -- he will be 73 on Election Day 2016 -- Biden reminded you of it while voting on Tuesday. Asked whether this was the last time he would cast a ballot for himself, the Vice President smiled mischievously and said "No, I don’t think so." If the best indicator of wanting to run for president in the future is having run for president in the past, then Biden qualifies since he has run for the top spot in 1988 and 2008. Biden would have the benefit of semi-incumbency going for him and has always had a top-tier team of political professionals who have stuck with him through thick and thin in a political career that began way back in 1972. Biden's problems? One is named Hillary. The other is named Joe Biden. The Vice President's tendency to veer off script  would be a major issue if he decided to run in four years time.

* Andrew Cuomo: If Clinton and Biden stay out, the governor of New York starts the 2016 race as the frontrunner. (Yes, those are big "if's" but we are talking about a race that's four years away!) Cuomo has a lot going for him as a national candidate: 1) he's from a big and very Democratic state 2) He has already demonstrated an ability to raise lots and lots of money 3) He has a golden last name in American politics 4) He shepherded the New York same-sex marriage bill to passage in the state legislature, making him a hero to the gay community nationally 5) He is a political operative at heart, having played a lead strategy role in his father's various political machinations.

* Martin O'Malley: The governor of Maryland is, from all indications, the most "in" of any of the people on this list when it comes to 2016. O'Malley used his perch as the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association this cycle to boost his profile among reporters, donors and activists. (O'Malley was a near-constant on the Sunday show chat circuit.) Working for O'Malley is his record governing perhaps the most liberal state in the country, a top-tier (and experienced) consulting team and his own native political acumen (O'Malley was mobbed up in the Gary Hart presidential bids of the 1980s.) Working against O'Malley is the sense that he may be a poor man's Cuomo and that he isn't a proven commodity on the big national stage.

* Kirstin Gillibrand/Amy Klobuchar/Elizabeth Warren: If Clinton doesn't run, there will be an open spot for a woman in the field.  Gillibrand, who filled Clinton's seat in the Senate, seems the most ambitious of the trio mentioned above and could theoretically raise the sort of money she would need to be viable. Would she run if Cuomo, her mentor, ran? Probably not. Warren, who was elected to the Senate from Massachusetts on Tuesday, seems uninterested in running for president, at least according to her political people, but is a rock star among the liberal left and, as she demonstrated in her Senate race, can raise money like few other people in the party. Klobuchar isn't a household name nationally but all she does is continue to wrack up massive margins in the state of Minnesota; she was re-elected on Tuesday with 65 percent of the vote even as President Obama was winning with 53 percent in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. A presidential run would be a major step up for Klobuchar but everything she has done in her political career to date would suggest she could make the leap.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · November 7, 2012