Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks out at the audience with Vice President Joe Biden at the end of the Vital Voices Global Awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington on April 2, 2013.
Photo by Nicholas Kamm/Getty

Your 2014 guide to 2016 presidential contenders

Updated

For many politicians, the holidays are more than just a few days of vacation, they’re a chance to spend time with family and discuss the important things in life — like running for president. With the 2016 Iowa caucus a little more than a year away, ambitious senators and governors from across the country are getting serious about White House bids and will begin announcing their intentions shortly after the start of the new year. 

The fields in each party could not be more different. While Democrats have one prohibitive front-runner and a small handful of possible challengers to Hillary Clinton, the Republican side is packed like a subway car at rush hour and no candidate has an obvious path to victory. 

Here’s what you need to know about the tea leaves, timelines, and behind-the-scenes positioning already underway for the ultimate prize in American politics. It’s the 2015 guide to 2016. Let’s start with the Democrats, then the Republicans.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton 

Will she run? Barring some unforeseeable catastrophic event, all signs point to yes. Clinton has run before, knows what it takes, and said she’s seriously considering it. Her allies in an outside super PAC have been laying the groundwork for almost two full years, though she’s expected to formally announce later in the cycle than she did during her 2008 bid. While anything is possible, her allies now point to April as go-time. That would give her more time with her new granddaughter and allow her to skip one campaign finance reporting period.

“As a teenager, Clinton was an active volunteer for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign.”

Should she run? She may be the strongest non-incumbent candidate in modern history. She’s a shoo-in for her party’s nomination, leaving the rest of the Democratic field in her dust by more than 50 percentage points, and she has clean shot at the White House after that. It’s nothing like 2008, when Clinton led her closest competitor by only 10 to 20 points at this point in the race and faced an impressive stable of challengers.

The more you know: As a teenager, Clinton was an active volunteer for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign.

Vice President Joe Biden

Will he run? The answer to that question depends on Clinton. Biden wants to be president, ran for the job in 2008, and has a longer résumé than almost anyone eyeing a bid in the upcoming race. He said he’s seriously considering 2016, but knows he has vanishingly little chance of making it out of a primary with Clinton in it. And he’d face enormous pressure from his party to make way for the potential first woman president. So Biden will probably stay on the sidelines if Clinton runs.

Should he run? In the unlikely event that Clinton does not run, Biden would become the de facto front-runner for his party’s nomination. But right now, his prospects are bleak. He trails badly in polls, has a well known gaffe problem that keeps donors and supporters at bay, and would have difficulty raising the necessary money. It’d be a huge risk with a fleeting chance of success. But on the other hand, he may decide to damn the torpedoes — this could be the 72-year-old’s last chance. 

The more you know: Despite being portrayed in the satirical publication “The Onion” as a party animal, the real vice president is a well-known teetotaler.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren 

Will she run? Warren has talked herself blue in the face saying she’s not running for president. But liberal activists hoping to draft her hold out hope, noting that she only gives the denial in the present tense, and refuses to rule out a future run. But Warren is making none of the behind-the-scenes moves necessary to seriously explore a presidential run, and there’s no evidence she means anything other that what she says. 

“Warren graduated from high school two years early, at 16.”

Should she run? Warren is hugely popular among an important slice of the Democratic base, but she’s widely unknown beyond well-educated party elites. Her laser-like focus on financial regulations means there are huge gaps in her policy expertise and record, especially when it comes to foreign policy. And her committee assignments — Banking; Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; and most recently Energy — suggest she’s not very interested is making up for those deficiencies. 

The more you know: Warren graduated from high school two years early, at 16.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley

Will he run? For all intents and purposes, he already is. After serving eight years as governor, O’Malley is term limited and looking for a way to stay in the political arena. He’s already making key hires for a presidential run and meeting with prospective donors. And he was heavily involved in the 2014 midterm elections, sending staffers to help on campaigns and going on the stump himself, especially in key presidential states like Iowa and New Hampshire. That said, he could always decide to call off a run before a formal declaration, which is expected sometime in the spring, if he doesn’t see himself gaining any ground.

