Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Clash of the Titans (Jeb v Mitt)

Mitt Romney progressed from no-no-no-no to 'def thinking about it, yo' on the 2016 presidential question. Up against already pretty much all-in Jeb Bush, what's he thinking? James Carville thinks, somewhat persuasively, that Jeb entering the fray at the top creates a massive window to his right where Romney can, at last, run authentically as a conservative. Also: Paul Ryan has declared he will not run (finally, someone isn't running).

This creates a potential clash of two very, very powerful establishment favorites. Both Romney and Bush would have access to high-end donor networks, the best consultants, and would be on-paper-favorites in the way other contenders like Huckabee and Santorum are not.

Potential Outcomes
Let's look at some potential outcomes.
538 Thinks The Field Looks Like This
Jeb Star Rising
Right now, in the liminal phase of Mitt's launch, Jeb is the favorite. He polls well, he has all the donors he could want, and, although he has denied reports of a massive 100MM fund-raising push for the next three months, he can bring in a lot of money. What if he wins (the nomination)?

Scenario: Jeb Bush simply steam-rolls Romney who just never catches fire. The base's loss with him in 2012 proves insurmountable and he does well in some states but finally folds before the Bush Dynasty.

Likelihood: 30%. Jeb is the favorite on paper--but Romney is (a) more recently experienced (b) rich enough to survive donor-melt-down and (c) people really, really hate the Bush name. In a Jeb v Romney battle, The Omnivore thinks Romney is the favorite.

The General: 30% chance of presidency. Jeb faces, if anything, a bigger problem in the general election than in the Republican primary. For one thing, the "Blame Bush" strategy Obama deployed worked statistically. While it's probably too far gone to keep actually blaming Bush, the fact that it worked for as long as it did is troubling.

Romney Ascendant
Romney has already done the nearly impossible: he unified the party and turned out the base. It happened in 2012. The story they tell you is that evangelicals (or whoever) stayed home. The analysis showed that it was blue-collar whites, not "the base." Also, contrary to the conventional path, Romney's reputation went up after his loss--not down (where is Dukakis these days?). That's unusual. He's perceived as a viable candidate by a lot of people and the Romney-Was-Right meme may be a bit over-sold, but it is still sold.

Scenario: After a brutal fight of Jeb vs. The Death Star (Romney's pile of money) in the early states, Romney locks up Super Tuesday and Jeb folds.

Likelihood: 50%. Romney has the freshest experience of the two, ran both a primary and a general, and almost won the general. The Omnivore picks him as a favorite against Jeb Bush.

The General: 50% chance of presidency. Romney would not likely be a favorite against Hillary (the economy's trajectory seems likely to give the current administration an edge, it seems unlikely that a trifecta of Ebola, ISIS, and an immigration crisis will happen in late 2016)--but he would be no pushover. Also: Hillary may not have a sword-sharpening primary experience. She might be out in the general kind of cold.

That said, Romney's past mistakes will still hurt him: you can only shake the etch-a-sketch so hard.

Wild Card
The exciting (or "exciting") scenario is where Romney and Jeb split the establishment vote and someone like Santorum or Hucakbee slips through. Could that happen?

Scenario: The masses of money involved and the electorate's inability to determine if a 2x loser is worse than the Bush name means that the fight goes All. The. Way. To. Convention. After the requisite hurricane rain-day, Mike Huckabee is selected as the Republican nominee.

Likelihood: 5%. Simply put, this isn't likely and the structure works against it. Once either Jeb or Romney (or, hey, someone else) gets momentum, it'll shut that whole process down.

The General: 5% chance of presidency. While The Omnivore picked Huckabee as the candidate, it could easily be Paul, Carson, Santorum, or anyone else. So long as it's not Scott Walker, the odds of victory are around 5%. Most of these candidates haven't been fully vetted on a presidential stage yet, Hillary more or less has. Lots of them have serious flaws that would be critically damaging in the General Election.

Walker Wins!
Less exciting but more plausible is that a 2nd-choice candidate like Scott Walker, Rick Perry, or Bobby Jindal manages to emerge as a consensus choice if both Jeb and Romney split the vote. All these candidates would have some tea-party appeal as well as some cross-over establishment credibility. If they run good campaigns they could hang on long enough to get the nod.

Scenario: The electorate, fed up with both Bush and Romney settles early on Scott Walker. While it's a brutal, brutal fight, first Bush folds and then Romney. Walker wins the nomination.

Likelihood: 15%. In order for this to work, one of the 2nd-tier candidates will have to shine in the primaries. The primaries have been cut down time-wise and the amounts of money being thrown around will be very hard for 2nd-tier candidates to match. However, someone like Walker definitely could (note: Scott Walker has no college degree--he left college when he got a job offer in his senior year). None of the candidates (Perry) are clear favorites--but if someone's campaign kicks ass, they could win.

The General: 45%. While The Omnivore thinks that Jindal, Perry, or, especially, Walker might actually be a favorite to beat Hillary in a clean fight but by the end of a mud-soaked, blood-soaked primary it won't be a clean fight. Romney and Jeb are going to fight tooth and nail against their fellow gubernatorial candidates and while the fight will sharpen them, it'll also damage them. If there's dirt under any of their fingernails it'll come out.

It seems unlikely that 2016 could be as dramatic as 2012's primary--we don't have the Bachmanns or Cains running (Ben Carson, whatever his weaknesses, is no Herman Cain)--but a clash between Jeb and Romney could change that. The ambition of both men should not be under-rated. Mitt told his donors "I want to be president"--and at an elemental level, he does. Jeb, similarly, has deep-rooted reasons for going all in. These are heavy-weight champions and we shouldn't expect either of them to drop early.

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