Guide to the 2016 GOP Primary Part I: The Frontrunners

by incomparablyjonah

On Thursday night, seventeen Republican candidates faced off in the first debate showcasing what is, despite the candidacy of Donald Trump, the most formidable Republican field assembled since 1980. Since the number of candidates is somewhere between a baker’s dozen and the amount of sons sired by a certain Mitchard “Mitt” Romney, it can get hard to keep track of who they are and what they stand for. Because American politics is my sport of choice, I have spent an inordinate amount of time studying this race. As I check GoogleNews each morning, I’ve read at least one article a day concerning the election since 2013. As I write this now, I realize that I probably could have used that time to something more productive, like, say, curing AIDS or something. Anyways, let my wasted time go to your benefit. This is a four-part exhaustive guide to the 2016 GOP candidates. Who they are, what they stand for, how can they win, why are they running, and what I think is going to happen. Given the length of these articles, you can choose to read it all, or just brush up on the candidates you’re interested in but not familiar with. Following the first Democratic primary debate, I’ll write an article on the Democrat race.

Obviously I’m using my personal opinion in many of these assessments. You will no doubt disagree with my take, and many of my insights may prove to be wrong. I’m just an observer with many opinions and a bit of snark.

I’ll list the candidates by order of their likelihood of winning the nomination. This guide will be divided into four posts, each dedicated to a separate tier of candidates. The frontrunners with a clear shot at the nomination. Second, the dark horses, who have no clear broad base of support, but have the capacity to reach the top tier should a frontrunner stumble. Third, the players, who may have better poll numbers than the dark horses, have cash and name recognition, and even might win some state primaries, but due to their ideology, have no chance at winning the nomination. Lastly, the Issue Candidates, Also Rans, and Spoilers. Candidates who run to raise awareness on an issue, expand their political stock, or sell books. They won’t win the nomination, and most of them know that. Or maybe they’re just delusional.

The Frontrunners

  1. Jeb Bush

jeb announce

Age upon taking office: 63

Funds raised: $120 Million [1](a fundraising record[2]).

National polling average: 12.5%[3]

Campaign quote: “My message will be an optimistic one because I am certain that we can make the decades just ahead the greatest time ever to be alive in this world.”[4]

Who is he?

John Ellis ‘Jeb’ Bush is the brother of President George W. Bush, and was governor of Florida from 1998-2006. During his re-election, he won with over 61% of the Hispanic vote[5]. He calls himself a ‘consensus building pragmatist conservative,’ and is something of a policy wonk, being more comfortable quoting numbers from studies rather than firing up a crowd. His last campaign was in 2002, in a world with no twitter, no Facebook, no American troops in Iraq, and where no one had heard of Barack Obama.

What does he stand for?

Jeb Bush’s overall government philosophy is one of reform; if a program doesn’t work, it should be fixed, or made to work better. As Governor of Florida, he lowered taxes every year, reduced spending by over $2 billion, gave Florida its highest possible bond rating, oversaw a balanced budget[6], and presided over a time where Florida produced more jobs than any other state in the country[7]. He is anti-gun control[8]. He is pro-life[9], and defunded Planned Parenthood in Florida[10]. On Health Care, he supports the repeal of the ACA (Obamacare), and wishes to replace it with an unidentified private sector scheme. [11]He oversaw the protection of Florida wetlands, and believes that humans contribute to climate change. [12]On education reform, he prides himself over his support of school vouchers, charter schools, performance based teacher pay, and higher standards for students[13]. His campaign’s slogan is a ‘Right to Rise.’ Bush has set out a two-term goal of 4% GDP growth[14], and 19 million jobs[15]. Bush argues that his record in Florida, and America’s past success in the 20th Century, should give Americans hope that they can accomplish great things, and that this is the ‘greatest time to be alive.[16]

How can he win?

