Everyone Has a Horse in the 2016 Race

Only fifteen percent of Republicans recently polled still undecided for 2016.

Already the Presidential primary season is upon us with another crowded field of contenders for the Republican nomination.  Though we are a year away from the actual primary season, pundits have already weighed in on the prospects for Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and the rest.  I was curious to see how this year’s contest compared with the race for the 2012 nomination.

Using the archive of polls at RealClearPolitics for both 2012 and 2016, I charted trends for four groups of voters.  The dark blue line represents the “establishment” candidate, Romney in 2012 and Bush in 2016.  The red line plots support for two “social conservatives,” Rick Santorum in 2012, and Santorum plus Mike Huckabee in 2016.  Preferences for all the other candidates are summarized by the light blue line, while the grey line portrays undecideds.


At this time four years ago, about two-thirds of Republicans had no preferred candidate.  Once the debates began Republicans started choosing their champions.  Romney’s support improved during 2011, but most undecided Republicans were looking elsewhere.  At various times in 2011 Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain each zoomed to the top of the polls only to fall precipitously a few weeks later.  Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul showed more staying power with campaigns that persisted until the end of the calendar. Rick Santorum’s surprise tie with Romney in Iowa, followed by victories in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses on February 7th, made the social conservative Romney’s last rival.  His victories in the March contests sealed Santorum’s fate.


If we look at how the early polling has gone for 2016, we see one striking change from four years ago.  Most Republicans today express a preference for one of the candidates, and the already diminished ranks of the undecided have fallen sharply since the end of last year. While only a third of Republicans had chosen a candidate at this point in the 2012 campaign, today more than five out of six already have someone they prefer.

Jeb Bush has been the beneficiary of some of those decisions.  He was polling a bit behind where Mitt Romney stood four years ago but has since improved to the high teens, about equal with Romney’s support in late March of 2011.  However, like Romney found after the first debates in 2011, most Republicans now choosing candidates are gravitating toward someone other than Bush.

The religious candidates start out from a much stronger base in 2014-2015 than they did in 2010-2011.  It was only after the 2012 Iowa Caucuses that Santorum’s support rose much above three or four percent.  This time around some ten to twelve percent of the Republicans polled pick Huckabee (mostly) or Santorum.  If we add Ben Carson to these social conservatives their collective level of support rises to about twenty percent of Republicans.

The race in 2010 shows how the array of “others” can quickly collapse into a two- or three-person race after the early contests.  Assuming Bush has the resources to try and follow Romney’s path, we should expect the race to narrow to Bush, a social conservative, and the survivor of the “anybody but Bush” contest.  With so many candidates running essentially even in the early polling, we might expect to see a succession of non-Bush alternatives climb to the mountaintop in the polls before being pushed down the slope by the next contender.

Still with the candidates much better identified in the voters’ minds so far before the debates in August, this “candidate-of-the-week” pattern may not recur in the 2016 race.  The share of undecided voters fell quickly four years ago because Republicans were largely indifferent among the alternatives to Romney.  That led to their switching their support to whomever appeared to be the leading alternative to Romney at the time.   It may prove more difficult to convert a Cruz, Walker or Carson supporter into a voter for Rubio.