Has the Conventional Wisdom About 2016 Ever Been Right?

Occasionally Yes. Mostly No.

Donald Trump after a recent televised debate. (Photo: Scott Olson for Getty Images)
Donald Trump after a recent televised debate. (Photo: Scott Olson for Getty Images)

No one likes to be accused of echoing the conventional wisdom.

The political and media class, from New York to D.C., will tell you with a wink and a nod that this is what’s really happening in the presidential race, and here’s how it’s all going to be, and ignore the people who don’t know any better. Without fail, predictions are proffered, takes are heated, and tweet storms rage. The conventional wisdom of 2016 race has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But certainty has marked the time. Certainty that Jeb Bush will rise, that Jeb Bush will fall, that Rand Paul is the GOP’s great hope, that Rand Paul is finished, that Donald Trump is a sideshow, that Donald Trump will reign over us all. In the cult of savvy we trust.

As we race onward to November 2016, let’s take a moment to remember the great kernels of conventional wisdom of the past two years. Some have been disproved. Some could be right after all.

This list is in no way exhaustive. A lot has been said about the presidential race; we can only be certain there’s much more to come.

Rand Paul is a Contender

A short time ago in a galaxy not very far away, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky was going to upend the contest for the Republican nomination and radically reinvent his party in the process. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat and political junkie, declared Mr. Paul the Republican to watch for 2016. In March 2014, a reporter for the Washington Post, summing up Mr. Paul’s strengths in a post entitled “It’s time to start taking Rand Paul seriously,” wrote that the libertarian would build on his father’s fervid following and campaign infrastructure in Iowa and New Hampshire. “Every candidate in the potential 2016 Republican field has questions he or she needs to answer. None have the built-in infrastructural advantages that Paul enjoys. That’s why it’s past time people start taking him seriously as a potential Republican nominee.” The Post was not alone: Time magazine, on their cover, called him the “most interesting man in politics” in October 2014. The idea of a Republican who was dovish on foreign policy, a critic of the security state, and had a passing interest in reaching out to African-American voters was enough to convince the pundit class he was for real.

How’s this holding up?

Not very well. Mr. Paul kicked off his campaign in April and has struggled to raise money and attract attention since. Why? As the New York Times pointed out, there just aren’t a lot of libertarians in the Republican Party. The Washington Post wrote in October that the GOP’s libertarian strain “peaked” in 2014 and Mr. Paul wasn’t a very good candidate. This month, Mr. Paul was only in the news because his low poll numbers almost cost him a chance on the main stage of the December 15 GOP debate. Rumors were flying that Mr. Paul was on the verge of dropping out, though he turned in a decent performance that night, according to some pundits.

Scott Walker Is Absolutely a Front-Runner

A lot of people bought what Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin was selling. The Republican who crushed unions would unite the Tea Party and establishment factions of the GOP, win Iowa and be fighting for the nomination into next spring. “For a party yearning for a candidate with executive experience but notoriously uncomfortable with taking big risks, Walker may best fit the moment, offering the widest appeal in a crowded, jumbled GOP primary,” wrote U.S. World & News Report.

How’s this holding up?

Ouch. Mr. Walker dropped out of the race in September following poor performances in the televised debates, the rise of Mr. Trump and an excruciating struggle to master policy. It turned out union-busting wasn’t enough to fire up the base. He will be remembered as one of the all-time great flops, unless he finds a way to make a comeback in the next cycle.

Sen. Ted Cruz. (Photo: by Nicholas Pilch for Getty Images)
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. (Photo: by Nicholas Pilch for Getty Images)

Jeb Bush Will “Shock and Awe” His Rivals

Googling “Jeb Bush” and “shock and awe” will turn up plenty of results. The idea, offered by his consultants and repeated in the press, was simple: thanks to his deep connections to well-heeled establishment donors, coupled with his vaunted super PAC, the former Florida governor was going to “shock” and “awe” his rivals and quickly consolidate support. A Clinton vs. Bush redux looked like it was on tap.

How’s this holding up?

Not well. Most pundits now think that Mr. Bush, due to his listless debate performances and moderation on hot button issues like immigration, is finished. The family name isn’t helping. See below.

Jeb Bush Is Cooked

The prevailing convention wisdom! Mr. Bush is pinning his hopes on New Hampshire and his money advantage winning out, but the consensus among the press and political insiders is that Mr. Bush faces too much competition from his fellow Floridian Marco Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mr. Trump to have any real shot.

How’s this holding up?

Check back with us in the spring. Mr. Bush has a lot riding on New Hampshire and is trying to gain traction as Donald Trump’s fiercest, reliable critic. He could get a second wind.

Donald Trump Is a Joke

When Mr. Trump kicked off his campaign in June, he was not pegged as a front-runner for the Republican nomination, and rightfully so: no one like a billionaire celebrity mogul has ever won a presidential race. His kickoff speech, described as “oft-lampooned” by the Associated Press, attracted plenty of controversy for its references to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” “bringing drugs” to America. The New York Times declared Mr. Trump was on an “improbable quest” for the Republican nomination.

