The 2016 Presidential Race Begins Today

by Stuart Rothenberg January 23, 2013 · 8:00 AM EST

It is far too early to handicap the 2016 Academy Awards, the 2016 World Series or the 2016 Summer Olympics. And yet, if you are a true political junkie, you may already be apoplectic that we aren’t yet knee-deep in discussions about the next presidential race.

While you have my pity if you are one of those people, it’s undeniably true that politicians being who and what they are, it is never too early to ponder about the next step of the political ladder. And for some, the White House is the only rung that really matters.

I remember in 2005 asking Robert Gibbs, then the press secretary for recently elected Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, whether, given the talk of a Draft Obama campaign, the freshman senator was mulling a presidential run in 2008.

Gibbs, whom I had known from his days at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, laughed at the absurdity of the question (I thought it silly, too, but wanted to make sure that I wasn’t missing something) and assured me that no, the just-elected senator had no intention of running, no matter what rumors or draft movements were floating around the Internet.

Obama understood where he ranked in the pecking order and was only starting to learn how things were done on Capitol Hill, Gibbs assured me, adding the obvious disclaimer that, of course, nobody knows what will happen down the road, but the freshman senator wasn’t considering anything as soon as 2008.

It wasn’t terribly long after that that Obama did start to look at a possible bid for the Democratic nomination, no matter how intimidating the probable candidacy of then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York looked.

I don’t believe, I should point out, that Gibbs had intentionally misled me. I believe that the freshman senator wasn’t seriously thinking about a presidential run when I asked.

But things can change quickly in Washington, D.C., and Democrats started whispering into the ear of the then-senator from Illinois that while 2008 wasn’t an ideal time for him to mount a presidential bid, it might turn out to be the best time. Who knows when another opportunity for a fresh face and political outsider will come along?

Open seats are difficult to resist, since they often seem enticingly winnable. That should make 2016 a tempting prize for presidential hopefuls on both sides of the aisle.

The Democratic side looks too easy to handicap, which probably means surprises are in store.

For different reasons, Clinton, now the outgoing secretary of State, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. are in a tier all their own, though they aren’t in an identical place within that tier.

For many, Clinton, who started as the solid favorite for the Democratic nomination only to have Obama snatch it from her, is the prohibitive favorite for her party’s nomination if she wants it. At this point, we just don’t know if she will want it. Maybe the former first lady doesn’t even know yet.

Biden, who will turn 71 toward the end of this year, was mocked often during Obama’s first term, but the former Delaware senator’s role in negotiating a deal to avert the fiscal cliff and his lead role in trying to come up with gun legislation that could be both effective and enacted suddenly makes him look like a more serious contender in 2016, if he chooses to run.

After Clinton and Biden, the list becomes more speculative. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley are seen as ambitious and interested. Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer probably should be on the list as well.

Cuomo’s oratorical skills and access to New York state’s Democratic dollars can’t be ignored, and while O’Malley didn’t exactly set the world on fire at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, his state has put up good numbers on education and his very liberal views could be appealing to Democrats. Schweitzer has a folksy quality that many like, though I have felt for years that he tries way too hard.

If Clinton takes a pass, another woman or two could well come forward (New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has received mention, but other names are sure to circulate, as well), and given the makeup of the Democratic Party, a serious minority contender certainly can’t be ruled out.

Compared with the early Democratic line, the list of possible GOP hopefuls looks about the size of the cast of “Les Misérables.”

Unsuccessful vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal surely have to be at or near the top of any list.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who resisted efforts to draft him into last year’s race, sounds more likely to run in 2016, though he probably hurt himself more with rank-and-file Republicans with his comments praising Obama after Superstorm Sandy than most national political reporters now understand.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, who ended up being the final anti-Mitt Romney alternative in the race for the 2012 GOP nomination, is acting as if he will be a candidate, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry has indicated that his seriously flawed run last year wouldn’t preclude him from making another try. (Perry, of course, has not announced whether he will seek re-election in 2014.)

Two high-profile governors over the past couple of years, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, probably should be on any list. McDonnell leaves office at the end of this year, so he will need a way to remain relevant after that. One senator who need not worry about that is Kentucky’s Rand Paul, who is widely seen as a future presidential contender, possibly as early as 2016.

Paul is heir to a movement led by his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, though the senator seems to want to broaden his appeal and work within the GOP rather than rely primarily on libertarians (and Libertarians).

Depending on what happens in 2014, a number of other Republican governors could also look at a run, possibly Michigan’s Rick Snyder or Ohio’s John R. Kasich, who has run for the White House before.

And the preliminary list obviously lacks any women, so New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte (and possibly even South Carolina Gov. Nikki R. Haley, if she wins re-election next year) are likely to receive mention, though right now the GOP lacks a woman who is ready to be a top-tier presidential contender.

Of course, over the next two years, many politicians’ stocks will rise or fall, so some names on the lists will drop off and some not receiving mention now surely will be added. Obama can testify to how quickly things can change.