Who’s most likely to be the 2016 Republican nominee?
Resize Text Print Article Comments 334
Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz during a campaign stop in Oklahoma City last month. (J Pat Carter/AP)
By Chris Cillizza January 3 at 6:39 PM
It’s 2016 (finally)! Iowa voters will head to their caucuses in four weeks. The country will pick a new president in about 10 months. It’s all happening, people.

Given all of that, it’s time to revisit my rankings of the candidates who could be the Republican presidential nominee. It’s a shrinking list but still far longer than that of the Democrats’ side, where it’s Hillary Clinton’s race to lose (still).

The candidate ranked No. 1 below is the most likely, as of now, to be the GOP nominee. And, for the record, I think it’s possible (if not probable) that we go into Cleveland for the Republican National Convention in July with no candidate with enough delegates to be the nominee.

1. Ted Cruz: The senator from Texas has been underestimated and underrated at every step of the primary process. No longer. Cruz is solidly in first place in Iowa and, barring some sort of unforeseen collapse, will win the first-in-the-nation caucuses. He also should run well in South Carolina on Feb. 20 and in the “SEC primary” on March 1. Cruz, thanks to Donald Trump, is now being seen in some GOP circles as a conservative, non-disastrous alternative to the real estate mogul. And, unlike other conservative insurgents of the past, Cruz has the money — in his campaign committee and in a constellation of super PACs backing him — to last for the duration of the race.

2. Marco Rubio: He has emerged as the establishment favorite, a designation made apparent by the number of major-dollar donors who jumped off the fence to be on his side over the past few months. The problem for Rubio is that he doesn’t have an obvious win among the first few states to vote. Iowa looks to be a lost cause — although maybe finishing first in the “establishment” primary might be enough? — and New Hampshire is a place where everybody is looking up at Trump. South Carolina may be Rubio’s shot — much of the senior command of his campaign is made up of Palmetto State operatives — but that’s not a given. The Nevada caucuses, where Rubio is a favorite, are Feb. 23; can he wait until the fourth vote to get a win?

3. Trump: The most likely scenario is that he finishes second behind Cruz in Iowa and wins New Hampshire. Where does that leave him? Who knows. Polling puts him ahead by double digits in South Carolina, but that state’s voters undoubtedly will be affected by what Iowa and New Hampshire do. And what does losing Iowa mean, if anything, for Trump’s psyche or how he is viewed by supporters? Does he get angry, redouble his efforts and actually start spending his own money? Or does he throw up his hands and walk away? I think the former is the more likely option. Trump loves what he has done in this campaign and has little to no interest in giving it up anytime soon.

4. Chris Christie: The New Jersey governor has fought his way back to credibility largely thanks to his intense focus on New Hampshire, where he has lavished attention over the past year. Christie spent a few days last week in Iowa, evidence that his campaign thinks he could sneak out a surprising showing (and crucial momentum) from the relatively open field behind Cruz and Trump in the state. Christie’s greatest asset is himself. He is a talented retail campaigner, which plays well in Iowa and New Hampshire. What remains to be seen is whether Christie can weather an attack on his administration’s politically motivated George Washington Bridge lane closures. That ad is coming from some opponent if Christie starts to look like a real threat to win New Hampshire.