By and large, Bush has the most conventional path to the GOP nomination. He, like his father, his brother, John McCain, Bob Dole, and Mitt Romney before him, needs to position himself as the most electable, and somewhat ‘inevitable’ candidate, who is moderate enough to win the general, but conservative enough to satisfy primary voters. The Iowa Caucus, with its voters preferring their candidates waving bibles or feasting on county fair corn dogs (or the occasional fried opossum, another Iowa must-have eat, if it’s done the right way), is a tough battle for the policy oriented Jeb, so he’d be best to devote his resources elsewhere and lower expectations, like McCain did in 2008. If he wins New Hampshire, where he currently is a frontrunner, he will be well positioned to win in Nevada, a state with many moderate and Hispanic voters, and South Carolina, which despite its sharp conservative bent, has been friendly to fellow Southerner Jeb. After that, with his vast war chest, he will be in a prime position to dominate Super Tuesday and the litany of March contests that follow.

Why is he running?

Bush thinks he can be President. He is tired of pessimistic assessments that America is in a global power in decline. Just as significantly, he is weary of watching his party alienate voters by their increasingly dogmatic stances on issues like immigration. He has passed on Presidential bids before; this is his last chance to do something in politics.

What’s going to happen?

He is currently the most likely Republican nominee. He has the money to be competitive, and he has proven to be an energetic campaigner. Many pundits cite ‘Bush fatigue’-the unwillingness of voters to treat the Presidency like a proverbial Iron Throne to be passed between warring families. However, Clinton’s presence in the race, and Bush’s continued efforts to cast himself as a forward looking candidate, seem to undercut that argument. There are also concerns that Bush is not conservative enough; a surprising charge that is indicative of the GOP’s lurch to the right, given that Bush is a tax cutting, pro-life, pro-gun Southern Governor. However, rather than pander to voters, Bush has defended his stances on Common Core and immigration, adding that he understands if voters don’t agree with him on everything. It’s a smart move; voters prefer candidates to be honest about their views rather than shift their positions to fit their audience (see Romney, Mitt). Furthermore, so long as Trump is in the race as a frontrunner, he will suck oxygen and media time away from lower candidates, like Rubio or Kasich, who could both otherwise seriously threaten Bush’s position. For many voters, this leaves them with a resigned choice of Trump or Bush. That’s exactly a choice Bush wants voters to make.

  1. Marco Rubio


Age upon taking office: 45

Funds raised: $42 Million[17]

Polling average: 6.2%[18]

Campaign quote: “My father stood behind a small portable bar in the back of a room for all those years, so that tonight I could stand behind this podium in the front of this room.”[19]

Who is he?

Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, was the Speaker of the House of Florida Representatives for five years, and was a political ally of then Governor Jeb Bush, who was something of a mentor[20]. Rubio beat RNC backed Governor Charlie Crist for the GOP nomination for an open Florida senate seat in an upset, and became one of the youngest Senators in the country. He has never lost an election[21].

What does he stand for?

While Rubio was elected with the Tea Party tide of 2010, he soon positioned himself as a forward thinking legislator who was willing to cooperate with Democrats. He tried and failed to pass bipartisan immigration reform, and after backlash from his party, has since lurched to the right. In his campaign, Rubio has draped himself with Kennedy-esque language, discussing a need to look towards the future and dare to build a ‘New American Century,’ and how this election must ‘not be about what government can do for you, but what together we can do for America[22].’ He has proposed lowering income taxes to two rates of 25%, and 15%, and has also proposed to cut corporate taxes[23]. He has expressed support for cutting spending and reforming entitlements[24], but has not given specifics, and has also stated that he supports increased defense spending. On immigration, he supports a fifteen year pathway to citizenship, but says that the border must be secured first[25]. He signed the Senate letter to Iran indicating that he will work to undermine President Obama’s nuclear deal[26]. Rubio wishes to repeal Obamacare, and replace it with tax credits for healthcare spending[27]. He is pro-life[28], and does not believe same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. [29]He is pro-expansion of gun rights. He voted to extend the Patriot Act, voted against the Violence Against Women Act[30], and does not believe humans contribute to climate change[31].

How can he win?

