The Republican Field Is Guesswork

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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So how is the Republican presidential nomination contest going?

Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball takes a look today, putting Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and Chris Christie in a "top tier." See, too, The Fix's rankings last month in the Washington Post, which also had Christie, Paul, and Walker as their top three, albeit in reverse order.

I think Ross Douthat is correct to say there's just no frontrunner right now, or at least no one who seems to have any objective case to be in the lead. So I'd put everyone who (1) has conventional credentials for the job and (2) is in the party mainstream on public policy into one big tier, and leave it at that. My general sense is that most of the names on these lists qualify with the exception of Rand Paul, who I still expect will be vetoed by foreign policy conservatives and possibly others.

Beyond that? We're mostly in the realm of the pundits, not reporters. That is, we're all guessing how party actors from various groups and factions will react to the candidates over the next couple of years, rather than seeing objective evidence of how those party actors are actually treating the candidates. We're also speculating about what the candidates might look like two or three years down the road: which will display strong national campaign skills, which will have the fire in the belly to commit to the long slog of a national campaign, all of which will turn out to have problems beyond anything we can hint at today.

In New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's case, for example, we're both guessing how the bridge scandal will play out and how various party actors will react to what we've already learned of the scandal. For Texas Senator Ted Cruz, we're speculating about just how seriously party leaders will downgrade him because of his role in the government shutdown fiasco. (My guess? Quite a bit.) Then there is the whole tier of sorta, almost, maybe candidates: Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida and perhaps one or two others who don't appear to be doing much yet but might prove viable down the road. For them, we're guessing just how much they want it.

Over time, all this guessing will be increasingly informed by reporting. Well, at least it should be; if not, find yourself another pundit.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

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