It seems odd given that the 2012 election is still 18 months in the future, but it's never too early to look ahead to 2016. In many ways I expect that to be a far more interesting election, given that it is likely to be an open seat like 2008. Beyond that, it looks like a very weak GOP field in 2012 belies the strength of their candidate pool for 2016. On the other hand the Democratic contenders for the post-Obama era do not inspire much confidence at the moment.
Let's assume for now that Obama is re-elected in 2012. Until we see a plausible contender rise to the top of the current GOP field we have to give the incumbent the benefit of the doubt. All the usual caveats apply – Obama is beatable, the election is a long way off, etc. But if you had to bet your life savings on it today, would you pick the incumbent or someone out of the Trump-Romney-Gingrich-Palin grab bag? I thought so.
First, elephant in the room: Joe Biden. He will turn 74 three weeks after the 2016 election. The odds that he will run seem very slim. He's not very popular on his own and unless the hypothetical Obama Second Term is the greatest four years in American history it doesn't seem like he would generate much enthusiasm.
The GOP field will have a good deal of new blood. Most of the 2012 candidates are people who are getting their last shot. Romney is finished if he doesn't win the nomination this time. Mitch Daniels, although you'd never tell by looking at him, is 62 years old and will be 67 on Election Day 2016. This is the best shot he'll get. Gingrich is already old and not very popular. Mike Huckabee is only 55 today but he would run in 2016 as a two-time loser. So it's a very good thing for the GOP that there are some prospects in the farm system. Who makes the most sense?
Marco Rubio – This guy is good. Scary good. If I am a Republican I'm grooming this guy for the big time (possibly with a keynote at the 2012 Convention) and if I'm a Democrat my mind is already working overtime thinking of how to counter him. Rubio has what George W. Bush had – that magical ability to hold far, far right policy positions but to sound moderate, reasonable, and sane to the average person. You never hear him and think, "Wow, this guy is way out there." So he not only appeals to the Teabag crowd but to mainstream Republicans and moderately attentive independents as well. He looks good, sounds good, and would have a stranglehold on a very important state. He'll be 44 in 2016.
John Thune – The quintessential Empty Suit candidate, I can see Thune garnering a lot of support from party insiders and corporate donors. He's a blank slate with good presentation skills. Teabaggers probably wouldn't tolerate him given his support for bailout bills while in the Senate. He seems more like a young John Boehner than a real presidential contender.
Jeb Bush – I don't see it. I don't see this at all. He couldn't even win Florida if Rubio was also in the race, and George W. Bush remains so unpopular that even the ant-like memory of the American public would force Jeb to run with a gigantic weight chained to his ankle.
Bobby Jindal – He never impressed me and I think his charisma is a fraction of what Republicans imagine it to be, but he'll almost certainly run. It's not clear how he carves out a niche or who his coalition would include.
Paul Ryan – You can tell that the GOP thought of him as a rising star, but he has the personal appeal of a desk lamp and once he gets done touting his plan to gut Medicare and Social Security he'll have a tough time getting elected dog catcher let alone president.
Chris Christie – If we're trying to be nice we could say he's a Republican Howard Dean, exciting but too unfiltered and aggressive to be a serious mainstream candidate. If we're being mean we could say he's a braying jackass who will be lucky to avoid being blown out when he runs for re-election in New Jersey.
Mike Pence – He's a strong favorite to be the next Indiana Governor. As a presidential candidate I see him as little more than a Sam Brownback / Rick Santorum / Mike Huckabee type who will get some acclaim from evangelicals and the Religious Right but not much else.
That's nothing to sneeze at. Rubio, Christie, Thune, and Jindal all strike me as plausible contenders if they were to win the nomination. What about on the Democratic side?
Hillary Clinton – She'll be 68 in 2016. Personally I think 2008 was her shot. She'll be the Democratic equivalent of Gingrich by 2016, a name that has been around forever but never made it to the top. She burned a hell of a lot of bridges within her party in 2008. But I don't doubt that she could raise a ton of money and mount a campaign with little effort.
Rahm Emanuel – The name is getting thrown out there but I don't see this at all. Obama clearly saw him as something of a protege, but he just seems like a corporatist tool with no charisma. He has insider skills but it's hard to see who gets excited about him in a presidential race.
Martin O'Malley – Who? Keep an eye on the two-term Mayor of Baltimore, current Governor of Maryland, and chair of the Democratic Governors Association. Currently 48, O'Malley is one of the few sitting Democratic governors who qualifies as a youngish up and comer. He presents well and has cred among different factions of the party. You heard his name here first.
Andrew Cuomo – The very polished Governor of New York, now 53, seems like the strongest candidate at the moment but I have reservations. As we saw with Kerry, the Republican Party is basically a machine designed to destroy New England liberals (especially, in Cuomo's case, "ethnic" ones).
Brian Schweitzer – The Montana Governor and former DGA chair is a great candidate on paper, moderate and popular in a typically Republican state. However, he's dull and moderate to a fault. It's unclear who would get excited about a pasty Montanan who talks about centrism even more than Obama.
Is that everyone? Of course not. More names will come and go over five long years. Just for the fun of making a long-term forecast, though, I'd say the odds are with Marco Rubio and Andrew Cuomo based on what we know today. In that match-up I think Rubio would have the upper hand, although obviously much depends on how the Obama second term goes…if there is one.
Who else seems like a contender?