Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Faulty perceptions of the GOP candidates

We're only five months into the 2016 cycle, and narratives are already emerging about the potential presidential candidates.

Some of those narratives have the ring of truth (yes, Hillary is the front-runner), but others are questionable (Is 2016 truly Rubio's time?).

So let's make a ruling on what's real and what's not.

New Jersey, yet to turn a 180, or even, much of a 90

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Overrated: His record.

Christie likes to talk about the "Jersey Comeback," but there's less to praise than you'd think. Christie came into office with a 9.7% unemployment rate in the Garden State. Right now, it's 9.5%.

On that, he's no better than Barack Obama, who came into office with a 7.8% unemployment rate that's now 7.7%. Obama was reelected without improving the unemployment rate. Christie will probably mirror that.

As of July 2012, there were fewer jobs in New Jersey than when Christie started the gig in 2009.

On the GDP front, things have improved, but it's still not really an anthill in Jersey.

When Christie came in, growth in GDP was an abysmal -4.8%. Things then went positive slightly positive, but last year GDP grew by just 1.2%.

And, as Josh Barro explains here, Christie's achieved a "balanced budget" through some tricky budgeteering -- in other words, he hasn't balanced the budget.

So by some fairly important metrics, Christie is short of a gold star.

That doesn't mean he hasn't gotten things done (read Noah Glyn for a good list of his achievements), but the turnaround hasn't been as dramatic as portrayed.

Underrated: His appeal with women.

As I wrote in January, one of the most common and hideously mistaken narratives out there is that Chris Christie turns off women.

In January, I took a look at the five most recent polls before Hurricane Sandy and found that, in every one, women were either split on Christie or looked on him favorably. (And, keep in mind, New Jersey women are very Democratic -- Obama won New Jersey women by 24%).

Once again, the kicker is that the polls were taken before the hurricane, so they weren't subject to the windy, artificial inflation. Christie's strength is impressive.

And you know those townhalls which are allegedly thinly-disguised excuses for him to mouth off at female teachers?

Well, 55% of New Jersey women think they're effective, and just 31% said they were ineffective or unhelpful.

The fact is that Christie's abrasion is mixed with sincerity and lovability, and the latter two probably help offset the former, and possibly, turn it into an even more charming confection.

Conservatives don't <3 Jeb (photo: Charlie Rose)

Jeb Bush

Overrated: His appeal with conservatives.

In every Public Policy Polling survey taken, post 2012 election, Jeb has done weakest with those calling themselves "very conservative" and strongest with those calling themselves "very" or "somewhat liberal."

Jeb's support by GOP ideology in PPP polls:

April 2013: Wins 20% of "very liberal" Republicans, 23% of "somewhat liberal" Republicans, 15% of "somewhat conservative" Republicans, 13% of "moderate" Republicans, and 8% of "very conservative" Republicans.

February: Wins 86% of "very liberal" Republicans, 24% of "somewhat liberal", 20% of "moderate", 13% of "somewhat conservative" and 8% of "very conservative."

January: Wins 23% of "very liberal" Republicans, 25% of "somewhat liberal", 20% of "moderates", 13% of "somewhat conservative" and 11% of "very conservative."

December:  Wins 10% of "somewhat liberal" Republicans, 20% of "moderate", 13% of "somewhat conservative", and 8% of the "very conservative."

If you average those four polls, you get this.

a. Jeb wins 43% of "very liberal" Republicans.

b. Jeb wins 21% of "somewhat liberal" Republicans.

c. Jeb wins 17% of "moderate" Republicans.

d. Jeb wins 14% of "somewhat conservative" Republicans.

e. Jeb wins 9% of "very conservative" Republicans.

See what's happening there?

As voters get more conservative, they like Jeb less.

Underrated: His appeal with women.

There's both theoretical and empirical bases for making the claim.

Theoretically, Jeb talks about issues women are particularly passionate about (or usually more passionate about than guys) -- immigration reform and, especially, education.

As importantly, he doesn't drape it in pugilism; instead, he's calm and communal.

So, it's not terribly surprising that he does considerably better with Republican women than Republican men.

In fact, Jeb does better with women than men in 7/10 polls of the 2016 race (see polls here), thus far, which seems to suggest a trend.

