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Eye On Candidates
September 24, 2015

A Unique GOP Campaign

A couple of articles this morning look at some of the unusual elements of the 2016 Republican presidential campaign. In the Washington Examiner, James Antle suggests the race is breaking new ground:

Republican White House race moves into uncharted territory

Something unprecedented is going to happen in the Republican presidential race next year. That's not a prediction of a specific outcome, but a statement of fact about the options available.

The modern Republican primary process has never produced a nominee like Donald Trump, or for that matter Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina. When I wrote my Washington Examiner magazine piece outlining how several GOP candidates could win the nomination and beat the eventual Democratic nominee, I didn't even include a path to victory for any of these three. I did include the recently departed Scott Walker….

Antle notes that Wendell Willkie, the Republican nominee in 1940, was the last business executive with minimal political experience to be nominated by the GOP, but that his nomination was the result of the old “smoke-filled backrooms” that decided things in those days, not the popular support that Trump, Carson, and Fiorina are to varying degrees relying on in their quest for the nomination. Carson and Fiorina would also break ground as the first black and first female nominee, respectively.

Assuming none of these three manage to capture the nomination and it instead goes to one of the more conventional candidates, Antle suggests this too would be unprecedented for other reasons:

Alternatively, Republicans could still turn to one of the more conventional politicians in the race. The establishment candidate, who usually wins the nomination, is still alive. If Jeb Bush never takes off, there remain at least two alternatives for the establishment mantle (John Kasich and Chris Christie) and at least one candidate who could straddle the conservative-establishment line (Marco Rubio).

That would be a familiar alternative. But at this point, it would still require something unusual. Bush and Rubio are mostly polling in the mid-to-high single digits… Christie and Kasich are in the low single digits.

A typical Republican nominee is usually ahead of where Rubio is at his highest point, much less his 7.3 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average. And that's nationally. In Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where there will actually be binding primaries and caucuses, Rubio is doing worse.

I single Rubio out not because he is doing especially poorly, but because by some metrics he's doing the best of the politicians still in the race. Bush is doing a bit worse nationally, a little better in some early states. You can find a few random polls where John McCain fell into the single digits before winning the nomination in 2008, but those look like outliers. Even at his campaign's 2007 low point, he was usually in the double digits and not infrequently in the high teens or better.

Candidates polling as low as Christie and Kasich are right now have made it all the way to second place (Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, even George H.W. Bush in 1980) but never first. Nobody polling as low as the politicians still in the GOP race has ever won the Republican nomination during the modern primary process. So while it would be normal for someone of that background to win, in this field it would still require somebody to do something that hasn't really been done before.

Over in Politico an article notes another somewhat unusual thing about the 2016 race – the generally poor performance of governors:

This was supposed to be the election where there was no question about who would lead the 2016 Republican ticket — a governor, drawn from the deep pool of current and former state executives coveting the Oval Office….

Yet of the nine current and former GOP governors who entered the presidential race, only one, Jeb Bush, comes close to top-tier status at the moment. Two of them — former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — dropped out after brief and dismal candidacies. Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, John Kasich of Ohio and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana are polling below the presidential Mendoza line; former Govs. Jim Gilmore of Virginia and George Pataki of New York are even lower — so low that they are assigned asterisks, rather than numbers, in the latest CNN poll….

"Governors made great presidential candidates because they're chief executives who know how to run a government. But that's not what Americans seem to be wanting these days," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012. "Most people look around and see that everything is broken right now with no obvious path to stability. They think our political class is corrupt. Ultimately, voters will have to decide if they want someone who has the experience of public office or roll the dice on an untested and untried candidate."

All is not lost for the remaining governors in the race, of course. Several people interviewed for the Politico piece still believe voters will be drawn to candidates with executive experience as the voting starts:

"If you come back to me in mid-January and it’s the same thing, I’ll be damn surprised," said Austin Barbour, who helmed a now-defunct super PAC supporting Perry. "Republican primary voters right now are screaming that they’re mad at Washington — rightfully so. They’re going to these three never-elected officials, but I just think it’s really, really early."

Republicans like Barbour are convinced that once the outsiders receive more attention and become better known, they'll be supplanted by more experienced officeholders.

"I do think, in the end, it will be probably a governor or a former governor who we turn to as a party," said Ron Kaufman, a Republican National Committee member from Massachusetts who supports Bush. "Everyone was ahead of [2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney] early on in the polls because the bar for Mitt was so incredibly high and the bar for everyone else was so incredibly low."

It is worth noting that, for those voters who place a priority on executive experience in assessing presidential candidates, some may be satisfied that Trump and Fiorina have business backgrounds that are equivalent to being a governor. But the fact that the first two candidates out of the race were governors and those remaining are polling in the middle to the absolute bottom of the pack is unusual.

Another unprecedented element of the 2016 race, of course, is the large field of candidates, most of whom are experienced, serious candidates with messages and records that appeal to at least some key constituency of the modern GOP.

Every presidential nomination is sui generis of course, but 2016 has an especially high number of odd elements and is likely to be more unpredictable than past nomination fights.