As of late March, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker were tied in national polls of Republicans (judging from the averages at RealClearPolitics). They are neck-and-neck in New Hampshire; Walker leads in Iowa and Bush in South Carolina. It’s a race without a clear front-runner, but with two candidates ahead of the rest.
Republican primaries usually follow a pattern. The party’s elected officials and big donors tend to cluster behind one or two candidates; activists who consider that “party establishment” insufficiently conservative split among several candidates; and the leading establishment candidate wins. But the anti-establishment tendencies of Republicans have been growing. Mitt Romney, running as the establishment candidate, won the nomination in 2012, but Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, running to his right, got more votes in combination in primaries they all contested.
This time Bush is the party-establishment candidate. But so far he has been even weaker than Romney was. At the end of March 2011, Romney was leading his nearest rival by seven points nationally, rather than tied.
Bush was something of a conservative hero when he finished his two terms as governor of Florida in 2007. (Now would be as good a time as any to note that my wife works for a political-action committee affiliated with Bush.) But memories of Bush have faded, and some conservatives are too new to politics to have them in the first place. Now he has the reputation of a moderate: a reputation based largely on his status within the party establishment, his advocacy of legal status for many illegal immigrants, and his support for the Common Core educational standards. A lot of conservatives even have the sense that Bush dislikes them.
That perception could change, and presumably changing it will be Bush’s key task right after he scares all the other candidates with his fundraising haul from the first quarter of 2015. If it does not change, it could, in combination with the widespread hostility to the idea of a dynasty, sink him.
Walker has enormous appeal to Republicans, having fought the public-sector unions in a historically progressive state — one that has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Reagan’s reelection — and won. Initially the knock on him was that he lacked charisma, but a speech at a January conference for religious conservatives in Iowa went over well and led to a rapid ascent in the polls. His support at the moment is unusually broad. It crosses over both the usual establishment–vs.–Tea Party and the occasional Evangelical-vs.-non-Evangelical dividing lines.
Since that ascent, though, Walker has stumbled a few times. A few comments blew up in the media. There was a vetting snafu involving an aide who was hired and then quickly fired. He gave the impression of equivocating on whether illegal immigrants should be able to become citizens — and giving that impression cannot have been his intention, even if he did, in fact, want to equivocate on the topic.
Breadth of support also carries a danger: It means that all the other candidates have a strong incentive to poach Walker’s supporters and criticize him. Bush and Evangelical-conservative favorite Mike Huckabee are generally not competing for the same voters, but both of them are competing with Walker. His broad support could also mean that Republicans with opposing views and tastes are projecting their preferences onto him, in which case some of them will probably be disappointed over time.
Walker is a conservative on social issues but has said he does not want to emphasize them. Sticking with that approach could cost him socially conservative voters, who would have to be part of any coalition to beat Bush; breaking from it could cost him other backers. The Iowa Republican caucuses have gone for an outspoken social conservative twice in a row (Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012). Walker, having declared himself the “front-runner” for the nomination in early March and coming from a neighboring state, probably has to win Iowa.
Neither Bush nor Walker has yet formally announced a run, which would cause campaign-finance laws to kick in. Senator Ted Cruz (an old friend of mine) became the first official candidate, and doubtless did so in part to keep from disappearing amid all the coverage of Bush and Walker. He made the announcement at Liberty University, an Evangelical school founded by Jerry Falwell. His strategy appears to begin with becoming the favored candidate of everyone who wants someone more conservative than Bush or Walker — which means eclipsing Huckabee, Santorum, and several others.
When a top aide left Marco Rubio’s staff in the fall, Republicans took it as a sign that Rubio was going to skip the 2016 race because there was room in it for only one Floridian, Bush. Now it looks like he is going to run after all. At the moment, conservatives who objected to his immigration bill seem to be letting bygones be bygones, perhaps because he has backed away from the bill, perhaps because opposition to Bush is absorbing their energy. If he comes to the fore, though, he will again draw fire.
One more senator, Rand Paul, is running. He has been moving toward Republican orthodoxy on national-security issues, even sponsoring legislation to boost defense spending. These moves seem to be costing him some of his old libertarian fans. Paul’s theory appeared to be that by being a more moderate version of his father, he could add to the latter’s base of support. He runs a risk, though, of subtracting more Paulites than he adds mainstream Republicans.
Chris Christie ended 2013 in a stronger position than the previous two Republican nominees were in at the same point in their electoral cycles, having won reelection by a big margin in a very Democratic state. But then came Bridgegate. The governor nearly disappeared from the national stage after that. At least as tough a blow came when Bush surprised people by talking about running. He drew away many of Christie’s potential donors. Christie’s fans say that he will shine in debate, but the first debate will not happen until August.
Perhaps he, and other candidates, can afford to wait. The early kickoff to campaign season raises the possibility that voters will be bored with the people being talked about from February through April and interested in someone new who jumps in come May. Ohio governor John Kasich, or Indiana governor Mike Pence, might be able to capitalize on that sentiment then.
So far, few of the candidates have fleshed out their policy agendas. The exceptions are Senator Rubio and, to a lesser extent, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. Several of the others could help themselves by following the example of these two. New ideas could let Bush present himself as his own man, not an echo of the past. Walker could use an agenda to acquire some needed heft. Christie could use one to make it clear that he is not running on his mixed bag of a personality.
Watching the candidates run will yield important information voters do not yet have. Can the senators, who have never run large enterprises, organize national campaigns? Can Walker, who has been his own top political strategist and communications director, delegate? Can Bush, who last ran in a real Republican primary 21 years ago, connect with a much-changed party? People who have worked on presidential races are fond of saying that “campaigns matter.” The question marks over the candidates may make that especially true this time.