“O’Malley sings and plays guitar in a Celtic rock band called O’Malley’s March.”

Should he run? O’Malley’s record as governor reads like a wishlist of progressive policy goals. But he’s struggled to earn any traction at all in the polls, and his path to victory is unclear, to say the least. Meanwhile, he faced a blow last month when his hand-picked successor and lieutenant governor was defeated in the blue state. Add to all that, his approval ratings have fallen as the budget deficit he’s leaving his successor has swollen.

The more you know: O’Malley sings and plays guitar in a Celtic rock band called O’Malley’s March.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders

Will he run? Sanders said he’s taking a serious look at running for president, though the Independent and self-described Democratic Socialist will first have to register as a Democrat. He’s already visited key states several times, discussed strategy with advisers, and started drafting a road map for candidacy. But Sanders thinks presidential campaigns are too long and will likely wait as long as possible to announce a run — unless his advisers can convince him otherwise.

“In 1987, Sanders recorded an album of folk protest songs.”
Should he run? Sanders has little to lose, and in a field dominated by a single candidate whom many in the base view skeptically, Sanders could help raise issues important to him and the progressive flank of the party. But he wants to be more than just a protest candidate, and said he’ll only run if he’s convinced the American people are ready for a “political revolution.” He also wants to be sure he can raise enough money, a figure advisers have pegged at least $50 million. 

The more you know: In 1987, while serving as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders recorded an album of folk protest songs.

Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb

Will he run? Webb was the first major candidate to announce the formation of a presidential exploratory committee. But since that declaration about a month ago, he’s been pretty quiet and future plans remain uncertain.

Should he run? Webb has nothing to lose, everything to gain, and could move the debate in his direction (not to mention sell a few more books). As a white male Marine veteran, Webb might be able to connect with the working class whites with whom Democrats often struggle. He’s difficult to pigeonhole, with moderate views on economics and social issues, but strongly anti-interventionist on foreign policy. However, his past stances on women and gays, as well as on fossil fuels and guns, could hurt him among liberals.

The more you know: Webb once got so mad at George W. Bush about the Iraq War that witnesses thought the senator wanted to punch the president in the face

Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer

Will he run? Earlier this year, Schweitzer was talking a big game as a rare Democrat who can appeal culturally to rural independents, especially in his native West, and win by being anti-Obama. But he’s gone dark since making comments to the National Journal that many saw as homophobic and sexist. He could re-emerge next year in Iowa, however.

Should he run? Schweitzer solves a problem Democrats no longer have. In 2004, Democrats struggled to bridge a cultural divide with rural America on hot-button social issues like gays and guns. Democrats’ problem in 2016 will be very different: Convincing the young, multicultural base of the “Obama coalition” that it has a reason to go to the polls and vote Democratic. While winning is probably unlikely, Schweitzer might find other reasons to run.

The more you know: Schweitzer is a soil scientist by trade and spent several years living and working in Saudi Arabia.

Republicans

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

Will he run? Bush announced last week he would “actively explore” a presidential campaign and all signs so far point to him running. He’s the first heavyweight establishment figure to take things this far, and it’s likely he’ll make a final decision early next year in order to lock down donors and staff who might otherwise be attracted to big name candidates like Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie.

“Bush famously gifted Rubio a golden sword in order to channel a ‘mythical conservative warrior’ named Chang …”

Should he run? Bush would likely enter the race as the front-runner, but in the the weakest possible sense of the word — no candidate is cracking even 20% in recent polls of GOP voters. His last name is a blessing and a curse, giving him access to a deep pool of big-money fundraisers, talented staff, and loyal supporters, but it comes attached to two presidential legacies — George H.W. Bush and especially George W. Bush — that sit uncomfortably with Republicans and independents alike. Family issues aside, Bush has a strong résumé as a popular two-term governor with a conservative record on both social issues and economic issues. It’s an open question, however, whether Republican primary voters will be able to look past his support for Common Core education standards and immigration reform, two areas where the GOP has swung far to the right since he left office in 2007. 

