Guide to the GOP Primary Part II: The Dark Horses

by incomparablyjonah

American politics, much like Telenovas, buffets, and discount fertility drugs, are full of all sorts of surprises. In 1844 the then unheard of James K. Polk won the Democratic nomination and the Presidency (from there he graduated to ‘not quite unheard of,’ a title he currently shares with Bill Paxton, and ‘people who go to Golden Corral and have no regrets’). That election, and not the similarly named Katy Perry song, gave birth to the term ‘dark horse,’ a surprise, come-from-behind winner. American presidential politics has known its fair share of dark horses: Polk, Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and Jimmy Carter are all examples of successful ones. In every election cycle there will be some candidate with that label who will earn much media speculation, and headlines with question marks, even if they fail to win (‘Can Santorum win?’ ‘Can Dean pull of an Iowa surprise?’ ‘President Herman Cain?’ The correctly answers are ‘no,’ ‘no,’ and ‘lol,’ respectively).

The 2016 Republican primary is unique insofar that there isn’t just one dark horse, or maybe two, but rather there are five candidates that fit that description. These dark horses aren’t leading any polls, and most (possibly even all) will fail to win any states. However, because of their immense personal talent, they have the potential to pull off a come from behind surprise win. In that respect, dark horses have low floors of support, so to speak, but high ceilings.

One final point of consideration: in primaries, candidates do not actually compete with every other candidate. They just compete with their rivals for their proverbial ‘lane.’ View the primary voters as lanes on a freeway. The Republican electorate this year can be effectively divided into four lanes; the establishment (held by Jeb Bush; past occupants have been Mitt Romney and John McCain), the outsiders (held by Donald Trump; past occupants include Ron Paul and Pat Buchannan), the evangelicals (held by Scott Walker and Ben Carson; past occupants include Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Pat Robertson), and the conservatives/Tea Party (held by Trump, Walker, and Cruz; past occupants included Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich). No candidate, not even Republicans’ beloved Saint Ronald Reagan, could possibly win all four lanes. However, with such a crowded field (17 candidates!), states are regularly going to be won with 25% of the vote or less. All a candidate needs to do to win the nomination is to dominate one of those lanes, and do decently well in another, before they have enough victories and momentum to get the entire party in line. Each of these dark horses has the potential to win one of these lanes or an early state; but they all have to slay one of their frontrunner rivals first.

Continuing the numeric rankings that began with The Frontrunners, I give you The Dark Horses:

  1. Ted Cruz

Age upon taking office: 45

Funds raised: $52.5 million[1] (behind only Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton).

National polling average: 5.8%[2]

Campaign quote: “This is our fight. The answer will not come from Washington. It will come only from the men and women across this country, from men and women, from people of faith, from lovers of liberty, from people who respect the Constitution.”

Who is he?

Rafael Edward ‘Ted’ Cruz is a Senator from Texas, serving his fourth year in office. He was a national champion debater for Princeton, served on George W. Bush’s legal team for Bush V. Gore, and later became the longest serving Solicitor General in Texas history. He considers himself to be a tea party conservative who stands for liberty. He has called his Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, a liar, and believes Republicans fail to win Presidential elections because they and are not conservative enough. He was born in Canada, but his father is Cuban. When he delivers his speeches, he typically will avoid Teleprompters or scripts and will simply orate from memory. He was the first candidate to enter the 2016 Presidential race.

What does he stand for?

