With the 2012 election firmly in the rear view mirror, Republicans have spent the better part of 2013 reflecting on their loss in the presidential race and rebranding the party image. Despite retaining a majority in the House of Representatives, the GOP has conceded that the landscape for a presidential election is entirely different. In order to remain competitive in future elections, the party has to better adapt to the needs of the voters.
The Republican platform is compatible with the beliefs of the American public. The issue reflected by the election is that many voters so vehemently oppose certain parts of the Republican package that they end up rejecting the party entirely. The GOP economic message of fewer taxes, smaller government, and economic growth driven by business and entrepreneurship was not enough to persuade swing state voters to vote for Mitt Romney in 2012.
While many Americans favor such policies, Romney and running mate Paul Ryan failed to articulate their plan, while the Obama campaign and liberal media successfully muddled Romney’s message by emphasizing his wealth and ties to the private sector. Romney caused serious damage to the campaign with his “47 percent” remarks, while Paul Ryan shied away from delivering specifics on his budget plan. These obstacles may have been overcome if the Republican ideology on social policy had been more in tune with those of the majority of American voters.
As the country shifts more toward the left on social policies, most Republicans have noticeably remained behind. In 2012, two shoe-in Senate seats for the GOP were lost due to candidates making insensitive and inaccurate statements about rape and abortion. On issues such as gay marriage, American public opinion has gradually evolved in support of legalizing gay marriage while the GOP’s older base continues to keep Republican support for gay marriage below fifty percent. The social stances taken by Republican politicians have become outdated, and have led to a highly negative image of the party that overshadows the merits of fiscal conservatism. The result is a stereotype of Republicans as the party of the insensitive, which aligned perfectly with the narrative created by the media and the Obama campaign. The Romney campaign attempted to avoid controversial social issues while Paul Ryan’s conservative social views were at odds with the American public, which did not help the GOP’s chances in 2012. These factors proved to be detrimental to Governor Romney’s campaign.
Prominent GOP members have responded in kind. Senators Marco Rubio, Lindsay Graham, and John McCain have co-sponsored legislation with Democrats to implement immigration reform by creating an eventual pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Senators Rob Portman, Mark Kirk, and Lisa Murkowski have voiced public support for gay marriage. And a new wave of socially liberal Republicans have emerged, led by San Diego politician Carl DeMaio, an openly gay candidate for one of California’s congressional seats who supports marriage equality, marijuana legalization, and abortion rights. These developments are an acknowledgement that at the root of conservatism is a fundamental idea that the government should not interfere with a citizen’s personal life.
However, a paradox remains in the Republican Party that has resulted in increased fragmentation. Can Republicans continue to moderate their social policies while still retaining the bulk of their voting base? Republicans dominate in the regions of the country where many religious conservatives reside. If Republicans move too far to the left on social issues, it may cause a backlash from the socially conservative wing of the Republican coalition. This has manifested itself in the immigration debate, with Republicans angling both in favor of the immigration reform bill and against it.
The issue of demographics also featured prominently in the last election. 93 percent of African-American voters, who have traditionally supported the Democratic Party since the New Deal era, voted for President Obama. A majority of women and gays likewise voted for the president. And 71 % of Latinos voted for the Democrats. This figure was particularly disturbing, as Republican President George W. Bush won 43 % of the Latino vote only eight years earlier.
The GOP has begun revamping their outreach to different demographics while also tailoring their message of economic growth to those communities previously neglected by the party. The party has remained cognizant of the fact that it cannot expect to win presidential elections while relying primarily on white, older, male voters.
Still, Republicans might face an uphill battle in 2016. There is wide speculation that Hillary Clinton will seek the Democratic nomination in 2016. Vice President Joe Biden and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, among others, may also vie for the Democratic nomination.
Regardless of the opposition in 2016, the Republican platform on foreign and economic policy will not change substantially, and will be fine-tuned so that the message reaches a broader swath of the population. There should be significant change on social policy, however, and it will take a unique candidate who can integrate these former weaknesses into a successful Republican package. Above all, this candidate and the party as a whole cannot forget that legislative successes in the 2014 midterm elections do not necessarily translate into victory in the presidential election, despite President Obama’s second term performance. This creates a first tier of viable candidates in 2016 who could potentially defeat a Democratic candidate and a second tier of candidates who are better suited as running mates for the Republican nominee.