Obviously, the GOP needs to do better with women, but not white women (The GOP is already winning there) but with minority women.

That feeds into Jeb's other strength -- his appeal with minorities. Thus, Jeb would theoretically be able to make some inroads with an important group.

Bob Arches knows how to campaign

Bob McDonnell

Overrated: His record.

Here's the thing -- Virginia has done much better than the rest of the country during the recovery. That's because, from a financial standpoint, life is good near the nation's capitol. Thus, it's hard to separate a governor's record from the blessings of the state's location.

Four of Virginia's last five governors have been extraordinarily popular -- McDonnell himself, Tim Kaine, Mark Warner, and George Allen.

Is Virginia just that good at picking governors or is Virginia just that good?

Underrated: His electoral skills.

He's not a riveting guy, but you can't deny the enormity of his 2009 victory, in spite of Democrats' efforts to brand him as an extreme right-winger (and face it, that haircut made him very villifiable).

Here's a map of his 2009 gubernatorial win.

The only Northern Virginia county he lost was Arlington. Republicans don't do well in NoVA anymore. McDonnell did.

Granted, 2009 was an off-year, but you don't spit out a map like that if you're as weak on the stump as McDonnell is often portrayed.

The fact is that he's pretty good at retail politics, very connected with the evangelical community (even though he's Catholic, he attended Pat Robertson's Regent University), and underrated on the stump.

2009 Virginia election results (source: Wikipedia)

Six years after exploding onto the scene, Jindal has yet to find national support

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal

Overrated: His electoral appeal.

Bobby is continually treated as a frontrunner (including, by me), but he's yet to translate that theoretical potential into theoretical support.

His performance in national 2016 polls, thus far: 4%, 3%, 4%, and 3%. Is it a name ID issue? Partially, perhaps. In each of those surveys, he has lower ID than the top dogs.

But that wouldn't explain the fact that he actually loses a hypothetical 2016 presidential primary in Louisiana -- his homestate. In a February PPP poll, he only placed third, behind both Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee.

And in another place where he was well-known, CPAC, he only managed his familiar 3% in the straw poll.

At one time (2007-2009), Jindal seemed to be the future of the party. Now, Republicans almost seem bored.

Underrated: His accomplishments.

He's taken a beating, as of late. He withdrew a dramatic tax proposal after it got savaged from both liberal and business interests -- not to mention the public.

And, even though it's no fault of his own, his signature education reform was thrown out by a judge. He's also endured a series of damaging headlines about cuts to health care and higher education.

But one season does not two terms make, and he's actually done quite a few very impressive things.

Since becoming governor, he's helped right the fiscal ship and Standard & Poor has twice upgraded the state's credit outlook and bond rating.

Unemployment has fallen to just 5.8%, and he's reduced the size of the state's budget by 26% during her tenure.

But perhaps his greatest legacy is the ethics legislation he passed in his first term that transformed one of the most perpetually corrupt state governments into a, well, less corrupt one. The reforms weren't perfect, but were nevertheless laudable steps in the direction of more accountability and transparency.

You don't hear much about all that anymore -- such is the ephemeral, political nature of accomplishment. But it's real, and it's really pretty good.

Democrats would actually love to face Condi

Condoleezza Rice

Overrated: Her ability to win the nomination.

In one sense, Condi -- by her sheer reputation and the fact she polls well -- deserves electoral respect.

But respect is often different from reality, and the reality is that she could never win the GOP nomination unless she evolved on abortion.

Republicans are often portrayed as hopelessly intransigent and rigid on abortion, but the Democratic party is just as intransigent and rigid on abortion as the GOP.

So, no, neither Republicans nor Democrats will ever defy their bases on abortion. And that's a pretty good thing. A party should stand for its principles, and when it's on as serious and fundamental an issue as abortion, better to be morally than politically driven.

But not, Condi can't win a GOP nomination.

Underrated: Her potential to damage the GOP.

As I've written before (in my comparison of her to a bomb bird on Angry Birds), Condi could wreak havoc on the party.

The GOP's critics would love nothing more than to see an eminently qualified, pro-choice, minority female flame out spectacularly and feed the narrative that Republicans hate minorities and women.

And she would flame out spectacularly once primary voters got to know her views on abortion. She'd leave the race, but her imprint would carry through the general election.