Ted Cruz believes liberty in America has never been under greater threat, and that threat comes from Washington D.C. and President Obama’s administration. He says the U.S. Constitution is his ‘touchstone,’ and that it guides all of his views[3]. Cruz calls for an abolition of the IRS, and to replace the entire tax code with a single flat rate[4]. He wishes to slash government spending, and pass a constitutional balanced budget amendment[5] He gave a 21 hour speech to filibuster Obamacare[6], and later shut down the government in a vain attempt to repeal it.[7]In the wake of Sandy Hook and Navy Yard shootings, Cruz threatened to filibuster any gun control legislation, and to Iowan voters in the days after Charleston, told them to “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”[8] He is pro-life, and supports the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Cruz supports a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage[9], and compared marriage equality activists to fascists who target Christians[10]. He called the recent Supreme Court case legalizing gay marriage the ‘very definition of tyranny,’ called the majority judges ‘philosopher kings,’ and declared that “we should be horrified at the notion that five unelected judges can seize authority from the American people.” [11]Whether Cruz was horrified at five unelected judges giving George Bush the Presidency or allowing corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to his political campaign remains unknown. Cruz, the current Chairman of the Senate Science committee, believes climate change is a hoax, and compared himself to Galileo in standing up against the scientific community.[12] He opposes Common Core, supports congressional term limits, and opposes any pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.[13] He signed the letter to Iranian leaders to undermine President Obama’s negotiations, [14]and said that ISIS needs to be ‘bombed back into the Stone Age.” [15]

How can he win?

In what is the most conservative GOP primary field in history, Ted Cruz is the most conservative candidate, and his views are the most in line with the base. Currently, Cruz ranges between eighth to fourth place in most national polls. His current strategy has been to continue preaching his conservative message while other candidates rise and fall throughout the summer and autumn months. He declined to attack other candidates in the debate, and is the only candidate to defend Donald Trump. That’s the strategy Cruz should continue. With luck, Trump will flame out, and his supporters will defect to the conservative who stood up for their Donald. Cruz has already been slowly picking off supporters from the faltering Paul campaign. If he slowly builds up support, and then becomes more aggressive in the weeks leading into Iowa, with the establishment fractured between Bush, Rubio, Kasich and Christie, Cruz could consolidate enough of the Tea Party, Outsider, and Evangelical vote, win Iowa and South Carolina, and be well positioned to sweep the South on Super Tuesday. As there are far more conservatives than moderates in the GOP, the nomination is Cruz’s for the taking if he can solidify himself as the primary conservative alternative.

Why is he running?

Ted Cruz is genuinely worried about the future of this country; “the world is on fire,” as he hyperbolized to one soon to be traumatized young girl in New Hampshire (the world is on fire, according to the Senator, but the planet isn’t warming…oh never mind). Furthermore, the Senator knows this is his best chance to win the White House. He is both young and well known. His lack of government experience, with all the antipathy towards Washington, is an asset among Tea Party voters. Running later in his career, after he’s spent years in Washington, would hurt his brand.

What’s going to happen?

Cruz’s path to the nomination, uniting the conservatives while the establishment remains fractured, has been attempted before. Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan all seized the nomination in a similar manner. The trouble for conservative candidates, even talented ones like Cruz, is that they typically either face competition within their own conservative lane, a problem faced by Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in 2012, splitting their votes, or lack the funds to compete nationally, like Mike Huckabee in 2008. The first problem will be Cruz’s greatest challenge; he requires Trump and Walker to stumble, and cannot face competition from Carson, Huckabee or Paul. Unlike most conservative candidates, those three included, Cruz is impervious to fundraising troubles; at $50 million raised in less than two quarters, he has the third largest haul of all the candidates, including Hillary. That gives him the ability to go toe to toe with Bush or Rubio on Super Tuesday. Cruz’ candidacy can end in two ways; the likely way is that he becomes this cycle’s Gingrich, who, despite sharp debate performances, can’t consolidate the conservative vote, and while winning some Southern primaries, falls behind the frontrunners and becomes more irrelevant as the race goes on. There is another route for Cruz, however: with Trump in the race, Cruz can remain the most conservative candidate, but suddenly appears boundlessly more reasonable, strengthening his credibility. Then, if Rubio, Bush, Kasich and Christie split the establishment, so long as Cruz commands some 25% of the electorate, he can sweep primaries by a slight lead in votes, before getting enough momentum to seize the nomination. It is a testament to how scared the GOP establishment is that, while they’ve worry about the election of Donald Trump, they have forgotten to worry about the election of 2016’s Barry Goldwater.

  1. John Kasich


Age upon taking office: 64

Funds raised: $11.7 million[16]

National polling average: 3.5%[17]

Campaign quote: “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he’s going to ask what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.”[18]

Who is he?

