Though the GOP nominating process for 2016 is just beginning, CNN/ORC issued a poll this week that sheds light on how it is unfolding. The survey tested the GOP candidates in a head-to-head match-up, and with only 14 percent undecided, it shows the beginning of the makeup of the Republican field.
Jeb Bush garnered 16 percent in the poll, leading the field, with Scott Walker (13 percent) and Rand Paul (12 percent) following closely behind. Mike Huckabee came in next with 10 percent, and Ben Carson won 9 percent. Chris Christie and Marco Rubio tied at 7 percent support and were followed by Ted Cruz and Rick Perry, both at 4 percent. Bringing up the rear were John Kasich (2 percent), Rick Santorum (1 percent) and Bobby Jindal (1 percent).
To understand what's going on, you need to put yourself in the place of the typical Republican primary voter. And the first thing you need to do is decide if you are for or against Bush.
The former Florida governor been anointed by the media as the front-runner he is the best-known and has the most money. The most notable fact is that Bush is only at 16 percent of the vote in this poll. His name, resources, Florida base and broad appeal should put him much higher. Among GOP donors and elites, he likely runs much better. But 84 percent of the primary electorate isn't buying him right now and wants an alternative. While Bush has not declared, there is no doubt that he is running. And even though he has not projected his credentials and ideas nationally, his lack of appeal, despite full name recognition, should be troublesome for his backers.
Next, you look down the list of candidates and see if there is anyone else you would vote for or, on the other hand, can't support. Paul stands out. You either support the Kentucky senator's novel brand of economic libertarianism, social liberalism and neo-isolationism or you don't. Because Paul isn't likely to change his views or persuade national security or evangelical voters to change theirs, he is not likely to move up.
Huckabee faces a similar problem. The former Arkansas governor is trapped in an ecclesiastical ghetto he beats the hell (or heck) out of Santorum, but to grow, he needs to wage a secular campaign on issues like income inequality, Wall Street deceit and other topics that grow out of his spirituality. He might just do that, but hasn't done it yet.
Christie, the embattled New Jersey governor, needs Bush to fall for him to gain. Not very likely.
Setting aside the poll's stragglers, we have to view the candidacies of Walker, Rubio, Carson and Cruz as a unit, together getting 33 percent of the vote. Some voters may prefer one or the other, but their support is, at the moment, likely interchangeable. The winner of this four-way contest will emerge to challenge Bush and the former Florida governor is vulnerable.
Which candidate that will be requires a more subtle calculation.
Walker has a big lead in financial support, seeming to be the favorite of Charles and David Koch and their allies. But the Wisconsin governor has not yet shown the depth and grasp of issues necessary for the national stage.
Rubio has a positive image but has flip-flopped on immigration and hasn't motivated anyone to storm the barricades ... yet. The Florida senator's public appearances have been too milquetoast and too biographic. He needs to use issues to win.
Cruz turned people off with his stridency on the Senate floor in October of 2013 but may be capable to motivating the greatest positive passion among the bunch. He's probably the brightest and best informed. The Texas senator knows how to use issues, and is currently is the darling of the Tea Party.
Carson is a first-time candidate in an era in which, after our experience with Barack Obama, we distrust ingenues. He still has to prove himself.
Of course, none of these defects are lethal and all can be overcome. Any of the four could do it. (And don't count Huckabee out. He's the most likable and articulate of them all.)