The First Tier
Senator Marco Rubio (FL)
It is fitting that Marco Rubio delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address. As the current face of the Republican Party as it undergoes its image makeover, Rubio is projected as one of the favorites to contend in 2016. Elected as a heavy underdog during the Tea Party wave in 2010, Rubio is considered to be one of the brightest and most popular figures among conservatives. He has led the charge on the immigration reform bill in the Senate, which has bipartisan support, though he has received criticism from his GOP counterparts in the Senate, including Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, who are concerned with the lack of emphasis on border security in the bill.
The young Senator has credibility among Republicans as a fiscal conservative. He has supported efforts to balance the federal budget, reform Social Security, and flatten the income tax. As a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Rubio opposed cutting the R&D portion of the defense budget while voting to extend the wiretap provision of the Patriot Act. Though Rubio is regarded as a social conservative, he espouses somewhat moderate views. On abortion, he is pro-life but supports the legal right of women to have an abortion, while on gay marriage he believes that states should have the right to define marriage and determine whether to allow gay marriage.
As the son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio could attract Latino voters to the GOP ticket, particularly because of his involvement with immigration reform. His prominence as a Florida politician may help the GOP win the crucial swing state in 2016. Some on the right believe that Rubio’s youth, fresh ideas, and ability to communicate with voters make him the “Republican Obama” in 2016, albeit with more experience in the Senate. The key for Rubio will be to continue moving the GOP to the mainstream while promoting a conservative fiscal agenda. Given these credentials, Rubio will almost positively make a run in 2016.
Governor Chris Christie (NJ)
Former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie shocked the world in 2009 when he defeated incumbent Governor Jon Corzine in overwhelmingly Democratic New Jersey. As the Keynote Speaker at the 2012 Republican National Convention, Christie made a name for himself as a free-wheeling politician who is willing to put politics aside in the best interest of his state. He is adamant about reducing New Jersey’s budget deficit while also taking federal and state bureaucrats to task.
Christie is unafraid to speak his mind and clashes with establishment Republicans as frequently as he does with Democrats. He publicly blasted Speaker of the House John Boehner for criticizing Christie’s appreciation towards President Obama for his help during Hurricane Sandy. He developed a reputation as a pragmatist moderate Republican because of his willingness to eschew party loyalty. Christie is highly popular in New Jersey and has a 73% approval rating due to his effective leadership and public perception about his dedication to his constituents first and foremost. Christie is a social moderate who holds more conservative positions on some issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, and centric stances with regards to state-funded school vouchers for children from failing schools and support for medical marijuana. Christie believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, though he has stated that he believes the issue should be settled by a referendum. And while he is pro-life and supports certain restrictions on abortion, such as banning partial-term abortions and requiring parental notification, he feels that there should be some exceptions in which abortion is acceptable.
Lauded for his proactive crisis management during Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, Christie has begun posturing for 2016 by making repeated trips abroad to declare solidarity with Israel. In addition, the overweight Governor had lap-band surgery earlier this year to help reduce his weight. Christie would be beneficial to party efforts to win over moderates, independents, and even some liberals. There is also speculation that Christie could change the electoral landscape by winning heavily blue New Jersey in 2016. Provided that he can prove to the public that he is physically fit for office and can also maintain support from grassroot conservatives, Christie is very likely to enter the race in 2016.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (CA)
The only candidate on this list who has never run for elected office, Condoleezza Rice brings the most federal executive experience as a former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State to President George W. Bush. Rice clearly brings credibility to the Republican Party on foreign policy matters and is seen as one of the most intelligent individuals among conservatives. Rice was considered to be the realist “voice of reason” among the predominantly neoconservative foreign policy members of the Bush administration. She was the architect behind President George H.W. Bush’s policy of German unification and advised the president on Soviet affairs while the Soviet Union dissolved. During her tenure as National Security Advisor for the younger Bush, Rice was involved with the initial phases of the War on Terrorism. As the Secretary of State during President George W. Bush’s second term, Rice was responsible for implementing “transformational diplomacy”, or the expansion of democratic government and institutions in other countries. A political scientist and former Provost of Stanford University, Dr. Rice also has experience in the private sector. She is not a politician in the traditional sense because she has never run for political office, and was appointed to her political and diplomatic positions based on merit.