The more you know: Bush helped boost Marco Rubio’s career in Florida politics and famously gifted him a golden sword in order to channel a “mythical conservative warrior” named Chang that they used to joke about.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Will he run? Christie traveled the country extensively in 2014 as chairman of Republican Governors Association, where he racked up impressive wins. And he’s even made a few international trips (with press in tow), designed to beef up his foreign policy chops. He has said he’ll make a decision “probably by the end of this year or the beginning of next” year. 

“Christie has been to 130 Bruce Springsteen concerts.”

Should be run? Christie has a lot going for him: He’s a former federal prosecutor and two-term Republican governor of a deep blue state, with plenty of major donors chomping at the bit to support him. But he also has a lot working against him, including a lingering corruption scandal that engulfed his office, and some moderate positions that will not play well in a Republican primary. His famously brash personality cuts both way, especially when Democrats intentionally goad him into flying off the handle.

The more you know: Christie has been to 130 Bruce Springsteen concerts.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry

Will he run? After a 2012 presidential run truncated by an unfortunate brain fart, Perry is tan, rested, and ready for 2016. He’s giving extensive interviews to the press about his thoughts on the future of the Republican Party and the country, and making an effort to show why he’d be a “substantially different” candidate this time around. Perry waited until August to get into the 2012 race, so he’s expected to move faster this time.

The Rachel Maddow Show, 12/11/14, 9:53 PM ET

Is Rick Perry smart enough to be president?

Rachel Maddow shares a piece of an interview by NBC’s Kasie Hunt of Texas governor, Rick Perry, in which she asks Perry whether he is smart enough to be president of the United States.

Should he run? Three terms as governor of the largest state in the contiguous United States will make anyone look to higher office, and all the more so now that he’s vacating the governors’ mansion at the end of the year and will need a new job. While he became a bit of a joke after forgetting during a debate two years ago the name of the third government agency he wanted to eliminate, Perry was considered a juggernaut when he got in last time, will enter the arena in 2016 with the same strengths and an apparent newfound seriousness (and minus the medication for a back injury that some say threw him off his game). Even the fact that he was recently indicted on federal corruption charges doesn’t seem to be slowing him down.

2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney

Will he run? Mitt Romney’s top financial backers from 2012 still love him and are pushing him hard to mount a third presidential campaign. A recent report in Politico suggests he’s at least considering the idea.

Should he run? Romney’s supporters argue that his 2012 campaign looks better in retrospect, especially his warning — mocked by Democrats at the time — that Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” But Russia hardly looks like a top campaign issue, and he’d likely face a much tougher GOP primary field than he did during that campaign. Big names like Bush or Christie could eat into his natural base of support, making it harder for him to gain traction. He lost the black, Latino, and Asian vote by catastrophic margins and struggled in must-win swing states the last time around — and it’s not clear why that would change in 2016. If Romney declines to run and the other establishment candidates are faltering a year from now, though, expect efforts to draft him to get even more intense.

The more you know: The Romney grandchild count is closing in on the two dozen mark. There are so many that even Mitt has trouble keeping track of the exact number. 

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio

Will he run? Rubio has spent years laying the groundwork for a presidential run, but many of his Florida supporters have close ties to Bush and are already lining up behind his expected campaign. While Rubio said Bush’s moves won’t factor into his own decision, the freshman senator’s path to the nomination gets much easier if his former mentor decides to sit out 2016.