John Kasich is the son of a mailman, a fact he will remind you of regularly (the phrase ‘son of a mailman’ also works as a satisfying expletive, for the record). He was elected as an Ohio congressman in 1982 and served 18 years in the House, becoming Chairman of the House budget committee, and worked with President Clinton to balance four budgets in a row, becoming the last Budget Chairman to preside over a balanced budget. He briefly ran for President in 2000 before leaving politics, only to return in 2010 and win the Governorship of Ohio. He won re-election with 64% of the vote, carrying 86 out of Ohio’s 88 counties, including urban areas like Cleveland. He is blunt, believes in ‘straight talk,’ and is a maverick who is willing to buck party lines. He has served longer in government than any of the candidates for President from either party[19].

What does he stand for?

Kasich is a ‘compassionate conservative,’ who puts solving problems over staying within party lines. [20] In addition to his four balanced budgets he helped pass in the House, as Governor of Ohio, he turned an $8 billion deficit into a $2 billion surplus. [21] He cut income taxes across the board by $3 billion, while offsetting the lost revenue by raising sales tax and cigarette taxes.[22] As Governor, he accepted the Medicaid expansion brought by Obamacare, providing health care coverage to 275,000 Ohioans, who otherwise would have been left uninsured.[23] As President he would want states to customize their health care programs to fit their own needs, supports tax exempt health savings accounts[24], and has called to repeal parts of Obamacare. [25]On education, he expanded charter schools, initiated vouchers for low income students, implemented a teacher performance based merit pay program, and supports Common Core. [26] On immigration, Kasich supports a pathway to citizenship.[27] He is pro-life, and reduced funding for Planned Parenthood by $1.4 billion[28]. He said that Republicans must accept the Supreme Court’s ruling on Same-Sex marriage, and that Christians are called to show love to the gay community. [29]Kasich is one of the few candidates to talk about criminal justice, and as governor, reduced mandatory minimums, expanded rehabilitation, and helped make Ohio’s recidivism rate among the lowest in the country[30]. Kasich believes climate change is a real problem[31], voted in Congress to ban assault weapons[32], and supports using ‘boots on the ground’ to defeat ISIS. [33]

How can he win?

Kasich, in a party the prizes ideological purity, has a tough road to the nomination. As the fellow moderate and ‘resume candidate’ of the race, Kasich will need to replace Bush as the establishment favorite. He needs to market himself both as more experienced than Bush (6 years as Governor and 18 in the House), and also a fresher face (Kasich was re-elected in 2014; Bush hasn’t run for office since 2002). With his record of surpluses, economic growth, low crime, and high approval ratings, Kasich is also positioned well to eclipse both Walker and Christie, both of whom face budget deficits, slow growth, and low favorability at home. Kasich can minimize the damage of his moderate apostasies by showing how, rather than just throw out conservative phrases and the obligatory offering to the ghost of Reagan, he actually has the record of working with Democrats to pass a conservative agenda. Kasich should skip Iowa, and as he has been doing already, focus on winning New Hampshire, where independents and moderates are up for grabs. Winning New Hampshire is critical; it’s the surest way to knock Bush out of the race, and it positions himself to win Nevada later in February. [34]With Bush gone, and with conservatives hopefully divided between their cohorts of contenders, Kasich can solidify the establishment backing, and be well on his way to the nomination.

Why is he running?

Kasich was originally planning on endorsing Bush and sitting this cycle out[35]. However, with Jeb, the presumed frontrunner, only locking down 10-15% of the vote, Kasich recognized that there was a clear opening in the establishment lane. This, coupled with his tremendous success in re-election in 2014, convinced Kasich to throw his hat in the ring. Kasich believes he has a clear shot to win the Presidency, if he runs a tough and smart campaign. That’s why he hired McCain’s strategists who orchestrated his own primary win in 2008.[36] Kasich also knows that, with his maverick reputation, Congressional experience, and popularity in the critical swing-state of Ohio, running for President would raise his visibility as the best Vice Presidential pick the eventual GOP nominee could make.

What’s going to happen?

