It’s 2016 (finally)! Iowa voters will head to their caucuses in four weeks. The country will pick a new president in about 10 months. It’s all happening, people.
Given all of that, it’s time to revisit my rankings of the candidates who could be the Republican presidential nominee. It’s a shrinking list but still far longer than that of the Democrats’ side, where it’s Hillary Clinton’s race to lose (still).
The candidate ranked No. 1 below is the most likely, as of now, to be the GOP nominee. And, for the record, I think it’s possible (if not probable) that we go into Cleveland for the Republican National Convention in July with no candidate with enough delegates to be the nominee.
1. Ted Cruz: The senator from Texas has been underestimated and underrated at every step of the primary process. No longer. Cruz is solidly in first place in Iowa and, barring some sort of unforeseen collapse, will win the first-in-the-nation caucuses. He also should run well in South Carolina on Feb. 20 and in the “SEC primary” on March 1. Cruz, thanks to Donald Trump, is now being seen in some GOP circles as a conservative, non-disastrous alternative to the real estate mogul. And, unlike other conservative insurgents of the past, Cruz has the money — in his campaign committee and in a constellation of super PACs backing him — to last for the duration of the race.
2. Marco Rubio: He has emerged as the establishment favorite, a designation made apparent by the number of major-dollar donors who jumped off the fence to be on his side over the past few months. The problem for Rubio is that he doesn’t have an obvious win among the first few states to vote. Iowa looks to be a lost cause — although maybe finishing first in the “establishment” primary might be enough? — and New Hampshire is a place where everybody is looking up at Trump. South Carolina may be Rubio’s shot — much of the senior command of his campaign is made up of Palmetto State operatives — but that’s not a given. The Nevada caucuses, where Rubio is a favorite, are Feb. 23; can he wait until the fourth vote to get a win?
3. Trump: The most likely scenario is that he finishes second behind Cruz in Iowa and wins New Hampshire. Where does that leave him? Who knows. Polling puts him ahead by double digits in South Carolina, but that state’s voters undoubtedly will be affected by what Iowa and New Hampshire do. And what does losing Iowa mean, if anything, for Trump’s psyche or how he is viewed by supporters? Does he get angry, redouble his efforts and actually start spending his own money? Or does he throw up his hands and walk away? I think the former is the more likely option. Trump loves what he has done in this campaign and has little to no interest in giving it up anytime soon.
4. Chris Christie: The New Jersey governor has fought his way back to credibility largely thanks to his intense focus on New Hampshire, where he has lavished attention over the past year. Christie spent a few days last week in Iowa, evidence that his campaign thinks he could sneak out a surprising showing (and crucial momentum) from the relatively open field behind Cruz and Trump in the state. Christie’s greatest asset is himself. He is a talented retail campaigner, which plays well in Iowa and New Hampshire. What remains to be seen is whether Christie can weather an attack on his administration’s politically motivated George Washington Bridge lane closures. That ad is coming from some opponent if Christie starts to look like a real threat to win New Hampshire.
5. Jeb Bush: How does Bush make this list after a 2015 that saw him go from front-runner to also-ran in the polls? Simple: money. His Right to Rise super PAC remains well-funded and is spending millions going after his opponents in Iowa and New Hampshire. My guess is that it won’t be enough — or close to enough — to save Bush from his biggest problem in this race: He just isn’t an energetic or, frankly, good candidate. Voters think they know what they are getting with Jeb, and they don’t want it.
6. John Kasich: The Ohio governor needs a moment in New Hampshire. Badly. After an early burst — in the Granite State and nationally — Kasich has essentially disappeared. Polling still puts him within striking range in New Hampshire, but it’s not clear that Kasich will have the money or the message to drive the sort of push he clearly needs. And even if he survives to fight another day post-New Hampshire, the calendar — larded with Southern states — looks to be decidedly inhospitable to him.
7. CarsoHuckorum: Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are all candidates of and for the social conservative movement, which is a dominant force in the Iowa caucuses and, to a slightly lesser extent, the South Carolina primary. All three, therefore, have a puncher’s chance of surprising people (as Huckabee did in 2008 and Santorum did in 2012) with a stronger-than-expected showing in Iowa. If I had to pick which of the three would be most likely to score that sort of breakthrough, I’d pick Huckabee — solely because of his candidate skills.