How’s this holding up?

Improbable no more! (At least according to the fresh conventional wisdom.) See below.

Donald Trump Is a Juggernaut and Can Win the Nomination

To be a Trump skeptic as the calendar turns to 2016 is to be lonely. He has consistently led in national polls over the last half year. Bloomberg News, in a story entitled “Why Trump Could Win the Republican Nomination,” said Mr. Trump has the right mix of populism and hard line conservative cred to go the distance. The Washington Post was even more gung-ho in a November piece: “Yes, Donald Trump could absolutely be the Republican nominee in 2016.” “The Polls May Be Underestimating Trump’s Support,” the Atlantic warned in December. The current consensus is simple: by tapping into Republican fears over immigration and terrorist attacks, Mr. Trump is here to stay because this presidential cycle is unlike any we’ve seen before. The Donald is not a fad. Get over it.

How’s this holding up?

We obviously won’t know until at least March, when the four early voting states and a slew of Southern states all cast their ballots. But there is still reason to be skeptical of the current conventional wisdom. Most people aren’t paying attention to the presidential race. Polls at this stage are often unreliable, measuring name recognition first and foremost. His support among Republicans likely to vote may not be as solid as it seems. And a Trump victory would defy every historical precedent and our accumulated knowledge of how presidential races operate.

Ted Cruz Is Too Conservative to Compete

Mr. Cruz, a Texas senator, built his career as an uncompromising conservative. While viewed as an outside threat to win the nomination when he kicked off his campaign at Liberty University in March, Mr. Cruz was often regarded as too right-wing and alienating on too many issues to seriously contend with top tier candidates.

How’s this holding up?

So far, not well. Mr. Cruz has shot to the top of the polls in Iowa and has been officially deemed a candidate with momentum. If he ultimately stumbles next year, the original Cruz naysayers will be validated.

Ted Cruz May Win the Nomination

This is the current conventional wisdom. Many pundits are projecting Mr. Cruz, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Trump to battle it out to the bitter end for the nomination. Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman (perhaps because he hopes to face Mr. Cruz) has made it clear he views the Texan as the most formidable Republican. Mr. Cruz’s fundraising prowess, a favorable primary calendar that puts more conservative southern states up front, and his ability to attract voters from Mr. Trump’s loose coalition make him a candidate pundits have embraced. Slate summed it up: “Ted Cruz, the accomplished, theatrical avatar of grassroots conservatives, has a real shot at winning the presidency of the United States.”

How’s this holding up?

March will tell us. The South Carolina primary is where Mr. Cruz is betting all his chips. A washout in the South and his star dims.

Hillary Clintn. (Photo: Steve Pope for Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Steve Pope for Getty Images)

Marco Rubio Has No Clear Constituency and Can’t Raise Money

Mr. Rubio, the photogenic senator from Florida, kicked off his campaign shortly after Mr. Cruz. They have much in common: hatred of Obamacare, Hispanic heritage, first-term senators from large, important states. Mr. Rubio once worked on an immigration reform bill in the Senate, giving him both a lane to moderates and a way to ensure some grassroots conservatives will hate him evermore. But Mr. Rubio’s biggest problems, pundits said, revolved around money: his mentor Mr. Bush had a far deeper well of donors to draw upon in Florida and beyond. The New York Times said of Mr. Rubio in April, “He hopes to appeal to more moderate Republicans as well as to social, fiscal and foreign policy voters, but he could also find himself without a clear constituency, especially in the first four nominating states.”

How’s this holding up?

Mr. Rubio has been a more formidable candidate than initially thought, boxing out Mr. Bush during debates. Until recently, Mr. Rubio’s fundraising hauls were unimpressive, though several megadonors, including Paul Singer, are now in his camp. Pundits now see Mr. Rubio as a top contender, though the question of what early states he can win and how remains unresolved.

Marco Rubio Can or Will Win the Nomination

In the months since Mr. Walker’s demise, pundits on both sides of the aisle have come to view Mr. Rubio as perhaps the most likely Republican to capture the nomination. Slate last month called Mr. Rubio the “Republican nominee in waiting.” A similar piece in the Chicago Tribune declared “Marco Rubio is the most likely candidate to win the Republican 2016 presidential nomination.” The logic is simple: Mr. Rubio projects a youthful vigor, is smooth at the debates, and is starting to raise serious money.

How’s this holding up?

Time will tell, of course. Figuring out what states Mr. Rubio can win or do well in is a budding parlor game of 2016 pundits everywhere.

Chris Christie Is Dead

Before conventional wisdom wrote off the New Jersey governor, he was a front-runner-in-waiting, tasked with giving the keynote address at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Then Bridgegate clogged up 2013. Then Mr. Christie’s poll numbers in New Jersey took a nose dive. Then it became clear, between the numerous credit downgrades and the Garden State’s anemic job growth, that hometown victories were in short supply. Just last month, Mr. Christie was knocked off the main stage of the GOP debate.

How’s this holding up?

