The Iowa caucuses are finally in sight — less than four months away. Voters there and in New Hampshire and other early states are starting to be hit by campaign ads, phone calls and door-to-door contacts.
With ordinary citizens in those places just beginning to tune in, and voters elsewhere still months away from paying attention, it’s too early for polling to predict much. But early October is a good time to stop and take a look at how the candidates are doing.
Up to this point, the only changes in my assessment of the Republican nomination race since last January have been to subtract those who have dropped out: Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, Rick Perry, Scott Walker. I have one minor change this time, but overall I see the race as surprisingly stable — with the Republican Party still waiting to collectively make up its mind.
Here’s my current ranking.
First tier: Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.
Let’s start with the case that Rubio is winning. The Florida senator has moved slightly ahead of the former Florida governor in polling averages after getting good reviews in both Republican debates so far. This doesn’t directly predict what voters will do, but the party actors — politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, donors and activists, party-aligned interest groups, and the partisan press — may act on the information anyway.
At this point, Rubio probably is a better match for the party on the issues than Bush is. His only real weakness among Republican primary voters is on immigration, which is, if anything, more of a problem for Bush. This makes it more likely that once Republican Party leaders decide, they’ll lean in Rubio’s favor. Some of Bush’s donors are said to be impatient for results, but it isn’t clear how seriously to take that reporting.
Now for the case that Bush is winning. He is leading in high-profile endorsements, which tend to predict nomination outcomes. Three current U.S. senators and 20 House Republicans support him. Rubio has only four endorsements from House members. By the scoreboard of statistics-driven news website FiveThirtyEight, he trails not only Bush but six other candidates as well. Bush also has the support of eight former governors (not including his brother), and a number of former senators and other party luminaries, as well as current state legislators.
Overall? The overwhelming majority of the Republican Party elite is still sitting on its hands. Harry Enten, a FiveThirtyEight writer, makes the case that Bush is failing to secure any (relatively) conservative support. And Rubio gained a little ground in September in gaining congressional support. Prediction markets (which have an uneven record) have the two basically even.
Second tier: John Kasich.
Kasich — a popular governor in a swing state with executive and national legislative experience — has solidified his spot as the grown-up available if Bush and Rubio falter. The case against him is that he has too many conflicts on the issues with important party groups, especially conservative activists. He might be this cycle’s Jon Huntsman, a moderate loved by the media but wrong for his party.
Third tier: Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, Rick Santorum.
Huckabee: Here’s where my minor change comes in. I’ve had Huckabee in the second tier up to this point, assuming his longstanding ties to Christian conservatives in Iowa would give him the best chance of winning the caucuses as a factional candidate. And he has picked up a handful of endorsements.
But there’s little sign so far he can prevent Ted Cruz, Ben Carson or Rick Santorum (and maybe others) from eating into his social conservative support in Iowa, and without that it’s difficult to see a path forward for him. Even if the former Arkansas governor rallies and wins Iowa, he’s unlikely to overcome the suspicions of business interests and other important players in the party.
Jindal: His strength is that he has no natural enemies within the party. If he had a public-opinion surge — and anyone can — he would suddenly look like a serious contender. His weakness, however, is that he has no friends either, or at least friends who want him to be the party’s nominee. He seems the most likely one to drop out next.
Christie: Oddly enough, the New Jersey governor is in second place in the FiveThirtyEight endorsement count (which emphasizes his endorsements from other governors), and he picked up some support in Iowa last week. But he is probably not conservative enough for his party, in addition to any other problems he has.
Santorum: If he somehow manages to surge at the right time, perhaps party actors will feel more comfortable with him than they did in 2012. But, as with Huckabee, the crowded Christian conservative field is a disaster for him, and he appears to be a step behind Huckabee.
That’s it. Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and five other candidates remain, but they either fail to have conventional credentials for the job or don’t hold a sufficient number of orthodox Republican positions. Or too many people just plain dislike them. Could one of them win? Only if I’m reading the evidence wrong. Or if what political scientists think they know about nominations is wrong. And so far, I see no sign of that.
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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him email at [email protected].
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