“Rubio is a hip hop fan who has deep thoughts on Pitbull’s flow.”
Should he run? On paper, Rubio’s got a lot to offer the party. He’s a decent speaker whose relative youth could be an asset against a longtime political institution like Hillary Clinton, and his work on immigration reform and his Cuban heritage give him the best chance of any Republican prospect to soften the party’s image with Latino voters. He arrived in the Senate on a wave of tea party adulation in 2011 after defeating then-Republican then-governor Charlie Crist, but the immigration issue has diminished his standing on the right and could prevent him from gaining traction.

The more you know: Rubio is a hip hop fan who’s quoted Jay-Z on the Senate floor and has deep thoughts on Pitbull’s flow.  

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul 

Will he run? Nothing is certain in politics, but Rand Paul running is close to a sure bet. He has a dedicated network of supporters who have spent years preparing for his possible candidacy. Paul has said he’ll make up his mind in the spring. 

“Rand Paul was not named after Ayn Rand.”

Should he run? Like his father Ron Paul, who ran for president in 2008 and 2012, a national campaign would be as much about spreading libertarian ideals as winning. Unlike his father, Paul might win, too. He has toned down his father’s more inflammatory positions and rhetoric, but as shown by his spat with Rubio over normalizing relations with Cuba, any campaign would offer a clear alternative to the party’s traditional policy platform.

The more you know: Contrary to popular belief and logical assumption, Rand Paul was not named after Ayn Rand.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz

Will he run? If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Ted Cruz in his two years in Washington, it’s that he doesn’t like waiting quietly for his turn on the national stage. Asked about his timetable for a decision by Politico, Cruz said he expected the GOP field to emerge “between January and June.”

Should he run? Cruz offers the grassroots right everything they say they want: A down-the-line conservative who fights Republican leaders and the White House with equal vigor. His willingness to buck his GOP colleagues, most recently by delaying a vote on a major spending bill, has made him plenty of enemies, however, and it’s not clear he has much appeal outside of the tea party.  

The more you know: Cruz was a national debate champion at Princeton whose opponents included eventual White House adviser Austan Goolsbee.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal

Will he run? It feels like he’s been getting ready for a presidential bid since the moment he became governor. Expect a decision in the first few months of the year.

Should he run? Jindal’s been trying to raise his national profile for years with a State of the Union response, policy op-eds, attention-grabbing culture wars, and grand pronouncements about the GOP’s future. None of it has really stuck, and he’s struggled with his approval ratings back in deep-red Louisiana, a troubling sign for a national prospect. He still has a strong list of achievements that includes a Rhodes scholarship, a stint running the state’s university system, and a role as a health care adviser under George W. Bush, in addition to his time as governor.

The more you know: Jindal performed an exorcism-like ritual on a friend back in college, an episode he recounted in a 1994 article for “The New Oxford Review.”

Rep. Paul Ryan

Will he run? As the 2012 vice presidential nominee, he could claim “next in line” status, but he looks very comfortable in the House, where he’s set to take over the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Should he run? To some degree, he’s already won. His budget proposals have had a huge influence on GOP leaders, and, if a Republican wins in 2016, it’s likely that one of their first tasks will be shepherding a Ryan-approved plan through Congress. Like Romney, he might garner attention as an emergency consensus candidate if the primary contest gets ugly.

The more you know: One “word”: P90X.

Neurosurgeon and author Ben Carson

Will he run? Carson, who catapulted to fame after confronting President Obama at a prayer breakfast last year, is all but declared. He already has a campaign chairman who is recruiting prospective staff ahead of a run. And his draft committee has already found volunteer organizers in all 99 of Iowa’s counties.

“Cuba Gooding Jr. played Carson in the TV movie adaptation of his memoir ‘Gifted Hands.’”

Should he run? Carson has no political experience, a penchant for making embarrassing comments, and some policy ideas many Americans would regard as extreme. But he’s popular among the conservative grassroots, especially social conservatives, and is currently polling near the top of every public poll. If nothing else, his book sales are likely to benefit from a run.

