Despite the large, crowded field of candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, it is very possible that the ultimate choice has not yet officially entered the race. While the story for the Democratic nomination race is about challenges to the inevitable nominee, Hillary Clinton, the story on the Republican side is a wide-open race, with no inevitability despite some of the high profile Governors and Senators in the race.
The great challenge for the Republican candidates is to appeal to Republican primary voters without alienating or upsetting independent voters in swing states. In other words, it is more difficult for a candidate with deep appeal to Republican Party conservatives to position themselves on major policy issues where they are likely to appeal to a majority of general election voters. Recognizing this dilemma, Jeb Bush has proposed running a primary campaign that is no different from a general election strategy; in this vein, his policy positions have tended to be more moderate in the area of immigration, and he has demonstrated on many occasion his bi-lingual skills. On the other hand, Scott Walker has vowed to hold true to conservative principals and not moderate his views for a national audience.
At this time, the Real Clear Politics polling averages, at the national level, show Bush, with only 15 percent, holding a slight lead over the rest of the pack, but Donald Trump has seen a surge in recent polls by CNN and Fox News. Every candidate in this crowded field needs to separate themselves from the pack somehow; for Trump, his resume alone separates him from a long list of governors (current and former) and senators, but he has also made some inflammatory statements that have served to keep him the focus of major media outlets, for good or ill. For the other candidates, the debates may provide them the opportunity to set themselves apart from the field, provided that they make the cut to appear in debates.
While I am an avid followers of the polls, I’m not sure that the polling data have much to offer at this time in terms of predicting who the Republican nominee will be. If one factors margins of errors in the estimates, there may be several candidates with a lead among likely Republican primary voters. So we need to consider what other factors may allow a candidate to continue their bids for the nomination after Iowa and New Hampshire (and then again after South Carolina and Nevada). The silent primary—funds raised from contributors—is one data point that will separate the candidates. Although Jeb Bush leads the pack in the total raised to this point, Scott Walker has not been a candidate, officially, and has not had to declare. Of those who were declared candidates, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are just behind Bush. Apart from fund-raising, we can assess the networks built and the national reputation of the candidates. Based on this, I predict that Bush, Cruz, Rubio, Rand Paul, John Kasich, and Walker will still be viable candidates after the Nevada caucus. It’s likely that a few of the middle-tier candidates will also still be running, such as Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry. Consequently, the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary will not likely have the winnowing effect that they’ve had in the past. It’s going to be a long ride.
A quick methodological note:
The horse race question in the CNN/ORC poll read, “I’m going to read a list of people who may be running in the Republican primaries for president in 2016. After I read all the names, please tell me which of those candidates you would be most likely to support for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, or if you would support someone else. Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump or Scott Walker.” Of course, keeping with best practices, the order of the candidates’ names were randomized, but even with this, there has to be some concern for the recency effect—the propensity to choose the last option from a long list because it is the easiest to recall.