Thanks to the NCAA basketball tournament, “March Madness” is now a household phrase.
It’s also applies to a crowded field of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls. With two differences:
(1) 68 teams compete in the NCAA tourney; the Republican field right now may be larger;
(2) The basketball competition is over in less than a month, whereas the GOP’s winnowing process is a more prolonged mess.
Still, that doesn’t stop us from having a little fun with the idea of a 2016 primary competition, hoops bracket-style.
Here’s my list of 16 competitors, divided into two categories of contenders: eight possible candidates who make their living primarily inside the beltway; eight possible candidates from beyond the beltway.
(Author’s note: unlike the NCAA, I didn’t “seed” the field, ranking candidates from strongest to weakest. In this competition, the first round is all about similar/contrasting styles and good story lines.)
Your 2016 tournament (click to enlarge):
The Sweet Sixteen
Paul Ryan vs. Marco Rubio. We start with two heavyweights – and for a reason: if Ryan seeks the presidency, he presumably has first dibs on Mitt Romney’s campaign network. If Ryan doesn’t run, then the fundraising, policy and field operations are there for Rubio’s (and others’) taking. At the moment, Ryan’s focused on budget reform, not 2016 politicking. He sounds like a man more interested in staying in the House. Rubio’s talking immigration reform (among other issues) – in the process, coming across as more and more presidential.
Because of that, Rubio wins this matchup.
Rick Santorum vs. Newt Gingrich. Both left Congress; neither left the Washington fishbowl. If they run, they run the risk of overlapping as they did in 2012. To the extent Gingrich is campaigning these days, it’s on behalf of California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s goofy Citizenville book (as when Newt bonded with Nancy Pelosi over global warming, cue The Odd Couple theme). I can see Santorum camping out in Iowa again (and at least one top donor wants him to). Is Gingrich anywhere as determined? Santorum wins this matchup.
Michele Bachmann vs. Rand Paul. The two libertarians see eye to eye on foreign aid and Washington dealmaking. Where they differ: career trajectory. Bachmann ran for president in 2012 and didn’t last past the first week in January. Paul could easily step in, come 2016, where his father left off in 2012 (the son’s already been branded “the rabbit” in the GOP field). Paul wins this matchup.
John Thune vs. Kelly Ayotte. Since it’s not really a tourney without a Cinderella story, here are two longshots. Thune has two pluses: all-American good looks; easy access to Iowa from his home base of South Dakota. As for Ayotte, John McCain and Lindsey Graham’s “third amigo”, she’s the junior senator from New Hampshire. Need we say more? Because Hillary Clinton and gender politics loom on the horizon, the opportunities will continue to arise for Ayotte to step up for the party, as she’s been doing since the last election. Ayotte wins this matchup.
Ben Carson vs. Sarah Palin. No one ever mistook Palin for a brain surgeon. Until his feisty appearances at the National Prayer Breakfast and CPAC, no one would have mistaken Carson, a neurosurgeon, for Palin. But that’s what he is at the moment: like the self-proclaimed “hockey mom” in 2008, the GOP’s newest plain-talkin’ star. Again, trajectories: Carson is leaving his medical post at Johns Hopkins, thus freeing him up for political dabbling; Palin’s doing prop comedy and pondering her next move. Winner: Carson.
Bobby Jindal vs. Scott Walker. Two governors who, if they run, are certain to offer their states as the Republican ideal. For Walker, it’s doing battle with public-sector unions. Jindal: eliminating his state’s income tax. This is a pick-‘em choice – one where Jindal has a slight advantage: he’s the chairman of the Republicans Governors Association, which gives him free rein to tour the country next year; Walkers’ the RGA vice chair. Winner: Jindal.
Jeb Bush vs. Bob McDonnell. Two former governors, each with some serious work ahead with regard to skeptical party activists. For Bush, it’s the family name. For McDonnell, its raising taxes while governor of Virginia (though he did restore Scooter Libby’s civil rights). Winner: Bush.
Chris Christie vs. Mike Pence. Why this matchup? Because Pence, the newly elected governor of Indiana (“I’m a Christian, a conservative, a Republican in that order”) would be the anti-Christie in the race, taking social issues straight to Iowa (in 2011, he was the surprise winner of the Values Voter Summit straw poll). Christie is up for re-election this fall. That gives him the better part of two years to figure where and how to make his debut in the elimination derby, while at the same time amassing an enormous war chest that will come in handy if the selection process is more compressed and more nationalized. Winner: Christie.
The Elite Eight:
Rubio vs. Santorum. Electability is the dominant issue. Rubio’s seen as the party’s “new face”; Santorum had to deal with this question – is he too polarizing to win a national contest? – time . . . and . . . again in 2012. Winner: Rubio.
Paul vs. Ayotte. His father’s presidential run didn’t live up to expectations, leaving Paulistas to spin that it was all about the movement, not the campaign. His recent filibuster suggests the son might have a political sophistication the father didn’t. Winner: Paul.
Carson vs. Jindal. Name the last candidate with a record of cutting eliminating taxes. Name the last presidential nominee of either major party never to have held an elected office. While you’re thinking, we’ll move on. Winner: Jindal.
Bush vs. Christie. How many of the old guard (the five previous Bush presidential runs, 1980-2004) will jump on board the Christie bandwagon? Winner Christie.
The Final Four:
Rubio vs. Paul. The last guy to support Paul might his Blue Grass colleague, Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The two are “frenemies”, at best. Rubio will try to keep one foot in each camp: GOP establishment and disaffected outsiders. They teach surfing in Florida, right? Winner: Rubio.
Jindal vs. Christie. Conservative orthodoxy born on the Bayou takes on the Jersey style of center and right, though it’s not always a friendly greeting from Asbury Park (check out these comments on teachers’ unions). Winner: Christie.
Rubio vs. Christie. We’d love to tell you the winner of this one, but where’s the fun in that? You’ll have to stay tuned until 2016.
One final note: NCAA brackets are about the known – the teams are already chosen; the matchups already set. That’s no so with presidential elections. We’ll have to wait to see how the field takes shape and where the path leads the candidates.
Early favorites? The University of Kentucky was ranked third in pre-season polls; the Wildcats didn’t make the tournament. Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, Gary Hart, Hillary Clinton? All frontrunners that didn’t last.
Anyone up for a little bracket-busting in 2016?
Follow Whalen on Twitter: @HooverWhalen