Campaign 2016: Who will be the next Republican to drop out?

One candidate is Ben Carson, who has sunk in the polls and recently called the campaign process ‘pretty brutal.’ But others have challenges, too.

Mike Blake/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate George Pataki answers questions during a forum for lower-polling candidates held prior to the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Dec. 15, 2015. Mr. Pataki dropped out of the presidential race Tuesday.

George Pataki’s decision to drop out of the 2016 presidential race is barely news. After all, most regular folks probably wouldn’t recognize the former three-term governor of New York if he bumped into them on the street.

Indeed, Mr. Pataki’s mild-mannered, moderate brand of Republicanism was out of step with these angry, anxious times. When he quit the race Tuesday, he was at 0 percent in the polls and had never qualified for the main-stage GOP debates.

And now Pataki – like Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and Lindsey Graham before him – has done the political universe a favor by shrinking the teeming GOP field by yet one more. But at 12 contestants, the Republican nomination race is still overcrowded.

Still, for those remaining in the hunt, hope springs eternal. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who not long ago seemed on the verge of being finished, got a new lease on life – and a bump in the polls – when he scored the endorsement of New Hampshire’s biggest newspaper, the Union Leader.

Ditto Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has powerful backers in New Hampshire and just won the support of billionaire investor Ron Burkle. Mr. Burkle, who usually backs Democrats and was once close to former President Bill Clinton, is reportedly set to hold a fundraiser for Governor Kasich in Los Angeles. That’s pure gold: For many candidates, a steady inflow of campaign cash is all it takes to stay in.

So who will be the next to drop out?

Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum – who are the previous two winners of the kickoff Iowa caucuses but are polling at the bottom of the pack this time – are likely to go. Indeed, former Governor Huckabee of Arkansas has said he’ll drop out if he doesn’t finish third or better in Iowa on Feb. 1. That suggests we have five more weeks of the candidate.

Former Senator Santorum, too, is likely to stick it out until the Iowa caucuses. He won that contest in 2012, barely edging out eventual nominee Mitt Romney by just 34 votes, and kept competing even after it was clear Mr. Romney had the nomination locked up. Santorum is good at living off the land, with minimal staff, and seems to enjoy campaigning. But he hasn't made the main debate stage, and fundraising has been meager. If finances get too tight, that could be it for the Pennsylvanian.

Rand Paul seems another possibility for early departure. Unlike his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, who built a serious movement of libertarian-leaning voters in his three campaigns for president, Senator Paul of Kentucky has failed to capitalize much on the family brand in the presidential race.

“He seems more like a politician than his dad,” says Tom O’Brien of Columbia, S.C., who supported Ron Paul in 2012, but isn’t sold on the son.

Rand Paul hasn’t gained much traction in the early nominating states, and he may decide sooner rather than later that he should focus on his reelection campaign for the Senate.

Oddly enough, Ben Carson is another candidate who could drop out early. As recently as early November, Dr. Carson led the polls in Iowa, but he has dropped precipitously into single digits, after he struggled to show a grasp of foreign policy. 

Iowa is now a two-man race between Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. The Hawkeye State is a big test for the evangelical wing of the party, which dominates caucus turnout, and Carson, who has made his faith central to his campaign, needs to do well there. If he can’t come in at least second, he’s probably finished.

Carson, a first-time candidate for political office, also sounds weary. “Obviously, going through a process like this is pretty brutal,” he told The Washington Post recently. Carson has also said he’s about to reorganize his campaign – never a good sign this close to Iowa.

If one applies the “running joyfully” test – Jeb Bush’s aspirational description of how to run for president – Carson would come up short.

Mr. Bush, too, seems to be failing on the “joy” front. The mockery he has endured – by Mr. Trump, late-night comedians, and the media – may be enough to spur an early departure from the race. Like Carson, Bush has fallen from the top of the polls to single digits. But he has a big war chest, and family pride may keep him in the hunt.

Carly Fiorina is another candidate whose “moment” seems to have come and gone. Even in New Hampshire, her strongest state, she’s mired in mid-single digits. But as the only woman in the Republican field, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard may feel duty-bound to stick it out as long as possible.

In the end, analysts say, the GOP nomination race seems to be boiling down to Trump versus Senator Cruz versus the “establishment” favorite – for now, probably Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. For those three, there’s no “dropout watch.” But if Senator Rubio fails to do well in the first two states, all bets are off.

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