PI Original Ellyn Fortino Friday June 5th, 2015, 6:08pm

Election 2016: Evaluating The GOP Presidential Candidate Pool (VIDEO)

Progress Illinois provides highlights from a wide-ranging University of Chicago Institute of Politics discussion on the 2016 presidential race, featuring journalists from BuzzFeed News, US News & World Report, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Of the many declared or likely 2016 Republican presidential candidates, national political journalists speaking Thursday evening at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics (IOP) say they consider Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker to be the top-tier GOP contenders. They also said it would take a "catastrophic event" for Hilary Clinton to not secure the Democratic presidential nomination.

Moderated by IOP Director David Axelrod, the wide-ranging "Road to the 2016 Presidency" discussion featured journalists Nate Cohn of The New York Times, McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed News, Jill Lawrence of US News & World Report and Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post.

The talk followed a busy Thursday on the 2016 campaign trail, with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry formally announcing that he will seek the Republican presidential nomination for a second time. News also broke yesterday that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will officially declare himself a Republican presidential candidate on June 15.

Clinton, meanwhile, used a Thursday event to rail against Republicans, including some of her opponents, over the issue of voting rights and announce her support for universal automatic voter registration.

In addition to Clinton, declared Democratic presidential candidates include U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. On the Republican side, there are at least a dozen declared or likely candidates.  

Thursday's IOP discussion focused mostly on the Republican field, where there's more competition and uncertainty as to who will nab the party's 2016 presidential nomination.

Axelrod asked panelists whether Bush -- the son of former President George H. W. Bush and the brother of former President George W. Bush -- is the "unequivocal establishment candidate" among the GOP contenders.

"I would say no," Lawrence responded. "There's a lot going against him, starting with his name."

Lawrence added that Bush has taken "positions that don't necessarily jive with the party," including his support for immigration reform.

But, Coppins said, such a stance may not be "totally disadvantageous" for Bush, as the Republican business donor class is largely in support of overhauling the nation's immigration system.

"One of the reasons he's been able to so quickly corner the huge market of Republican donors is because they actually like and appreciate his rhetoric on immigration," Coppins explained. 

As for why Bush has waited so long to officially jump into the race, the journalists agreed that it's likely part of a strategy to haul in as much money as possible before being subjected to stricter campaign finance rules and to use the extra time to plan out his candidacy with his Super PAC, Right to Rise, before such coordination becomes off limits when he becomes a declared candidate. 

"They have their playbook ready to go completely coordinated with the Super PAC," Coopins said of Bush's team. "Once he actually becomes a candidate and he has his own campaign and they're technically not coordinating anymore, the idea, at least the theory, is that they won't really need to, because they've already done all of their planning in advance."

When it comes to Walker, Wisconsin's governor and likely Republican presidential candidate, Tumulty said he would probably be appealing to voters across the various factions of the Republican Party.

"He's not going to turn off any of them," she said  

Cohn said that's less so the case for Rubio, a U.S. Senator from Florida.

"When I look at Rubio, though, I think about the Republican Party as being this deeply factionalized place," Cohn said. "There are very conservative voters that you might think as being the Tea Party. There are evangelicals. There are moderates. There are libertarians. And I don't think that Marco Rubio is a candidate that naturally appeals to any one of these constituencies. I think all of these factions are likelier to instead flock to the person that represents them. 

"To me, that raises the bar of just how good Rubio has to be to break though," he added. "You can talk me into the idea that Rubio's a great communicator, but I am not sure that he is the superb communicator that would allow him to make up for not having a natural base in the party."

Panelists were also asked their thoughts on libertarian-learning U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who launched his Republican presidential bid in April. Coppins said Paul is interesting in the sense that he can "pitch certain ingredients of his libertarianism to different parts of the Republican primary electorate and build a kind of hodgepodge coalition."

But that strategy, Cohn said, probably won't get Paul that far.

"I think that gets him through Iowa and New Hampshire, and then he loses," Cohn said. 

As for the Democratic field, Lawrence said the lack of competition is disappointing. 

It is a "shame that Democrats don't have more options that are competitive with Hilary Clinton," Lawrence said, adding that none of Clinton's challengers thus far are "particularly competitive with her, at least not now, and probably not ever."

If Clinton were to stumble, it would not likely be because of any of her Democratic rivals, she said. 

"There are so many issues that could trip her up," Lawrence noted, including questions surrounding the Clinton Foundation's funds as well as her use of private email to conduct official business while acting as Secretary of State.  

Tumulty added that it would really take some sort of "catastrophic event to deny her the nomination." 

"One of those three of four people running is not going to deny her the nomination," she said.

Other than Clinton, Cohn said Sanders is the likeliest candidate on the Democratic side to win a state.

A key issue in the 2016 presidential race is income inequality, and the panelists said it will be interesting to see how that theme plays out. 

Coppins called it quite "remarkable" that Republicans have started to talk about income inequality, a popular Democratic issue.

"The term 'income inequality' was something that conservatives and Republicans, just a few years ago, they hated that term. You would hear people (say) it was socialist talk," he said. "Now, Marco Rubio -- who was elected as a Tea Party candidate, [although] he has since kind of divorced from the movement -- freely uses that term. He talks about it."

That being said, Coppins said it would still be unlikely for a Republican supporting comprehensive proposals to address income inequality to secure the GOP nomination. 

The income inequality issue really puts Republicans in a predicament, Cohn said.

"If you think that voters are going to go into this election thinking about income inequality -- and we know that the Republicans for their entire history have been seen by the public as the party of the rich -- it's not a good situation to be in," he explained. "And these Republican candidates are ... going to have to defend policies that are enough for a Democrat to say, 'That is still the candidate of the rich,' and they'll point to something like Marco Rubio's tax plan to prove it."

But the issue of income inequality could play out differently in a hypothetical Clinton-Rubio matchup, Coppins said, as Rubio has had underwater home mortgages, for example, and Clinton is worth millions. 

"You can envision a way that Republicans could distract from the policy debate ... and make it about Hilary Clinton's personal wealth versus Marco Rubio's personal biography and his story," he said.

Check out the full "Road to the 2016 Presidency" discussion: 

Image courtesy of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. 

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