Is he really that riveting a public speaker?

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul

Overrated: Speaking ability.

He's not particularly eloquent, doesn't have the cadence of a great orator, and isn't particularly warm.

The filibuster was a defining moment, and sure, speaking played a central role, but it was remarkable for duration; not rhetoric.

But here's what he has -- political pedigree and limitless ambition.

Why's that so ironic? Because of all things, "Pauls" were never supposed to be about dynasties or plays for political power.

But what does that have to do with speaking ability? It's that it's hard to see Paul where he is now without where his dad was then. He doesn't have the raw potential of a star, but he is a star.

Underrated: He's good at some things, but again, that doesn't mean he's underrated at those things, and it's just tough to find someplace where he's underrated. He's like a fully-valued stock. Not necessarily a bad one, but just fully-valued.

Ted Cruz won't wait for his turn

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz

Overrated: His electability.

His name has been starting to pop up in the '16 conversation, particularly with his upcoming keynote of South Carolina's most important fundraising dinner.

But he has a couple things working against his potential candidacy.

First, he's from Texas, and as such, can accrue a record that's considerably to the right of where the GOP wants to be in a general election. While Marco Rubio seems to be grappling with the implications of supporting immigration reform in a purple state and purple country environment, Cruz seems to be doing no such thing, simply calling the Gang of Eight's proposal, "profoundly unfair."

Thus, his Texas constituency probably won't steer him away from his natural direction, which is heavily to the right.

You could easily see him becoming the Jim DeMint of the Senate, and that's problematic outside the confines of a deeply red state.

Second, he's a little chunky but not in endearing way like Chris Christie, and while he can deliver a good argument, he doesn't have a commanding voice.

Third, he's a natural born citizen, but in birther terms, that's usually not considered good enough to become president (though most legal experts think it is); thus you're likely to see quite a few on the far right who'd normally be very open to his candidacy shut him out.

Underrated: His desire to run in 2016.

Cruz won't defer or pass on a run for deference's sake. That's just not him.

Let's also get this straight -- he's extraordinarily ambitious and has always said "why not?" to going bolder. He went straight from a career in law to the U.S. Senate at the tender age of 42, and straight from being junior senator to ordering John Cornyn around.

If he wants to run for president, he'll run, and it seems he's thinking about it. As I said, he's already accepted the keynote at South Carolina's hugely important annual fundraising dinner (which, reportedly, pissed off Rand Paul's people), and he's just one Iowa visit away from staying in the conversation for good.

John Kasich has a better shot in Iowa than you think

John Kasich

Overrated: His conservatism.

He faced massive tea party backlash over his decision to expand Medicaid in the wake of ObamaCare. Tea party groups in the state lashed out, and The Wall Street Journal's editorial board called him an "ObamaCare flipper", and John Fund wrote that he was more of a populist than true conservative.

There's debate over the conservatism of the sales tax, but Kasich also recently pushed a big expansion of the state's sales tax to pay for income tax cuts. Both businesses and state House Republicans opposed the measure and the legislature slashed most of the tax cut and nixed the sales tax.

But his primary conservative heresy continues to be his support for Medicaid expansion (something House Republicans have also stripped).

Underrated: His potential connection with evangelical voters.

Kasich is primarily known as a fiscal reformer, but he also has deep Christian convictions. As I wrote last month, he wrote a book that detailed his 20 years of Bible studies, the questions the studies prompted, and the answers he found through them.

And he's comfortable incorporating his spirituality into his politics. He packaged his pitch for Medicaid expansion with a Biblical injunction to take care of the needy.

That fluency could be enormously helpful in Iowa. Neither of the Republican front-runners, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, are particularly fond of putting things in a religious context, so Kasich could get some mileage out of that in Iowa.

Marco needs a time machine to add a few years to his face

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio:

Overrated: Timing.

Rubio is as good as promised on nearly every score, but he needs to add some wrinkles before he runs in 2016.

That's because his height (fairly short) seems to magnify perceptions of youth. Here he is next to Sen. Joe Manchin (who's very tall) and Mitt Romney (who's tall).

That doesn't look like a leader of the free world -- yet. The question, though, is whether Rubio could afford to wait until 2020. If a Dem wins in 2016, that means he'd have the daunting task of facing an incumbent or waiting another four years for an open shot.