Kasich, thus far, has been doing everything right; he entered late, and then blitzed the market with ads to boost his name recognition. It paid off; he made the cut for the first debate, ousting Rick Perry, and after a solid debate performance, is now consistently in the top three in New Hampshire (tied with Bush). The media, who always loves and underdog maverick, has nothing but positive coverage. Whether he can sustain his momentum, particularly once Bush (with his $120 million war chest) starts playing ads as well, remains yet to be seen. John Kasich’s campaign can end up like one of two others candidates named ‘John’. Like John McCain in 2008, Kasich can campaign hard in New Hampshire, deliver ‘straight talk’ at town halls, and use a surprise win there, coupled with an adoring media, to supplant Bush (as McCain did with Giuliani) and win the nomination. Alternatively, Kasich’s fate can be akin to 2012’s Jon Huntsman; liked by the media, but too moderate for GOP voters and unable to raise the funds to seriously compete with the frontrunner. The best he gets is a third place showing in New Hampshire. The nightmare scenario, for the GOP establishment, is where both candidates split the moderate vote, handing the nomination to someone like Trump or Cruz. The dramatic differences between these three likely scenarios makes Kasich one of the most interesting candidates of the race.

  1. Carly Fiorina

DES MOINES, IA - JANUARY 24: Carly Fiorina, Former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Company, speaks to guests at the Iowa Freedom Summit on January 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. The summit is hosting a group of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates to discuss core conservative principles ahead of the January 2016 Iowa Caucuses. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Age upon taking office: 62

Funds raised: $5.2 million (prior to the debate, now likely to be much higher).[37]

National polling average: 3.5% (average prior includes polls prior to the debate; the most recent poll has given her 9%).[38]

Campaign quote: “I started as a secretary and became ultimately the CEO of the largest technology company in the world. I know personally just how extraordinary and unique this nation is.”[39]

Who is she?

Carly Fiorina has never served a day in elected office. She was a Vice President for AT&T, and later became the first female CEO of a Fortune 20 company, Hewlett-Packard, where she oversaw the largest merger in history between HP and Compaq. As CEO, revenues rose but so did costs, leading to an increase in company debt, and the value of HP stock plummeted by over 50%. [40] Shareholders later forced Fiorina into resigning. Fiorina’s disastrous tenure at HP has led her to be routinely ranked as one of the worst CEOs in recent history; some have called her the ‘anti-Steve Jobs.’ [41] In 2010, she lost her Senate bid to Barbara Boxer by over ten points, despite running in a strong Republican year. She has been ranked by Time and Forbes as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world, and she has a net worth of $59 million[42]. She is a breast cancer survivor.

What does she stand for?

It isn’t always clear, given that she lacks a record in office to study. She favors tax cuts, but hasn’t specified what amount. She wants to lay off a quarter million government workers, but has yet to specify from what departments. [43] Fiorina supports repealing Obamacare, and replacing it with a system that covers ‘high risk pools,’ or patients with life threatening conditions that cannot afford coverage; it’s a plan that has been proposed and defeated in the House, and would cost around $200 billion. [44] On immigration, Fiorina supports citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants who go to college or serve in the military, but is opposed to comprehensive immigration reform.[45] She is pro-life, with exceptions to rape and incest, pro-expansion of gun rights, and does not deny that humans contribute to climate change.[46] She says that she disagrees with the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, but said that voters must accept it as law.[47] In foreign affairs, Fiorina said that she wishes to arm Ukrainian fighters to oppose Putin, and arm Kurds to fight ISIS. She has called for tougher inspections for Iran’s nuclear program, but hasn’t specified what about the inspections outlined in the deal she exactly opposes. Also, she wants everyone to know that she knows a lot of foreign leaders. [48]

How can she win?

