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17 December 2014

The US election countdown begins with Jeb Bush leading the way

Although election day is two years away, candidates have already begun jostling for the US presidency.

By Andrew Hammond

Former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, the brother and son of former US presidents George W Bush and George HW Bush respectively, announced on Tuesday that he is “exploring a 2016 presidential bid”. He will set up a leadership Political Action Committee in January, “that will facilitate conversations with citizens across America”, in what is very likely to be a stepping stone to formally announcing his candidacy in 2015.

Although general election day remains almost two years away, Bush’s announcement is the clearest sign yet that the Republican field is already beginning to mobilise to replace Barack Obama in what appears likely to ultimately be a political fight for the White House against Democrat Hillary Clinton. In the probable event that Bush ultimately decides to run, he will be a formidable candidate but potentially face a large field of other candidates for the Republican nomination.

Among the potential other contenders for the Republican crown are US Senators Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, former US senator Rick Santorum, Governors Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and former governor Mike Huckabee. It is also mooted that either former governor Mitt Romney or US Representative Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidate respectively, might also run.

While the Republican race is therefore fluid, Clinton by contrast is the firm favourite for the Democratic presidential nomination. By numerous benchmarks, Clinton is one of the hottest favourites to win a presidential nomination in recent history. 

The past few decades of US political history indicates the victor in nomination contests for both major parties usually leads national polls of party identifiers on the eve of the first presidential nomination ballot, traditionally in Iowa, and also raises more campaign finance than any other candidate in the 12 months prior to election year.

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From 1980 to 2012, for instance, the eventual nominee in eight of the 14 Democratic and Republican nomination races contested (that is, in which there was more than one candidate), was the early frontrunner by both of these two measures. This was true of George W Bush, the Republican candidate in 2000; Al Gore, the Democratic nominee in 2000; Bob Dole, the Republican candidate in 1996; Bill Clinton, the Democratic nominee in 1992; George HW Bush, the Republican candidate in 1988 and 1992; Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee in 1984; and Jimmy Carter, the Democratic candidate in 1980.

Moreover, in at least three partial exceptions to this pattern, the eventual presidential nominee led the rest of the field on one of the two measures. This was true of Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988, and Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980.

For instance, in the race for the 2012 Republican nomination, Romney was the leading fundraiser, but sometimes trailed or was tied in national polls of party identifiers to Newt Gingrich immediately prior to the Iowa ballot. Moreover, in the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, Reagan (who ultimately won) led national polls of party identifiers, although John Connally was the leading fundraiser.

On both the fundraising and national poll measures, Clinton (should she run), is likely to be a very strong favourite for the Democrats in 2016. Indeed, so much so that some other potentially first-class candidates, including current Vice-President Joe Biden, may decide not to even enter the race.

For instance, a CNN national poll taken last month found that some 65 per cent of Democrats favour Clinton to win the party nomination, a whopping 55 percentage points more than any other candidate. In this context, she can afford to potentially delay formally declaring whether she is going to enter the race and seek, for a second time, to become the first female US president.

While Clinton is a very strong favourite to win the Democratic nomination, she may however still face a very tough general election race in 2016 against the eventual Republican nominee. One of the key factors that will influence Republican prospects of defeating her will be whether, and how quickly, the party can unite around its own nominee given the potentially large amount of contenders. 

A model here for Republicans is the 2000 cycle when George W Bush emerged strongly from a wide field of contenders before going on to defeat Gore. However, as Romney found in 2012, it may be hard to unify the party in such a decisive way in 2016 unless a clear favourite emerges early.

After two presidential terms of Democrat Obama in the White House, many Republican operatives will be keen to avoid a bruising, introspective and drawn-out contest that exposes significant intraparty division to the national electorate.  The last few times such a scenario unfolded the Republicans lost the general election.

Indeed, Clinton’s husband Bill benefited from this same dynamic in 1992 and went on to win a relatively comfortable victory in that year’s general election. While the circumstances of 2016 will be different from 1992, and indeed 2012 too, it is nonetheless the case that another divisive Republican nomination contest would probably only benefit the Democrats, and potentially be a tipping point, in a very tight general election contest.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics. He was formerly the US Editor at Oxford Analytica.