The more you know: Cuba Gooding Jr. played Carson in the TV movie adaptation of his memoir Gifted Hands.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

Will he run? Walker is as much of a political strategist as he is a politician and is already plotting his 2016 bid. He knows where his headquarters would be (near Madison, the state capitol), is openly discussing strategy, and has staffers drawing up a blueprint. But an official announcement will have to wait until after the state legislature concludes its business in July. 

Should he run? Walker is a rare candidate who find support both among the GOP establishment and its grassroots base. As the two-term governor of a blueish state, Walker has proven he can win Independents. But conservatives like Walker given his 2011 battle royale with unions that led to a recall attempt, which he survived. While he has as good a shot as any at the nomination, he’s also term limited and ambitious, so running is a natural choice.

The more you know: He would be first president since Harry Truman not to graduate from college. 

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence

Will he run?  He sounds like he’s considering it. He gave an interview to The Washington Post earlier this month laying out his vision for the next nominee — it struck many political observers as a trial balloon.

Should he run? There’s a lot working in his favor, especially in the Republican primary. As a congressman, he challenged President George W. Bush from the right on issues like Medicare Part D before the tea party made it cool. Some Republicans also floated him as a presidential candidate in 2012 before he added a term as governor of Indiana to his résumé. He’s also popular with the Koch brothers’ big-money network. In a field with no perfect candidate, Pence might be a decent compromise between the party’s right wing and the establishment.

The more you know: Pence worked as a radio talk show host in the 1990s before running for Congress.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich

Will he run? Flying largely under the radar, Kasich has been quietly exploring the prospects of a 2016 bid, and notably refused to rule out a run in recent interviews. The former congressman ran for president in 2000 and went on to host a Fox News show.

Should he run? While he’s not as well known or as charismatic as other candidates, many analysts and conservative commentators think Kasich is well positioned. He’s a popular governor who has been willing to work with Democrats in the legislature, but has not totally alienated the tea party wing in the process. Being able to win Ohio certainly also helps.

The more you know: Kasich was one of the only Republicans to vote for Bill Clinton’s Assault Weapons Ban in 1994, a vote which could hurt him among gun rights advocates.

Mike Huckabee

Will he run? It could happen — he’s been teasing the idea for more than a year. But he did the same in 2012, too.

“Huckabee’s an avid bass player who jams regularly on his TV show.”

Should he run? Huckabee is popular with the evangelical wing of the party, which helped power him to an Iowa win in the 2008 GOP primaries. He’s kept his profile up with conservatives as a Fox News host over the past few years. But he may have acquired some bad rhetorical habits from the talk show circuit, telling a GOP crowd earlier this year that “Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.” He also has a major vulnerability he didn’t have in his last run: A convict to whom Huckabee granted clemency, Maurice Clemmons, went on to murder four police officers in a shooting rampage in 2009. Huckabee has defended his decision, but it’s hard to imagine the episode not coming up in a major way if he gets anywhere close to the nomination.

The more you know: Huckabee’s an avid bass player who jams regularly on his TV show.

Rick Santorum

Will he run? It sure looks like it.

Should he run? That’s less clear. Like Huckabee, Santorum rode his popularity with social conservatives to an underdog win in Iowa. But he also benefited from a lack of viable conservative alternatives to Romney, which artificially boosted his stock late in the campaign. While he proved in 2012 that he can’t be ignored, he’d still face a very difficult path to the nomination, let alone a general election victory.

The more you know: What’s Santorum been up to since the last presidential election? Producing Christian-themed feature films.

Wild cards:

- Former Hewlett-Packard CEO and unsuccessful California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina could be the only Republican woman in the race.

- Former New York governor George Pataki said he’s interested in running but he’s been a rumored candidate for multiple election cycles in a row, so take it with a grain of salt. 

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told The Weekly Standard he might run in order to represent foreign policy hawks in debates against the dovish Rand Paul.

- New York Rep. Peter King has suggested he might do the same thing for the same reasons.