Fiorina’s path to the nomination is unconventional, though certainly not unimaginable. The last GOP candidate without elected experience was Dwight Eisenhower, in 1952. Fiorina, so far, has been doing reasonably well; she shined in the ‘kid’s table’ GOP debate where, in comparison with her rivals, speaking coherently was enough for her to sound as if her words were crafted by Tennyson or Ovid. Since then, she has placed in the top four in national polls, as well as polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. She will likely be with the top ten at the next GOP debate. What her constituency is; evangelicals, establishment types, outsiders or conservatives, is unclear. She is most likely to benefit from a falling Donald Trump, whose Washington-weary voters will turn to another outsider. The key for her is to not peak too soon; stay steady in the top four, and then blitz with ads as voting in Iowa draws near. As she is, other than Trump, the only candidate to be a frontrunner in both Iowa and New Hampshire, she is positioned well to win both states in succession, if she plays her cards right. Winning both states would be difficult, though hardly impossible; if she pulled that off, it would be hard to imagine her not winning the nomination.

Why is she running?

Fiorina believes she can surmount tremendous odds and win the Presidency, something that, given her life experience with overcoming obstacles, is not totally unwarranted. Furthermore, she knows that a strong Presidential run gives her a multitude of possibilities even if she loses; she can stay in media circles, go on speaking tours, write another book, or even earn herself a cabinet post. Most pundits, however, have come to one conclusion; with Hillary running, the GOP nominee will need to court female voters, and could use someone with a non-government background. In other words, Fiorina is running a determined campaign for Vice President of the United States. [49]

What’s going to happen?

Despite her current poll standing, I remain very skeptical of her chances. Her debate performance was solid, but she seemed to simply use policy terms and name drop foreign leaders in order to sound impressive. Without government experience, one must look to her time in the private sector, which is problematic, given her failed tenure at HP. I am also skeptical of her ability to attract new female voters. Republicans think that women will automatically vote for female candidates; women being elected into power is their version of women’s rights (see Palin, Sarah). What they don’t understand, however, is that feminist voters are going to vote for a candidate if they stand up for women’s issues (gender equality, pay gap, health care), and just like men, want candidates who are qualified; being a woman in of itself isn’t enough. All that said, I just don’t know what Fiorina uniquely offers. Outsider candidates all follow the same pattern; when they run, no one knows who they are, but then they surprise people in an early debate, and then rise in the polls during the Summer and early Fall. Following that, there is increased media scrutiny, they come under attack in the debates, in interviews they show how they lack a coherent platform, and then voters eventually realize that when someone is trying to run for the highest position in American government, it’s best when, you know, they’ve actually served in government. That’s how it always goes; whether the candidate’s name is Herman Cain, Wesley Clark, or Steve Forbes. So, unless Fiorina won a world war and is ready to tell us about it, I’m more inclined to say her campaign will end up a bit more like those last three rather than Eisenhower’s. But I could be wrong. After all, who thought Donald Trump would actually run for President and lead the polls all summer?

  1. Chris Christie


Age upon taking office: 54

Funds raised: $14 million.[50]

National polling average: 3.8% [51]

Campaign quote: “Both parties have lead us to believe that in America, a country that was built on compromise, that somehow now compromise is a dirty word.  If Washington and Adams and Jefferson believed compromise was a dirty word, we’d still be under the crown of England. “

Who is he?

Chris Christie is the two-term Governor of New Jersey. He claims that he ‘tells it as it is.’ He won the Governorship of the deep blue Garden State in 2009, and staked out for himself a reputation as a tough, blue collar governor who is determined to ‘get stuff done,’ even if that means working with Democrats. He declined to run in 2012, despite strong polling, and pleas from the Koch brothers, the Bush family, and Henry Kissinger. He led his state through Hurricane Sandy, but earned the ire of conservatives when, a week before the election, he hugged President Obama when he visited the disaster stricken areas. He won re-election in a landslide in 2013, boasted the highest approval ratings in the country, and as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, orchestrated Republican victories all over the country. However, he was accused of closing down bridge lanes and causing a traffic jam as a vendetta against a Mayor who declined to endorse him. Christie was cleared of all charges, but since then he has become one of the most unpopular governors in the country. He was once the undisputed frontrunner for the Presidency. [52]

What does he stand for?

