With 2014 just about in the books, the next presidential election is set to shift into high gear in the new year. Two candidates—Jeb Bush and Jim Webb—are already exploring bids, and the political world is waiting for dozens of other potentials to make their intentions known in the coming weeks and months.
But just because no one else is technically "exploring" a bid at this point doesn't mean others haven't been considering a White House run for the better part of the past year. 2014 saw a flurry of activity from politicians jockeying for early position in the 2016 field at the Capitol, in statehouses, and on the midterm trail all across the country. Some emerged in a more fortunate position than others.
Here's a look at which possible presidential contenders are better off today than they were on Jan. 1—and which are worse off.
Jeb Bush: As the first Republican to announce he is "actively exploring" a presidential run, Bush has secured the inside track on becoming the GOP's establishment candidate. His early move will allow him to set the tone at the outset of the party's nominating contest: Bush is expected to cut into the bases of several potential rivals, and he may force other candidates to alter their timetables. Still unknown is how Bush's more moderate stances on immigration and education will play in a GOP primary, and how he will perform on the campaign trail 12 years after his last run for elected office. But at the moment, Bush is the slight front-runner for the Republican nomination—a position he was not in a year ago, when it was unclear if he would even go for it.
Rand Paul: At the beginning of the year, Paul was still widely seen as a fringe candidate who wouldn't be able to compete in a modern-day Republican primary. Paul still has not totally shed that reputation, but he is now more widely accepted within the mainstream of the party than he was in January. Paul made inroads with members of the party's establishment wing, including Mitch McConnell and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and directed a significant effort toward courting minorities and young voters. Foreign policy remains a weakness for Paul, who struggled to articulate his position during the heat of the ISIS debate. Paul's path to the GOP nomination still isn't 100 percent clear, but he's more in the mix than he was 12 months ago.
Marco Rubio: Looking to put his failed 2013 immigration reform push behind him, Rubio went out of his way to position himself as a foreign policy candidate this year. He gave a series of speeches critiquing President Obama's policy while establishing himself as a hawk on the topic. Now, Rubio has become the chief opponent of Obama's plan to normalize relations with Cuba. Rubio also used his background as the son of immigrants to develop a message on economic mobility. Bush's announcement will certainly make it tougher for Rubio to attract the money he would need from donors in Florida. But he already has a strong political team in place and the ability to be a top-tier candidate.
Scott Walker: Coming off his third statewide victory in a purple state in just four years, Walker is riding high heading into 2015. For a brief period in the fall, he looked vulnerable against Democrat Mary Burke, but thanks to his immense popularity among Republicans, Walker came out on top yet again. The governor remains a favorite of both the business and tea-party factions of the party, boasting a fiscal record that few other Republicans can match. While Walker looks like a strong presidential candidate on paper, it's not clear how he will be received outside of Wisconsin. A few potential pitfalls await him in the new year, but of all the Midwestern governors weighing a White House run, he has emerged as the most formidable.
John Kasich: Speaking of Midwestern governors, Kasich was expected to win reelection at the beginning of 2014, but no one saw his 31-point trouncing of Democrat Ed Fitzgerald coming. That margin was in large part due to Fitzgerald's weaknesses as a candidate, but Kasich can now add a second win in the presidential swing state of Ohio to an already compelling resume. His support of Medicaid expansion and recent comments expressing an openness to a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, though, could come back to haunt him in a GOP primary. Still, Kasich was almost completely off the presidential radar in January and is now, at the very least, a dark horse heading into 2015.
Rick Perry: Perry is in a better position than a year ago for one simple reason: He had nowhere to go but up. His disastrous 2012 campaign still haunts him, but he has gone to great lengths to improve his image ahead of an expected second bid for the White House in 2016. Perry has surrounded himself with a new team of advisers, met with some of the party's top policy experts, and spent more time in Iowa this year than any other Republican considering a presidential campaign. Perry was indicted on abuse-of-power allegations in August, but that seems to have only strengthened his standing among the GOP base. Bottom line: Perry may never fully recover from 2012, but he's at least being taken seriously as a contender again.
Hillary Clinton: Make no mistake: Clinton is still far and away the front-runner to win the Democratic nomination, and any Republican would have a difficult time defeating her in a general election. But as Clinton shook the rust off and reentered the political fray this year, her favorability rating came back down to earth. Additionally, as Obama's popularity plummeted, Republicans attempted to link the former secretary of State to her former boss at every turn. She also endured bad press throughout the year over her tour on the paid speaking circuit. And while a formidable Democratic challenger hasn't emerged, Clinton has yet to clearly outline the basis for her expected campaign. She'll have plenty of time to do that in 2015 if she decides to run, but overall, Clinton is in a slightly less favorable position than she was a year ago.
Chris Christie: No one had a worse start to the year than Christie. The George Washington Bridge scandal has permanently tarnished his image, and with federal indictments possibly around the corner, it might be just the beginning. Plus, New Jersey's economy remains sluggish, and the state's credit was downgraded for the eighth time under Christie's watch. One bright spot: Under his chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association, Republicans won 24 of the 36 gubernatorial races on the ballot, including elections in deep-blue states such as Illinois and Maryland. Christie entered the year as a—if not the—top contender for the GOP nomination. He has some serious work to do if he wants to reclaim that status in 2015.
Ted Cruz: Cruz may still be the tea party's favorite son, but the Texas senator's star power has diminished since the days of the 2013 government shutdown (his failed effort to torpedo the Senate spending bill this month encapsulated that.) Cruz lost two key political staffers last month, raising questions about whether he can put together a team with big-league talent. Cruz is well positioned to be the evangelical candidate in 2016, but that's no longer enough to automatically become a top contender for the GOP nomination. He hasn't been able to expand his base, and as someone who has relished being a thorn in the side of the Republican establishment, it will be a tall order for Cruz to accomplish that in 2015.
Bobby Jindal: Jindal, once seen as a rising star in the Republican Party, has had his eye on the White House for some time now, but he struggled this year to gain any traction in a crowded GOP field. The Louisiana governor spent lots of time outside of his home state in 2014, campaigning for Republicans, attending state party dinners, giving speeches, and appearing on the Sunday talk shows, yet he is still largely unknown nationally. In Louisiana, Jindal's approval rating dropped and he received blowback over reversing his position on Common Core. Jindal's efforts to appeal to both the establishment and the tea-party wings of the party haven't gotten him anywhere, so he may need to find a new approach heading into 2015.
Martin O'Malley: Few worked harder than O'Malley to become a legitimate presidential contender this year, yet he's still in rougher shape now that he was in January. O'Malley spent the year stumping and raising money for Democrats (especially those in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina) on the 2014 ballot, but the majority of them wound up losing. Back home in Maryland, O'Malley's favorability rating dipped underwater and his lieutenant governor lost the election to succeed him in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1. On top of all that, O'Malley is still polling in the low single digits among Democrats nationally and is now expected to push back his timeline for announcing a possible presidential run.
Adam Wollner is an analyst for National Journal Hotline. Previously, he covered politics as an intern for NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. A native Wisconsinite, Wollner graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with a bachelor degree in journalism and political science.