Marco Rubio is currently a candidate without a constituency. Moderates have gone to Bush and Kasich and are wary of Rubio’s stances on climate change and same-sex marriage, while conservatives believe Rubio to be weak on immigration and have defected to Walker, Trump, and Cruz. However, in many polls, he is a plurality of voters’ second choice[32], and fares well in general election polls against Clinton. He will need to cast himself as a generational candidate, almost a Kennedy or Obama figure, while at the same time showcasing that he has the policy knowledge to be one of the smartest candidates in the room. His spot between Bush and the right, while disadvantageous now, gives him a clear opening to unite the party. He will need to continue his strong debate performances, and perform well enough in either Iowa or New Hampshire, and then win in either SC or NV to give his campaign momentum, something that, with his funds and rhetorical skills, he is capable of doing.

Why is he running?

Marco Rubio believes he can be President. He gave up a second term as Senator and is choosing compete with fellow Floridian, Jeb Bush, his political mentor. In his announcement speech, Rubio expressed how waiting his turn is not in his DNA, not when ‘America’s exceptional identity is at stake.[33]’ He also knows that, as a Latino from a swing state, a strong Presidential run could make him a great running mate, something Scott Walker has noted multiple times. [34]Make no mistake; Rubio is ambitious, and believes that, because of rather than in spite of his young age, this is the best chance he will have to become President. That’s why he is risking more than anyone else in order to win.

What’s going to happen?

From his announcement speech to the first debate, one thing is clear: Marco Rubio is the greatest communicator in the race, and has the greatest potential to transform both the Republican Party and America in profound ways. If Rubio wins the nomination, with his immense likeability and youthful charisma, it is hard to imagine him losing the general election to Clinton. However, none of this makes him a lock at winning the nomination, as without a clear base, he remains low in the polls, but importantly, many voters’ second choice. He will need to seize the spotlight currently monopolized by Bush and Trump; continuing his strong debate performances can help do just that. Already, the first post-debate national poll gave him a six point bump. His inexperience, in an era where voters largely distrust government, shouldn’t be a problem. Ultimately, Rubio’s campaign can end in two ways; he can remain everyone’s second choice, and, without an obvious base of support, sputter out after failing to win any of the four first states. Alternatively, Rubio can set himself apart as a generational candidate of change, unite the party, and sail to the White House on the currents of optimism. I do not know which one is more likely. The moment Rubio, like Obama or Kennedy, becomes a movement rather than a man, is the moment he will be ready to win the Presidency.

  1. Donald Trump


Age upon taking office: 70 (he would, if he served two terms, be the oldest President in U.S. history; his hair, however, would only be the sixth oldest).

Funds Raised: $1.9 Million [35](he is largely self-funding)

Polling Average: 22.8%[36]

Campaign Quote: “We need — we need somebody — we need somebody that literally will take this country and make it great again.”[37]

Who is he?

A reality TV star, a real estate mogul, and every liberal comedian’s dream.

What does he stand for?

Difficult to say. He has no public platform on his campaign website, and his policies are determined by whatever is on his mind in an interview. A decade ago, he expressed views in favor of abortion rights, gun control, and universal health care[38]. Since then, his views have largely changed. He has suggested a 0% corporate tax rate to boost growth[39], and believes social spending must be cut, though he has a secret plan to save social security, the details of which we can presume will come after the election[40]. He wishes to impose tariffs and protectionist policies [41]to punish foreigners who steal American jobs[42]. He wishes deport illegal immigrants and plans on building a wall on the border, and claims that Mexico will pay for the wall because he ‘says so’[43]. Trump believes that the Mexican government is purposefully sending immigrants to America, and that they are murderers and rapists, though some, he assumes, are good people[44]. Climate change, he declares, is a hoax[45], and Common Core is a disaster[46]. Obamacare should be repealed. [47]He has a secret plan to destroy ISIS, but he will not tell anyone what it is, because saving lives can wait[48]. He believes he can get better trade deals because he beats China all the time[49]. Above all, however, he wants to make this country great again!

