The 2016 presidential contest continues to defy expectations. Ever since candidates like businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz joined the race, political prognosticators have speculated the precise moment of those campaigns’ demise. But with Trump and Cruz continuing to top the Republican field, it’s clear this election will continue its unpredictable storyline.
As White House hopefuls carome toward the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses — the first time voters pick their favorite candidate — InsideGov looks at the state of the race thus far. Using the lens of national polls, courtesy data from RealClearPolitics, InsideGov examines the rise and fall of each presidential candidate throughout his or her time in the race. Although polling data is by no means perfect (and maybe not even the best tool to predict the ultimate outcome), it does provide an important snapshot of the race at a specific moment in time.
As a result, the list does include some campaigns that already called it quits. We’ve ranked the list according to the average polling numbers from January 2015 to January 2016.
#21. George Pataki
Never miss a local story.
The former governor of New York, Republican George Pataki had many of the bona fides that would normally get him a bit of traction: a GOP leader of a blue state with a proven ability to work across party lines. But an electorate not enamored of compromise, combined with very low name recognition, meant Pataki sat at the bottom of the polls throughout his time in the race. He quit on Dec. 29, 2015.
#20. Lincoln Chafee
After a little over five months in the race, Democratic hopeful Lincoln Chafee pulled the plug on his campaign. The former governor of Rhode Island never found an audience, and never got above 2 percent in the polls.
#19. Lindsey Graham
Despite hawkish national security positions, a military background and more than 20 years on Capitol Hill, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham never found his footing in the Republican primary fight. He dropped out a few days before Christmas.
#18. Bobby Jindal
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal started out at just shy of 3 percent nationally. But when the debate schedule kicked into high gear and media attention started to focus on the campaign, the Republican remained stuck at under 1 percent. Jindal dropped out in mid November.
#17. Jim Webb
A former senator from Virginia, Jim Webb always sat on the outskirts of the Democratic Party, with more moderate policy views and tenures in President Ronald Reagan’s defense administration. But these positions didn’t jive with a party experiencing much of the same anti-establishment fervor rocking the GOP. Webb dropped out in October, but may still mount an independent run.
#16. Rick Santorum
Rick Santorum is running around Iowa like it’s 2012. During that cycle’s Republican primary, the former Pennsylvania senator eked out a win in the Hawkeye State and ended up coming in second place, overall, to Mitt Romney. But in 2016, Santorum hasn’t fared as well, peaking at just 2.6 percent in early July.
#15. Martin O'Malley
Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, has run into the brick wall that is the star power of Hillary Clinton and the passion of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. He nearly missed the fourth debate because of low polling numbers.
#14. Rick Perry
Despite a new look that included thick, black-framed glasses, Rick Perry never shook off his disastrous “oops” moment from the 2012 Republican primary. The former Texas governor never got much higher than 4 percent this go-around.
#13. John Kasich
In other years, Ohio Gov. John Kasich would be a slam-dunk presidential candidate within the GOP. He’s a moderate Republican from a swing state with years of experience in the private sector and on Capitol Hill. But in case you haven’t heard, 2016 is an unprecedentedly distinct election, and Kasich has struggled to find support within this year’s anti-establishment fervor.
#12. Carly Fiorina
As the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina came into the presidential race with a bit more national name recognition than some of her fellow Republicans. A handful of strong debate performances early on garnered her a kickstart of support and attention last fall, but her campaign couldn’t sustain the energy and she’s been sputtering since.
#11. Chris Christie
As a Republican governor in a traditionally blue state, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has the work-across-the-aisle credentials the GOP typically wants in its general election nominee. But the brash former prosecutor who built his brand on his tell-it-like-it-is attitude faces some tough competition in that category, what with Donald Trump aggressively playing that card this year.
#10. Rand Paul
As the son of three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul, a former congressman from Texas, Sen. Rand Paul joined the 2016 race with a leg up on name recognition among libertarian-leaning national audiences. But the first-term Kentucky senator hasn’t been able to sustain that initial momentum, and sunk to the lower tier of candidates last fall.
#9. Mike Huckabee
Much like former Sen. Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee is looking at past wins to propel him this go-around. In 2008, the former Arkansas governor won the Iowa caucus, and he’s clearly hoping to pull off another upset in 2016. In between his presidential runs, Huckabee hosted a talk show on Fox News and on the radio, as well as published several books — all of which bumped up his celebrity and name recognition, and likely contributed to his early-on high poll numbers.
#8. Scott Walker
Gov. Scott Walker’s early exit from the presidential race surprised many political watchers, who saw him collect a perfect blend of support from the tea party and big-money backers. But the Wisconsin Republican’s union-busting bona fides, which likely gave him those high polling numbers early on, couldn’t sustain him through a series of wooden debate performances. Walker dropped out in September 2015.
#7. Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz built his political career on his anti-establishment zeal, starting with his upset victory in the Republican primary in the 2012 Senate race in Texas. While that’s caused headaches within the GOP since he came to Capitol Hill, it has endeared him to the wide swath of voters fed up with the current state of government.
#6. Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio’s up-and-down polling numbers perfectly reflect his tumultuous relationship with the Republican Party. The first-term Florida senator was elected in 2010 as a darling of the tea party movement, but his work with Democrats and President Barack Obama on an immigration bill in 2013 lost Rubio major credibility with fellow GOPers.
#5. Ben Carson
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson rode the outsider, nice guy train for most of last fall to great success. But when the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., shifted the campaign’s focus to national security, Carson’s clear lack of foreign policy knowhow sent his poll numbers on a freefall.
#4. Jeb Bush
Former Gov. Jeb Bush started off as the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nomination. But the Floridian with a familiar last name has had a hard time cutting through the rancor among Republicans. His at-times stilted turns on the debate stage and in media appearances — not to mention his status as the favorite target of Donald Trump’s wrath — helped to push Bush toward the bottom of the heap.
#3. Bernie Sanders
Politicos essentially called the Democratic nomination for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton months before she announced she would run. But Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — an Independent who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate — has run a laser-focused, energetic campaign that caught on with left-leaning voters frustrated with income inequality. Sanders’ stock is climbing at just the right moment, before primary voting gets underway.
#2. Donald Trump
What is there to say about real estate tycoon and TV personality Donald Trump? Trump has deftly tapped into the fear and anger among Republican voters, turning his initially celebrity-based candidacy into a real possibility for the GOP.
#1. Hillary Clinton
According to national averages, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to dominate her fellow Democrats. But it’s a different story in state-specific polls: Sanders nips at her heels in both Iowa and New Hampshire, where primary voting kicks off on Feb. 1.
National Polling Averages for Presidential Candidates
How the Republican presidential candidates stack up, according to national polling averages.
How the Democratic presidential candidates stack up, according to national polling averages.