Whether you like it or not, the 2016 presidential election is underway. As President Obama begins the last two years of his presidency, the field of would-be candidates eagerly jockey to replace him. What begins now, a year before primary voters cast their votes, is the “invisible primary,” where potential candidates work feverishly behind the scenes to court donors, create campaign apparatuses, and boost their name recognition and policy credentials. While many see Hillary Clinton’s nomination for the Democratic Party as inevitable, the Republican field is anybody’s guess.
The 2014 midterm elections, in which Republicans won control of the Senate and also claimed victory in several gubernatorial elections, were interpreted by many pundits and analysts as a sign that Republicans have the upper-hand going into 2016. However, if Hillary Clinton does win the nomination for the Democratic Party, the Republican candidate will have a significant challenge ahead of him or her.
First, Republicans need a candidate who can unify the party. Too many of the potential candidates base their support on a particular faction. For example, Senator Rand Paul’s ideological commitments are very well developed. He is an important critical voice within the GOP, but if he were nominated, he would certainly alienate much of his potential Republican support. Ted Cruz, a Tea Party favorite, suffers from the same problem.
Republicans also need a candidate who can appeal across party lines. Candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who enjoy support of the Christian conservative contingency, will find it difficult to get votes from independents. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is a rising star in the 2016 field and a huge hit with the white middle-class GOP base, but has so far made no efforts to broaden his message to moderates.
Reconciling bipartisan appeal with party unification is tricky. Even if a candidate can walk this tightrope, they run the risk of being described as bland, robotic, or ideologically uncommitted as they adjust their views to gain mass appeal. This was part of Romney’s downfall in 2012. If a happy medium exists, Romney failed to find it. The Republicans cannot afford to make this mistake again.
With these credentials in mind, a few candidates come to mind as viable options for a Republican White House. The current “frontrunner” of the race is Jeb Bush, brother of President George W. Bush and son of President George H.W. Bush. Bush may not be loved among Libertarian, Tea Party or even Christian conservative voters, but they don’t hate him either. Not hating someone is a low standard to set for unity, but it might be enough to win. He is also making conscious efforts to court bipartisan support. His moderate views may make him unpopular with diehard conservatives, but this same moderation could get him elected.
Other candidates also fit these qualifications but have problems that might hurt them in a general election. Marco Rubio could be an excellent candidate, but he might be seen as too young. Chris Christie, an early favorite even before Romney had lost in 2012, is unpopular in the polls right now. In addition, the other candidates mentioned (Paul, Walker, Cruz, Huckabee, Santorum) as well as some who were not (such as Governors Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry), could find the right message and right circumstances to deliver a win. But apart from the principles outlined above, this will probably be difficult.
This is what the Republican Party must do if they want to win the presidency. As much as we all like to discuss ideology and engage in political rhetoric, ideology and rhetoric will not deliver the Republicans the White House. The policy issues are important, but the ability to form a coalition within and across party lines will deliver the the votes Republican candidates need to succeed.