How can he win?

He needs to keep doing exactly what he has been doing. The best leaders, the Lincolns, the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, appeal to the ‘better angels’ of our nature; our more idealistic, optimistic, or altruistic notions. However, from the day Socrates was sentenced to death in Athens, there has been a dark side of democracy; politicians have appealed to voters’ ignorance, bigotry, cynicism, selfishness, and their baser natures, and have won by doing so. These are the voters behind George Wallace’s American Party and Nixon’s Silent Majority. These voters are angry, loathe government, and are tired of a politically correct country that they believe needs to toughen up. Trump is playing to these voters’ anger, saying his outrageous statements because he knows there’s an audience for it.

Here’s why Trump is formidable: first, he has no future in the GOP, so he can say things that would end other candidate’s careers (such as calling John McCain not a real war hero[50]). Not being a politician frees him from those rules, and, ironically, years of conservatives sayung “government is the problem” had made Trump more trustworthy to GOP voters than actual conservatives in government. Second, the voters who like Trump aren’t voting for him in spite of his offensive statements; they’re voting for him because of it. Every conversation I’ve had with a Trump supporter, they’ll tell me they like him because he ‘tells it as it is.[51]’ Other candidates calling on Trump to apologize just strengthens his image as a man willing to ‘tell hard truths.’ The media saying Trump is too right wing just makes him more popular with his base because they think the problem with the GOP is that they’re not conservative enough. That is precisely why after every single outlandish comment Trump has made this campaign, despite the outrage, his numbers have only gone up[52]. Further, while other GOP candidates are following the RNC’s 2012 autopsy that suggested they pivot towards the center, Trump knows that primary voters don’t care about the RNC or its autopsy reports. They view the GOP as a weak institution that allowed a black, Kenyan socialist to come into power and radically reshape America. Trump realizes that GOP voters have become more right wing since 2012, and more nationalistic since the rise of ISIS. If he continues this, and if the rest of the field remains fractured and starved for media attention, then yes, Donald Trump could become the Republican nominee.

Why is he running?

That’s the billion dollar, or perhaps in the case of Trump, nine billion dollar question. Perhaps it’s a publicity stunt to boost his name brand. Quite possibly, he is tired of being ridiculed as a joke after the Birther controversy, and wanted to gain leverage over the GOP by becoming a frontrunner with a constituency that gives him the power of Kingmaker if he threatens a third party bid. My best guess is that, after success in business and television, in his old years, he thought this would be an entertaining way to pass the time, even if it would be met with eye rolls from some circles. In short, this is his version of your grandfather buying one of those ‘Singing Fish’ to entertain house guests.

What’s going to happen?

Unclear, but given his standing in the polls and his penchant for breaking all rules of political predictions, you have to say he has at least a viable chance at winning the nomination. The historian would point out that ‘summer candidates’ regularly flame out by fall; just talk to Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, Wesley Clark, Phil Gramm, John Glenn, and a whole cast of other characters. It has yet to be seen if Trump’s recent comments directed towards Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, suggesting she was angry with him because she was menstruating, will hurt him in the polls (on a certain level, it would be a little sad that Trump making a crude and suggestive comment; not calling Mexicans rapists, not his anthology of bigoted statements, nor his utterly ridiculous political positions, would become the controversy that stopped his surge). [53]Perhaps if Trump is flanked on the right; if his litany of previous liberal positions becomes continually publically broadcast, will he then lose his supporters. They won’t leave him for being offensive or too conservative, for that’s what they love about him; they’ll leave once they realize he’s more of an opportunist than a conservative. However, it’s hard to imagine ‘The Donald’ ranking fourth in New Hampshire and dropping out after a bad Super Tuesday like just any old candidate. That’s something a ‘loser’ would do, to borrow one of his favorite words. I suppose that leaves him two routes; exiting the race before the voting begins due to ‘media bias,’ or, perhaps, not ending up like a ‘loser,’ and actually winning the nomination.

