Officially, not a single candidate is running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
But more than a dozen ambitious Republicans are holding serious conversations with their nearest and dearest: their families, their pollsters and their fundraisers.
At first glance, the GOP field looks uncharacteristically crowded and confused. At least 16 leading Republicans have encouraged (or, at least, failed to discourage) supporters from floating their names.
But what’s unusual about the field isn’t its size but rather that there is no real front-runner.
In most recent campaigns, the GOP started out with an establishment favorite and a pack of challengers — and the establishment candidate usually won. That’s what happened in 2000 (George W. Bush), 2008 (John McCain, after early front-runner Rudolph Giuliani fizzled) and 2012 (Mitt Romney).
This time, there’s no favorite. The meaningless early polls show roughly equal support for four candidates: Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. But their support isn’t strong enough to dissuade other candidates from jumping in.
“It’s confusing, because we don’t know who the front-runner is going to be,” said former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a veteran of GOP battles.
But there’s a bright side to that, he noted: “The field includes a lot of high-quality candidates. This is not a bunch of clowns falling out of a bus.”
And, in the end, the contest may not be as messy as it looks right now. There will certainly be dramatic debates over the future of the party, and insurgent candidates may win an early contest or two, as happened in 2012. But if history is any guide, the establishment candidate will win.
I talked last week with Republican strategists, fundraisers and soothsayers, and those conversations boiled the GOP contest down to three crucial questions.
Question 1: Will Mitt Romney and/or Jeb Bush run?
The GOP’s older generation includes two top-tier candidates who haven’t ruled out running: Romney and Bush.
Romney has said he won’t run, but he has also said that “circumstances can change.” Still, most GOP insiders think he’ll stay out.
Bush appears more serious. He has said he wants to decide by the end of the year, and his fundraisers have asked potential donors to delay committing to anyone else.
Bush would be the most moderate major candidate in the race. His support for immigration reform and the Common Core educational standards puts him at odds with tea party conservatives. He’d face a tough battle in the primaries.
Question 2: Who else can turn into the establishment’s front-runner?
Even if Romney or Bush run, plenty of others are lining up. The top names:
Gov. Chris Christie is all but running already. As chairman of the Republican Governors Assn., he’s been campaigning — and raising money — across the country. Christie has been under a cloud because his aides closed entrance lanes to the George Washington Bridge as political payback against a Democratic mayor, but a federal investigation hasn’t touched him yet.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich is another governor to watch. A fiscal conservative, he comes from a state Republicans need, and he’s about to win reelection by a 20-point margin. But he’s angered conservatives by supporting a tax increase on oil production and expanding Medicaid as part of President Obama’s healthcare plan.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence could also be a surprisingly strong candidate in the primaries: an economic libertarian whose record is more conservative than Christie’s or Kasich’s. He may also have an important fundraising advantage: He won support in the past from oil billionaires Charles and David Koch.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), like Pence, could occupy the GOP’s sweet spot, winning support from establishment figures and tea party conservatives alike. Rubio angered some conservatives by voting for the Senate’s 2013 immigration reform bill, then withdrew his support.
There are more potential names on the list, but they haven’t caught fire yet: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio.
Question 3: What about an insurgent candidate?
Here’s where Rand Paul comes in. He inherited the libertarian support base of his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), but has worked assiduously to inch toward the GOP center and make himself a credible national candidate.
But he’s been unlucky on one count: Events in the Middle East have pushed foreign policy to the top of the Republican debate, and his minimalist approach won’t fly with a majority of GOP voters.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) may also run as a tea party insurgent, but his sponsorship of last year’s government shutdown, which drove GOP popularity to a record low, plus his take-no-prisoners approach to intra-Republican debates have made him anathema to the establishment.
The people who work on politics in the Republican Party don’t take the potential candidacies of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee or former Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota seriously. But that doesn’t mean they won’t run.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, has pushed forward with plans to limit the number of debates to eight (instead of the grueling 20 that turned the 2012 nomination into an entertaining but fratricidal marathon), and he’s hopeful that in 2016, the party will have its nominee by the end of March.
That will favor campaigns that are well organized and well funded early in the cycle. That’s another reason the race will begin sooner than you expect.