If you want to wager on who the 2016 Republican nominee will be and have only one choice, the best bet may be former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. However, the odds overwhelmingly suggest the former governor won’t win the nomination — assuming he even runs.
This underscores, more than any other time in memory, how unformed the contest for the Republican nomination is. “It’s absolutely wide-open,” said Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman who also served as head of the National Republican Campaign Committee.
Intervening events and the shape of the field will change the contest. As Davis argues, there now are two broad categories of contenders: establishment figures, such as Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, though some believe Christie has fallen too far to be in this category, and outsiders, such as Sen. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.
If one side has a surplus of candidates — the outsiders, for instance — and the other has more refined list, it would tilt the race to an establishment candidate. That’s what facilitated Mitt Romney’s nomination in 2012. The outsiders, however, are much more politically seasoned this time than they were in 2012 when, at one point, a former pizza executive rose to the top of the pack.
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The lack of any clear consensus in the party emerges after talking to Davis and several other political wise men — none of them have committed to any of the potential 2016 candidates.
Here’s some early handicapping, based more on those insights and a quasi-plausible scenario, than on any polling done so far.
JEB BUSH: 4 TO 1
The son and brother of former presidents, Bush inherits a national political and fund-raising network. He is a policy heavyweight who could make the case to a victory-hungry party that he’d be a strong general-election candidate and best able to govern.
The downsides are more pronounced. Bush is rusty, having not been on a ballot in 12 years. He has stumbled on some issues, including immigration reform — an issue he cares a lot about — and he is now returning to his pro-reform instincts.
Immigration and several other issues, as well as the Bush brand, are anathema to many grass-roots conservatives. Does he have enough fire in his belly for the contest? Any candidate will have to spend 50 or more days next year in Iowa and/or New Hampshire. Is his family on board? And how would voters react to a battle of the legacies — Bush versus Hillary Clinton?
SCOTT WALKER: 6 TO 1
The Wisconsin governor is one of the few early hopefuls acceptable to both the establishment and business-friendly elements of the party and to movement conservatives, who are attracted by his successful efforts against labor unions in a Democratic-leaning state. He’s being compared with another Midwestern governor from a blue state, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who flamed out last time. Yet there is a major difference: Walker, having headed off an expensive recall, has proved he can raise money.
The issue with Walker’s acceptability is he doesn’t excite either side of the party: He’s charisma-challenged. And he could face a difficult re-election this November.
MIKE HUCKABEE: 7 TO 1
More than anyone, this former preacher energizes the social right. The first test will be the Iowa caucuses, which Huckabee won in 2008. More than half of Republican Iowa caucus-goers in 2012 described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians; in New Hampshire, which comes next, they make up a much lower share. The ex-Arkansas governor and current TV talk-show host is the most glib of any of the aspirants.
The Republican supply-siders are deeply suspicious of Huckabee’s populist leanings and his moment may have been in 2012 — which he passed up in order to make money. Money is a problem for Huckabee, though, as he lacks the fundraising apparatus of other front-runners. His only hope would be to sweep a few early contests and build momentum.
RAND PAUL: 8 TO 1
It’s hard to see the Republicans nominating the libertarian maverick from Kentucky. The foreign-policy establishment is horrified by Paul’s noninterventionist views and his positions on civil liberties aren’t popular with many primary voters.
Still, building on his father’s presidential runs, Paul has a national network of committed voters.
He should be able to enlarge the Republican primary universe and stay in the race for the long haul. An unlikely winner, he does have a good chance to significantly affect the debate and perhaps the outcome.
CHRIS CHRISTIE AND MARCO RUBIO: 10 TO 1
Only a year ago, the New Jersey governor and Florida senator were the co-favorites for the nomination. Separately, they were nearly coronated by national magazines. The British betting service oddschecker.com still rates them as the leaders — both are at around 5 to 1. Those odds don’t reflect the down-slide both are experiencing.
Rubio has never recovered from supporting immigration reform legislation the Senate passed last year. He is falling in the polls, and to party activists at events such as the Conservative Political Action Conference, he’s a goner. Rubio is trying to win back some of the party’s right-wing with a host of other initiatives but it’s probably too late and, if Bush runs, he may not even enter the race.
Christie was the darling of the party’s heavy-hitters on Wall Street. And he has been smashingly successful in a blue state. The scandal over the George Washington Bridge lane closures has infected his administration and the investigations continue. The Christie magic seems to be vanishing, and Wall Street’s fats cats reportedly are looking for alternatives.
TED CRUZ: 12 TO 1
It’s easy to discount Cruz’s candidacy. The party doesn’t turn first-term senators into presidents. Cruz has alienated many top Republicans in Washington, and his moves to the right raise doubts about his viability as a general-election candidate.
Yet Cruz probably is the smartest contender and has an ability to wow conservative audiences and dominate the stage at debates and joint appearances. If several of the other outside possibilities drop out, Cruz could be a finalist.
PAUL RYAN: 15 TO 1
On paper, the House Budget Committee chairman and 2012 vice-presidential candidate is impressive: He’s well versed in policy, attractive, articulate, with strong economic bona-fides and is working to fashion a credible economic opportunity agenda.
Here’s why he probably won’t run: He can’t become the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a longtime dream, and then run for president. Even his allies can’t see him dedicating the time required in 2015 to run in Iowa and New Hampshire.
RICK PERRY: 20 TO 1
There are second acts in American presidential politics — Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, possibly Hillary Clinton — and the three-term Texas governor will try to bounce back from his dreadful run in 2012. Perry is a terrific retail politician.
Still, the image of Perry as the bumbling candidate is etched deeply in the political psyche. His problem is that grass-roots conservatives, who like him, are looking for a different face.
BOBBY JINDAL: 30 TO 1
The Louisiana governor has his sights on the presidency. He already is developing policy alternatives on big issues such as health care.
But his record as governor is fairly flimsy. Moreover, Jindal, who is Indian-American, is unpopular in his home state and lost his race for governor in 2003 before being elected in 2007.
DARK HORSE: 40 TO 1
The last dark horse to win the nomination was Wendell Willkie in 1940; so think Indiana: Gov. Mike Pence could be a candidate. Then there’s former Sen. Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012 but did so against an exceptionally weak field. John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, should be on the list, but his acceptance of the Medicaid expansion, which is good for the Buckeye state, is lousy for Republican primaries.
In this island of uncertainty, there is one sure bet: The nominee won’t be Donald Trump.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg News columnist.