Ultimately, Mr. Christie is a long shot, and this conventional wisdom may prove correct. But the governor is still alive. A recent poll showed him surging in New Hampshire, where he has spent much of his time and received the endorsement of the state’s biggest newspaper. He returned to the Republican main stage for the December 15 debate. Before Mr. Trump, Mr. Christie was the bombastic tell-it-like-it-is candidate.

John Kasich is the Dark Horse

Google “John Kasich” and “dark horse” and see what you find. A lot of stories in the summer and fall referred to Mr. Kasich, the Ohio governor, as the “dark horse” candidate for the nomination, the one who would surge past inexperienced candidates like Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio and eventually put Mr. Trump in his place. The logic was sound enough: Ohio is a crucial swing state, Mr. Kasich is viewed as a moderate who could, in theory, build a large coalition, and he has real highlights in his gubernatorial record. Slap on the two decades he spent in Congress, and we have a dark horse.

How’s this holding up?

Not well. Mr. Kasich is pinning his hopes on New Hampshire, but his moderate brand, mixed with the occasional odd calls for things like a governmental agency to promote Judeo-Christian values, hasn’t vaulted him to the top tier. He’s surprisingly dull on the stump and doesn’t play well in televised debates. For now, the GOP base wants a hard right candidate and he doesn’t fit the bill. A strong showing in New Hampshire would redeem the “dark horse” predictions.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. (Photo: Justin Sullivan for Getty Images)
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. (Photo: Justin Sullivan for Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders Is a Joke

Mr. Sanders, the Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist, was viewed as token left opposition for Hillary Clinton when he announced his bid in April. “Mr. Sanders’s bid is considered a long shot, but his unflinching commitment to stances popular with the left … could force Mrs. Clinton to address these issues more deeply,” the New York Times reported that month.

How’s this holding up?

Mr. Sanders has emerged as a much stronger challenge to Ms. Clinton than initially predicted, surging to the top of the polls in New Hampshire and giving her a fight in Iowa. It’s not clear yet if he can beat her elsewhere.

Bernie Sanders Can Derail Hillary Clinton

It was the summer of Bernie. He drew massive crowds on the campaign trail and through small donations alone was able to keep pace with Ms. Clinton’s fundraising. Many commentators, including some for the Observer, argued Mr. Sanders represented a real chance for progressives to damage Ms. Clinton’s presidential bid. Few predict a Sanders upset, but he’s coming on strong.

How’s this holding up?

Ms. Clinton appears to be regaining her footing in Iowa and polls well ahead of Mr. Sanders in states with nonwhite primary electorates like South Carolina. If Mr. Sanders has any hope of dethroning Ms. Clinton and fulfilling the hopes of his starry-eyed supporters, he needs to do what Barack Obama did in 2008: win the black vote. That’s not easy for a guy who represents a rural state this is almost 100 percent white.

Hillary Clinton Is a Juggernaut

Some analysts and commentators, including Nate Silver, have described Ms. Clinton as the strongest primary candidate in recent memory. Functioning as a de facto incumbent, Ms. Clinton has scooped up the lion’s share of support from elected officials, liberal organizations and even labor unions. Democrats, for the most part, still like her a lot.

How’s this holding up?

It depends. There is an argument for “not well” because of Mr. Sanders’ surge, but it’s also possible that come March, Ms. Clinton will have won enough states to deliver the knockout punch. As is the case with much of what’s written here, time will tell.

Hillary Clinton Has Real Weaknesses/Got Her Groove Back This Fall

Ms. Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state continues to dog her campaign. As reporters who cover her know, she can also be a tepid presence on the campaign trail. Grassroots liberals, thronging to Mr. Sanders, seem to regard Ms. Clinton with some mixture of wariness and disdain. Therefore, this conventional wisdom holds that Ms. Clinton appeared vulnerable for much of 2015, put in a few nice debate performances where she parried Mr. Sanders effectively, and re-established herself as the presumptive nominee.

How’s this holding up?

It’s a neat narrative and one that history may reflect as the “correct one”—or it could be forgotten completely. As Mr. Silver and some analysts have argued, the idea of Ms. Clinton struggling and then regaining her footing was a bit silly because she was never a weak primary candidate, given her wide-ranging support in the political establishment.

Joe Biden’s Going for It

The summer and fall of Mr. Biden’s Hamlet act was a dream for political reporters. The swaggering vice president was the sort of presidential candidate reporters needed to turn a ho-hum primary into the stuff of campaign trail memoirs. There were the stories about dying Beau telling Joe to run one last time—as storybook as you can get. News outlets including the Observer profiled a young operative’s fledgling quest to pull Mr. Biden into the race, which he was so close to reportedly joining. The deadlines kept getting pushed back and then…

How’s this holding up?

He decided not to run because there really wasn’t a path for him, barring a Clinton collapse of historic proportions. In retrospect, another center-left, white establishment candidate with close ties to the financial industry was not someone who was going to give Ms. Clinton a run for her money.

Has the Conventional Wisdom About 2016 Ever Been Right?