Rice is one of the few prominent members from the Bush administration who is still seen in a sympathetic light by the American public. Though she has previously said that she has no desire to run for political office, Rice may decide that her outsider status could help the GOP return to the White House in 2016. Dr. Rice could potentially be the first female President of the United States and as an African-American there is some speculation that she could help Republicans improve their dismal showing among this key demographic. However, she has made no indication that she would like to run for office and it is more likely that she would be the running mate on the GOP ticket in 2016 rather than the presidential nominee. The former Secretary of State is among the most viable contenders for 2016.
Former Governor Jeb Bush (FL)
The younger brother of former President George W. Bush and son of former President George H.W. Bush, Jeb Bush is currently the most popular member of the Bush dynasty. After being elected as Governor of Florida in 1998, Bush served as Governor for eight years and was a very popular figure in the Sunshine State. He is also the only Republican in the history of the state to serve two full terms as Governor. More moderate than his father and older brother, Jeb Bush is a reformer who devoted much of his tenure as Governor to improving Florida’s educational system by implementing school vouchers, charter schools, and programs for rural students to participate in Advanced Placement (AP) classes. He is a shrewd compromiser and led conservation efforts to protect the Everglades while still allowing offshore drilling. He initiated major healthcare reform on Medicare, evidence of his support for fiscal conservatism.
Bush is a social moderate who has been vocal about enacting immigration reform. Fluent in Spanish and married to a woman of Mexican descent, Bush was very popular among Latinos in Florida, the majority of whom supported him in both of his elections. He has been involved in charitable activities his entire life, and takes time to volunteer at children’s hospitals and homeless shelters in Miami. Most commentators see Bush as a pragmatic conservative who is most concerned with enacting the best policies for his constituents. Many believe that he would help the GOP win Florida in a presidential election, and could also win the crucial Latino vote. He has been rumored as a contender in each of the last two elections; however, one thing seems to be holding him back: his surname. The Bush name is not nearly as popular at the national level as it used to be, and Obama won in 2008 and 2012 in large part because he attributed the country’s economic woes to his predecessor while also linking the GOP nominees to President George W. Bush’s policies. Jeb Bush would have a very difficult time setting himself apart from his brother. However, he is a different breed from his father and brother and is viewed as more intelligent than both despite their respective achievements and successes. Moreover, 2016 will be eight years removed from his brother’s time in office, and his fresh ideas combined with a potentially disappointing Obama presidency could turn the table. Were it not for his name, Jeb Bush might be the GOP front runner for 2016 and this explains why he is reluctant to enter the race.,
The Second Tier
Representative Paul Ryan (WI)
Though conventional wisdom would suggest that Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012 should take the plunge and enter the GOP race in 2016, the results of last year’s election showed that voters rejected Paul Ryan as a potential Vice-President, and are unlikely to elect him as President. First elected to Congress at the age of 28, Ryan has been the Republican Party’s most prominent advocate of reducing the federal budget. He is very popular among conservatives, and is both fiscally conservative as well as socially conservative. That being said, it is doubtful that Ryan would be able to attract moderates and independents to the GOP in a national election. His selection as Romney’s running mate failed to tilt Wisconsin to the GOP, and despite his youth and energy, his support came mostly from older, white, male voters who comprise the bulk of the Republican base.
However, Ryan and the Republicans are expected to retain the majority in the House for the foreseeable future, and it is likely that he will propel himself upward on the House leadership ladder, and could eventually become Speaker of the House. Should a Republican candidate win in 2016, Ryan would be the ideal legislative representative to work with the White House and pass legislation amenable to Republicans and conservatives. If he is successful in that role, he could bolster his chances at making a run down the road since he is still very young. Some Republicans might be weary of selecting Ryan onto the national ticket, but American voters are notorious for having short memories, so Ryan may still choose to run.