Christie is a problem solver first, and a Republican second, though he largely holds conservative views. As governor, Christie never raised taxes; as a Presidential candidate, he has proposed reducing corporate taxes to 25%, and to simply the tax code and reduce income taxes across the board.[53] He also managed to balance a budget ever year; however New Jersey’s constitution requires a balanced budget, which has led Christie and the legislature to offset current costs to future budgets, which is, in effect, creating a deficit. This has caused New Jersey’s credit rating to be downgraded nine times, the second most in the nation. [54][55]On healthcare, Christie has proposed turning Medicaid into a block grant, and reducing Medicare benefits, and while he has called Obamacare ‘a train wreck,’ he implemented its reforms in his state.[56] Pension reform and reducing entitlement spending has become his trademark issue this election. [57]Christie is pro-life, opposed to a pathway to citizenship, and against gun control.[58] On same-sex marriage, Christie vetoed a bill giving marriage rights to same sex couples, but now claims he accepts that it’s the law of the land. [59] While once for Common Core, claiming to be ‘leading the charge for common core,’ he now ‘regrets it,’ and favors vouchers and performance based pay. [60] Teachers unions, he maintains, deserve ‘a punch in the face.’[61] Christie believes humans contribute to climate change, but doesn’t support combating it until China does so. He is opposed to negotiating with Iran or Cuba, and believes Putin would be more scared of him than he is of Obama.[62]

How can he win?

Christie winning the nomination is highly unlikely though not entirely impossible. First, he must continue to remain in the debates; with his low polling, he is in grave peril of losing his spot in the top ten, a blow which would virtually end his candidacy, robbing it of legitimacy. Given their similarities, Kasich is his most immediate rival, and Christie will need to flank him from the right without losing his own moderate voters. Bush, too, must also be dealt with; a Christie nomination is impossible if Bush has a lock on the establishment money and support. His path to the nomination is similar to McCain’s in 2008. Christie must continue focusing his efforts in New Hampshire, working town halls, a venue which he has mastered par excellence. He should then call in favors from Governors he helped elect, and use them to bolster his operations on statewide levels. A Trump implosion, given the Donald’s similar love of ‘telling it like it is’ (if someone can tell me what ‘it’ is, I would be very grateful), would boost Christie’s support as well. In short, a Christie victory requires a mammoth task; both frontrunners must falter while another rival must stumble.

Why is he running?

He has no reason not to. Christie’s best chance for President was in 2012, where he could have easily beaten the flawed GOP field. Emerging from that election, he was the presumed frontrunner for 2016, until Bridgegate happened, ending his image as a tough guy who fought corruption, becoming a little less Frank Serpico and a little more Tony Soprano. With his tenure as governor limping to a close, and his approval ratings at new lows, Christie is upset that he didn’t run when he had the chance, but he knows he has nowhere to go but up. If he loses, but continues faring well in debates, people will remember what they liked about him; he can then go write a book, run for New Jersey senate, get a job on a talk show, or at least be viewed as a decent guy. On the other hand, if he wins, then Christopher James Christie would have just pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in American politics.

What’s going to happen?

Chris Christie is absolutely devoid of any sense of political timing. He skipped a race for President he could have won, has clumsily flipped positions on issues, and is running his campaign on entitlement reform, which while that may earn approving glances from the press and folks writing for The Economist (which may tell you a bit about who he is running for; running to win back the media who once adored him), it is hardly inspiring for voters. ‘Mr. Christie has courageous proposals on entitlements’ does not give you the Iowa Caucus. He has the highest disapproval ratings of Republican voters, and is vehemently disliked by the Tea Party. Kasich and Bush have more impressive gubernatorial records, and Trump has taken ‘telling it like it is’ to whole new levels. Simply put, it seems most likely that the race for President will leave Christie behind, even if he manages to stay in the debates. Even if he doesn’t win, if he continues his focus on policy, and scores a few more moments in debates like the one he had with Rand Paul, Christie will emerge with a better reputation than he had when he entered the race, that I am sure of. And there is a chance he could win; Christie is the best retail politician in the race. In an era of twitter, super PACs and super delegates, simply walking into a diner and shaking hands still counts for something. Strange things can happen in American politics; after all, there was that time when an unknown Republican won the governorship of New Jersey.

To my readers: please, feel free to ask questions, comment, or voice your disagreements.

Up next: The Players.