The end of the 2014 midterm elections can mean only one thing: It’s time to launch the 2016 presidential race.
The contest to the White House kicked off Wednesday, two years before voters will decide who succeeds President Barack Obama.
In some ways, the race started months ago, particularly in states – such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina – that cast the first votes starting in about 14 months in the contests for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.
“This is New Hampshire,” quipped Raymond Buckley, the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “People started talking about 2016 in 2000.”
A large red, white and blue bus pushing Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination has been signing up supporters across the country for months. Prospective Republican candidates have been trying to one-up each other while campaigning for candidates in the midterm elections. And just last week, Ronald Reagan’s presidential library announced that it’s inviting Republican presidential candidates to a debate in September 2015.
Starting earlier and earlier is the new normal. Barack Obama made his first trek to New Hampshire a few weeks after the 2006 midterms, on his way to the 2008 Democratic nomination. One thing that’s very different this time, though, is the way the two major parties view the field.
Traditionally, Republicans rally to a familiar heir apparent who’s run before – Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012. Democrats often love a new face – Mike Dukakis in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992, John Kerry in 2004, Obama in 2008.
This time it’s reversed.
Clinton, who ran in 2008, dominates the potential Democratic field nationally, as well as in key states. She’s leading by 52 percentage points, according to polls compiled this week by the website Real Clear Politics.
“She is the person who will definitely determine what happens on the Democratic side,” said Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “Republicans usually have a clear favorite. Instead, she is in the same position Republicans are usually in.”
On Tuesday night, after Republicans won control of the Senate, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., posted photos of Clinton campaigning with candidates who lost Tuesday, each tagged #HillarysLosers.
“This was not only a repudiation of the president, but I think really repudiation of Hillary Clinton,” Paul told CNN on Wednesday. “Everybody thought, ‘Oh, hey, I’m going to be a Clinton Democrat.’ Turns out that’s not so popular in a lot of states, either.”
As Clinton puts off a formal decision on running, many of the other potential Democratic candidates – including Vice President Joe Biden, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia – are polling in the single digits.
Sheila Charles, an archaeologist in New Hampshire who supported Obama over Clinton in 2008, isn’t sure Clinton’s huge lead will guarantee the nomination. “There’ll be a lot of chatter and debate,” she said. “I don’t think it’s over at all.”
The liberal wing of the party is urging Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to run – there’s even a Ready for Warren super political action committee – but she’s said repeatedly that she isn’t interested.
Ilya Sheyman, the executive director of the MoveOn.org political action committee, said the issue Warren had championed, income equality, which affects programs such as Social Security and college loan debt, should play the most prominent role in the 2016 elections. “How do you build an economy that works for everyone?” he asked.
Unlike Democrats, Republican have no clear front-runner and plenty of possible candidates, many of whom were jostling for position Wednesday.
There’s a plethora of governors – Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rick Perry of Texas – and one former governor who’s part of a political dynasty, Jeb Bush of Florida, who are interested in the job. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who ran in 2008, may consider another run.
And there’s a slew of members of Congress among the possible contenders: Paul and fellow Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, along with Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 vice-presidential nominee. Some Republicans are urging Mitt Romney, their party’s unsuccessful nominee in 2012, who’s been a much-sought-after surrogate on the campaign trail this year, to run again.
Christie said Wednesday that he’d decide whether to run sometime next year.
“There’s no reason to rush a decision as important as this,” he said on CNN. “You know, I’ve said it all along. There’s three questions I’ll ask myself: Is it right for me? Is it right for my family? Is it right for my country? And if I don’t answer yes to all three, I won’t run, and if I do answer yes to all three, then I will.”
South Carolina Republican consultant David Woodard said he preferred Rubio because the party needed a generational change. “They need someone who can energize the party,” he said.
But with so many Republican candidates, Woodard acknowledged that “it could get ugly.”
Many 2016 hopefuls of both parties have already started campaigning without campaigning, flocking to states on behalf of midterm candidates but also privately talking to potential donors and supporters. They’ll be back in full force after the holidays looking for contributions, attending party events and wooing activists and lawmakers.
On the Democratic side, Biden has been to several states, including Florida, California, Massachusetts and Iowa. O’Malley has been to Iowa and New Hampshire. Clinton returned to Iowa after a six-year hiatus in September and was in New Hampshire on Sunday, in part to thank the state for its crucial support during her failed 2008 campaign.
Andrew Arriz, 17, a student at St. Paul’s high school in Concord, N.H., attended the rally Sunday in nearby Nashua where Clinton was campaigning for fellow Democrats, to catch a glimpse of a former – and maybe future – presidential candidate. “I think she’d make a good president,” he said.
On the Republican side, Paul spent Monday on a statewide tour with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Rubio was in Iowa last week to help Republican Joni Ernst in her campaign for Senate. Cruz traveled to Alaska to help Republican Dan Sullivan in one of the closest Senate races of the year.
“The phrase ‘the permanent campaign’. . . has gotten truer and truer over time,” said William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton who’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research center.