By then, he would have been a senator for 14 years, and acquired both the paper trail and establishment scent of long-time senators from both parties.

So, yeah, it could be that 2016 is his time, but that doesn't mean it's a great one.

Marco Rubio and Joe Manchin (photo: GOP12)

Kind of Sr and Jr-ish (photo: Christian Science Monitor)

Underrated: The potential damage from his vote against the Violence Against Women Act.

Sure, he was a "no" on the Act for understandable reasons, but not for politically understandable reasons. The odd thing is that Rubio always seems to have an eye on future electability, but for some inexplicable reason, decided to get all 100% principled on the VAWA and potentially jeopardized his ability to cut into the gender gap in 2016.

It doesn't matter that this happened three years before the election. Democrats will raise it and raise it often when they get the chance.

The caveat?

White women voted for Mitt Romney, and so the GOP really just needs to eat into the gender gap with minority women. Rubio, as a minority himself, would be uniquely skilled at reaching female minorities; thus, that could help offset some damage from his vote.

Is she really that charismatic? 

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley 

Overrated: Her charisma.

On paper and in person, Haley is charismatic. But uniquely charismatic politicians don't go an entire term without hitting 50% approval in a state dominated by their own party, and Haley's still without her 50%.

It's easy enough to understand the source of Haley's woes -- the struggling economy, a massive database hacking scandal, and a contentious relationship with the Legislature, but it's hard to understand why she hasn't been able to even come close to overcoming that through her dynamism.

The only way to reconcile those two things is to conclude that her charisma isn't quite as superb as you'd immediately think.

Underrated: Her tenacity.

Feminists should be flocking to Haley. Most won't, of course, because she's a Republican, but Haley managed to win as a minority female outside the political system in a state dominated by white males inside the political system.

More than anything else, she owes that to her tenacity, and if she survives her reelection, it will also be thanks to her fierce resilience.

Santorum -- no fiscal conservative (photo: Gage Skidmore)

Rick Santorum

Overrated: His conservatism.

Socially, he's as red as they come, but fiscally, his credentials are spotty.

As the Washington Post noted last year, Santorum voted for union-friendly measures like preserving government wage-setting and protecting union workers from being permanently replaced (he was just one of 17 House Republicans to support the measure in 1993), and fought for hundreds of millions in earmarks.

Here he is defending his earmarks in the 2012 campaign.

Finally, even though he tried casting himself as a tea partier in 2012, he's as far from the party's current libertarian drift as you can get.

Underrated: His chance to win Iowa.... again.

In one sense, he's better positioned because he laid the groundwork in 2012, and actually won, so he's not starting from scratch.

In another sense, he's in worse shape because the field is more Iowa-friendly. Last time, Santorum faced off against a Mormon from Massachusetts who used to be pro-choice. With a voting populace that was about 60% evangelical, those were good odds for Santorum.

So it's hard to see fate's blessing that way in 2016. Having said that, he does come in fully established in the field, and it's not like the '16 field is teeming with evangelicals.

Most the front-runners are, like Santorum, Catholic, and neither Marco Rubio nor Chris Christie are as fluent  in the evangelical, home-school community as Santorum.

So don't count him out in Iowa.

Scott Walker could clean up in Iowa... and elsewhere

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

Overrated: Nothing.

With Paul Ryan's fade from presidential speculation, Scott Walker's name is increasingly popping up, but he's still largely shut out of the presidential discussion.

Since he's usually not rated, it's hard to say he's overrated. That doesn't mean he doesn't have weaknesses. He absolutely does (gravitas and demographics), but there isn't a wave of overrating that, for example, besets some of the other candidates.

Underrated: His 2016 ambitions.

Three recent events point to a possible run.

1. He's penning a book, an absolute must for any presidential candidate (I have no idea why Christie hasn't  one there yet).

2. He'll speak at an Iowa fundraiser next month.

3. He won't rule out running for president.

Another important note? He's the only GOP frontrunner who's evangelical (son of a Baptist preacher, product of social conservative bastion, Colorado Springs), which means he could play extraordinarily well in Iowa.

Then there's this -- Take a look at the ovations he picked up at both the 2012 convention and 2013 CPAC. He's admired, idolized, and very dangerous to the rest of the field.