Governor Bobby Jindal (LA)
The innovative Louisiana Governor has been the most active member of the GOP in dissecting the reasons for the loss in 2012 and articulating how to improve the Party’s standing in national elections going forward. As an Indian-American conservative Governor of a southern state, Jindal does not conform to the traditional conventions of politics. Jindal is a former Rhodes scholar who has served in the private sector, as a member of President Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services, and as a legislator in the House of Representatives. He won 66 % of the vote during his gubernatorial reelection campaign in 2011, which is the highest in the history of Louisiana state politics. Despite having a different worldview than most members of the Indian-American community, Jindal is considered to be the most prominent politician of Asian descent in the history of the United States.
Jindal has tackled issues such as education, health care reform, taxation, energy, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as Governor of Louisiana. He has helped reform the state educational system and implemented vouchers for low income students. He has proposed fiscally conservative measures such as an effort to abolish the state income tax as well as improving Louisiana’s credit rating following the 2008 recession. A graduate from Brown University at the age of 20, Jindal has been called a genius and is one of the most intellectually gifted politicians in the country. However, he has a horrible tendency to “dumb down” his ideas, and his Republican response to President Obama’s 2009 State of the Union was very poorly received. As a devout Christian, his socially conservative views are at odds with many Americans, and Jindal may not be palatable as a national candidate. He would be better off serving under a Republican administration as a prominent cabinet official, and it is now known that Mitt Romney would have made Jindal his Secretary of Health and Human Services had he won the 2012 election. Still, Jindal’s executive experience, intelligence, conservative credentials, and diversity could make him a viable running mate in 2016. But the popular Louisiana Governor’s southern politics may prevent him from running for President, at least for the upcoming election.
Senator Rand Paul (KY)
The face of the GOP’s libertarian wing, Rand Paul utilizes old-fashioned political techniques to introduce unorthodox ideas to the Republican Party. Paul is an ardent defender of the Constitution and free market as well as a champion of civil liberties like his father. He is unique in that he sometimes votes with the Republican establishment and at other times veers off on his own libertarian course. He similarly supports a Balanced Budget Amendment and is a critic of American monetary policy. Paul is different than his father, in one important respect, which makes him better suited to national politics. He is not an anti-intervention activist and instead supports having a strong American military presence abroad and at home. He is a vocal supporter of states’ rights and though he is a social conservative, it his belief that states should decide the most prominent social issues, such as abortion, gay marriage, and legalization of recreational drugs. He gave a speech at historically black Howard University earlier this year in which he stated that he believes mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes should be reduced and also voted to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) before the Supreme Court struck down this law.
Paul is a rare breed of politician who stands with his principles no matter how unpopular he is among his colleagues and literally will stand and argue his position until he is forced to stop or is unable to keep going. Recently, he filibustered the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan who said that the United States could theoretically use drones within the country. Paul held the floor for nearly thirteen hours which resulted in Attorney General Eric Holder’s admission that the President was not authorized to target non-combatant American citizens on U.S. soil. A former practicing ophthalmologist, Paul was elected to the Senate in 2010 as a Tea Party Republican and is one of the favorites among grass root conservatives. However, he could be painted as an extremist who wants to take away many important social services, and the American public may not be ready for him as a national candidate yet. Still, he is an interesting choice going forward and whoever wins the nomination in 2016 will need his support as well as the support of his followers.
In addition to these candidates, it is very likely that other dark-horse or unknown conservatives will jump in the mix. Right now, it seems as though the Democrats are preparing to nominate Hillary Clinton or another veteran politician, and whoever runs for the Republicans will need to have experience, innovative ideas, the ability to connect with voters, and policies that attract moderates and even liberals. Given the possible options among Rubio, Christie, and Rice, at least one should be on the GOP ticket. Jeb Bush could factor in as well, and Bobby Jindal and Rand Paul are still solid choices as running mates. The Republicans have plenty of reason to be optimistic for the future: Ryan, Jindal, and Rubio are all in their 40’s while Christie, Rice, and Paul are each under 60. It will be up to these faces to convince voters that any of the country’s shortcomings were the fault of President Obama in the same way that President Obama successfully persuaded voters that George Bush shouldered much of the blame for the country’s situation in 2008. If the Republican candidate is able to accomplish this feat, the GOP could be well on its way to re-establishing party relevance in presidential elections.
Political Science ’14