Latest GOP 2016 rankings: The leader will surprise you

Imagine the GOP presidential field for 2016 as a layer cake: a bottom layer, a surprise layer, and a top-of-the-heap layer, as pundit Larry Sabato envisions it. The guy at the very top? Hint: a badger.

Mel Evans/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in Keansburg, N.J., of residents whose homes in Keansburg, were heavily damaged by superstorm Sandy.

Who’s up and who’s down in the race for the 2016 GOP nomination? Don’t blame us for asking – that contest is well under way whether voters like it or not. As we and many others have written, right now US politics is in the midst of the “invisible primary,” in which big donors, campaign consultants, and top party figures line up behind their candidates of choice. They’re setting the table before the entertaining feast of the actual primaries begins.

That said, some new ratings are out that we find pretty interesting. They’re from the “Crystal Ball” newsletter of the always quotable Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He chops the Republican field into layers, and in his top tier Dr. Sabato puts New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (No. 3, and falling); Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky (No. 2, and rising); and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin (No. 1, and “huh”?).

That’s right, Gov. Scott Walker. Remember him? He’s a hero to the right for winning a big victory in Wisconsin by limiting the bargaining powers of some public-sector labor unions. “Crystal Ball” likes his combination of executive experience, tea party bona fides, and political resilience. But it’s possible he’d be unpalatable to national voters, write Sabato and co-political scientists Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley.

“We like Walker’s potential as a candidate, but just because he tops our list doesn’t make him the frontrunner: This is a very big and fluid field,” the trio write.

Sabato’s second tier consists of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida (widely seen as hurt by his attempt to garner GOP support for immigration reform); Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas (not beloved by the Republican establishment); and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio (supported "Obamacare" Medicaid expansion, ouch).

Perhaps more interesting is the “wild card” tier: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin (two serious Badger State candidates?), and Jeb Bush, who needs no further description.

OK, to review all this, we’d agree Governor Christie is falling. Bridge-gate is developing a life of its own and may turn out to be rare “gate” that actually affects a politician’s fortunes. Senator Rand rising? Don’t see it. He’s got a devoted following and draws some liberal support for his anti-National Security Agency surveillance stand, but his noninterventionist foreign policy limits him in the GOP primaries.

Governor Walker? Wisconsin Democrats dislike him intensely. Come to think of it, that probably helps him – for now.

As for former VP candidate Ryan, he might be underestimated here. He’s the flavor of the week in some GOP circles. “Is Paul Ryan the man to beat in 2016?” writes Allahpundit Friday at the right-leaning "Hot Air" site. “He’s as personally likeable as any of his rivals, and he is, technically, now ‘next in line’ in a party that tends to go that route when making hard choices in the primaries.” 

And Jeb Bush may be limited only by his own ambition (and by the fact that his mom keeps implying he shouldn’t run). He’s an establishment guy the conservatives mostly respect who is keeping himself out of current policy disagreements.

“Bush is an obvious prospect. Despite the baggage his name carries in some circles, the reservoir of goodwill among Republicans for Bush is deep, and his popularity with the suit-and-tie crowd is high,” writes Beth Reinhard of National Journal.

Yeah, yeah, but what do the polls say?

At this point, polls aren’t that indicative, given that they generally reflect name recognition and that it’s such a long time until voting actually starts.

But if you look at the RealClearPolitics rolling average of 2016 GOP candidates, No. 1 is ... Mike Huckabee. He’s the choice of 15 percent of self-identified Republican voters.

OK, he has been included in only a few polls, so maybe there are not enough data. Go down the list, and the alternate No. 1 is who you’d probably expect, Christie, at 12.8 percent. Ryan, Bush, and Paul are bunched closely behind him.

Walker is way down the list, at 5.3 percent. Well, at least he’s ahead of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein pointed out Thursday, most of the ranking now going on is just punditry, meaning guesswork. He’d lump everybody who has conventional credentials for the job, and is within the GOP mainstream on policy, into one top tier and leave it at that.

Currently there is “no one who seems to have any objective case to be in the lead,” Mr. Bernstein writes on Bloomberg Opinion.

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