Status anxiety.

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Good News for 2016 Underdogs

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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As we move into spring, the Republican contest hasn't changed much since Mitt Romney dropped out.  I still see a candidate first tier of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker; a second tier of Mike Huckabee, John Kasich and Mike Pence; and a bottom tier of Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. Ben Carson and the rest (including Rand Paul) aren’t viable nominees. 

The biggest development since January is what didn’t happen: No one has dropped out. That suggests that neither Bush nor Walker (the two candidates currently said to enjoy front-runner status) are nailing down enough support to drive marginal candidates out of the race. If that continues, party actors -- the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, donors and activists, and party-aligned interest groups and media who have the most at stake in nomination battles -- will eventually cede more control over the nomination process to actual voters, the news media and chance. So over the next few months the pressure increases for the party to decide.

That's the context in which any given week's campaign news should be viewed. And with that in mind, here are a couple of items that surfaced this week. 

Item: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker briefly hired a campaign staffer earlier this week who holds moderate positions on several issues and had tweeted mean things about the Iowa caucuses. It didn't take long for Walker to accept her resignation. Walker rivals and some conservative activists are trying to keep the story going. In reality, no one will remember this months from now, and no party actors will base 2016 decisions on small-potato fare like this. The episode isn't completely without significance, however. It's a reminder that Walker is new to most Republicans. They’re looking for signals to assess what kind of nominee and president he would be. 

Item: Ohio Governor John Kasich continues to generate plenty of press for someone far behind key rivals in committing fully and publicly to a campaign. Yet I think the news media has this right: Kasich is poised to be a viable candidate if he takes the full plunge. If he continues to ramp up his activity to avoid falling too far behind, he probably can keep playing this game for a few more months, but by mid-summer it will become increasingly difficult.

Item: “Budget debate could prove awkward for 2016 hopefuls.” The point is that Senators running for president will have to vote on budget proposals that may split Republicans. In reality, it's not a big deal. First of all, Senators Ted Cruz, Lindsay Graham and Rand Paul aren't viable nominees anyway. So this is really about Senator Marco Rubio, and it seems unlikely he will be hurt. Rubio can point to his own plan as evidence of his tax and spending preferences, so he won't be trapped by his votes on whatever budget the party puts forward (presuming Republicans manage to agree on one). And like most events taking place in these early rounds of the presidential contest, by 2016 this year’s budget fight will be a distant memory even for people in the know, while the vast majority of voters won't be aware that it ever happened in the first place.

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

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