Conventional wisdom says that it’s going to be Bush or Rubio. However, I don’t know if this is a conventional election. With the direction the GOP has gone the past few decades, with phenomena like Limbaugh, Fox and Palin, and with Trump’s imperviousness to political gravity, I’m only more convinced of what I thought when I heard Trump’s announcement speech: I don’t know how he can lose.

  1. Scott Walker


Age upon taking office: 49

Funds raised: $26.2 million.[54]

Polling average: 9.5%[55]

Campaign quote: “Americans deserve a President who will fight and win for them.”[56]

Who is he?

Scott Walker is a two term Governor from Wisconsin, who won a bitter recall election on the same ballot Wisconsiners used to re-elect President Obama. He prides himself with his battles to decrease bargaining rights for unions[57]. He drives a Harley[58], was a college dropout [59], and his sandwich of choice is a Reuben.

What does he stand for?

Walker markets himself as a Reagan Republican who has won fights for conservatives. He balanced his state’s budget when he took office, but has since left his state with a deficit, and though he reduced taxes by over $2 billion, he didn’t create half the number of jobs he declared he would as Governor. In his campaign, he has expressed support for cutting taxes and spending, but hasn’t provided any specifics. On immigration, he used to say that a pathway to citizenship makes sense[60]; after seeing the beating Rubio and Bush took for similar sentiments, he has since opposed amnesty, but also opposed deportation, and oddly said that America had too many legal immigrants[61]. We await eagerly for him to complete his journey of self-discovery on the issue. He proposed a budget that defunded Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin, and says he is pro-life[62]. He wishes to repeal Obamacare, and refused ACA funds to expand Medicaid as Governor. He has a 100% NRA rating[63], favors vouchers for schools, supports a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage[64], believes it is unclear if humans have caused climate change, [65]and has said twice that he doesn’t know if President Obama is a Christian. [66]In terms of foreign policy, Walker has said that, since he was able to take on 100,000 union protesters, he could take on ISIS, [67]and that foreign policy requires leadership, not a PhD. [68]

How can he win?

Scott Walker is closer to the GOP base than Bush, Rubio, and (if you study his record) Trump. He has already painted himself as the ‘true conservative’ of the frontrunners. Now he needs to show that, more than being conservative, he’s a conservative who can win. Winning three elections in four years in a blue state certainly helps that argument. If he can win in Iowa, where he is already leading and appears to be the favorite, [69]stay in the mix in New Hampshire, and win in conservative South Carolina, he will be well positioned to win big on Super Tuesday, when conservative Southern and Midwestern states go to the polls.

Why is he running?

Walker’s political capital is at its height. He doesn’t have the temperament or policy acumen to turn to the Senate after his Governorship is done, so the Presidency is his best bet. Walker knows that, even in this talented field, he is both more conservative than most of the candidates while also appearing electable. Furthermore, Walker must know that a strong run, even if he loses, makes him-a tough conservative Governor from the Midwest-an obvious running mate for Bush or Rubio.

What’s going to happen?

Personally, I do not think Scott Walker will be the Republican nominee. He is a policy lightweight and is relatively boring; more debates will show that, and the first one already has; his numbers in Iowa have shown their first signs of slippage. However, as some of my high school debate friends can testify, I’ve been dead wrong on Scott Walker predictions before. Walker can soak up Trump’s supporters should The Donald flame out, and with his record, is positioned to hit Bush from the right. Rubio, as a younger, more charismatic rising star, remains a threat. Walker needs Rubio to be irrelevant if he is going to win. Walker wins the race if the race falls to a handful of candidates; say Bush, Trump, and perhaps Paul and Carson. In that race, Walker is the candidate who meets the equilibrium of most conservative and somewhat electable. The race Walker cannot win is one with a resurgent Rubio or a rising Christie, Perry, Cruz or Kasich. Walker cannot lose the mantle as either rising conservative star or a tough governor. I think the debates will continue to show his lack of depth, and he will fade. But I’ve been wrong about Walker before, so I can easily be wrong again.

Up next: the five dark horses of the race.