Election 2016

The GOP's 2016 Shadow Primary Has Already Begun

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Technically, the 2016 Republican presidential primary hasn't started yet. But for all practical purposes, it's already on.

One intriguing feature about the shadow primary this cycle is that it features three potential contenders for the "moderate establishment candidate" slot.

Today in Michigan, for example, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush offered this hint-hint, nudge-nudge of a non-answer when asked about his plans for 2016: "I have no idea whether I'm going to run for office or not." Translation: I'm totally thinking about running for office.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is busy telling Republicans that they need to find a candidate with, as The New York Times describes it, "broad appeal, like himself or Jeb Bush." Christie reportedly warned a meeting of social conservatives this summer that their alternative was to "pick somebody else and lose."

And then there's Mitt Romney. Like Bush and Christie, he hasn't officially said he's running. But people close to the former Massachusetts governor are saying that it's on his mind. And in a Des Moines Register survey last week, Romney was the only GOP candidate to beat Hillary Clinton—who is also not technically running yet—when likely voters in Iowa were asked who they would pick if the election were held today.

Obviously, early polls like this have no predictive value when it comes to the final outcome of the 2016 election. But they can weigh on a candidate's mind, and influence his or her decision to get into the race.

There are plenty more potential candidates in the mix—Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Marco Rubio. It's going to be a crowded field.

But right now, it's especially worth paying attention to Romney, Christie, and Bush, all of whom are vying for what is essentially the same "slot" in the Republican line-up—the moderate establishment favorite who wins the nod on the strength of electability. Partly that's because their candidacies will help gauge the continuing strength and influence of the old-line party establishment. And partly it's because a fight over that slot could unsettle the outcome of the primary in unusual ways.

The conventional wisdom, which is not perfectly accurate but true enough, is that the Republican Party establishment usually picks a favorite early on, puts a lot of resources into this candidate, and that this person then typically wins the GOP nod after the other candidates duke it out and split the remainder of the vote. But it's at least imaginable that if three or even just two of this trio of establishment-friendly contenders enter the race, then donor resources, and primary votes, could end up split, making room for someone else—perhaps someone a little more interesting—to end up with the nomination.