The Iowa caucuses are still over a year away, but potential presidential candidates in each party were hard at work in 2014. Throughout the year, they gauged support, staked out positions on issues, and weighed whether or not to run. These are the hopefuls who had the best year.
Hillary Clinton is the Democrat who won 2014
In December 2006, Hillary Clinton was the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. But two months earlier, Sen. Barack Obama had signaled he was likely to enter the race as well. The exciting, new, also history-making candidate — who had opposed the Iraq war, and had the potential to win black voters overwhelmingly — looked like a serious potential problem for Clinton.
2014 was different. Hillary Clinton began and ended the year with one of the most commanding poll positions of any modern non-incumbent candidate. Meanwhile, endorsements from party figures continue to pour in even though Clinton hasn't yet announced a run.
Some have made the argument that the past year in fact revealed Clinton's weakness. She made a few gaffes in interviews, some looked askance at her six-figure speaking fees, and perhaps more importantly, her positions on both foreign policy and economic issues sometimes seemed out of touch with the Democrats' progressive base.
But even if one accepts that the Democratic electorate would prefer a more liberal nominee than Clinton — which is far from clear, since some polls suggest the opposite — who would it be?
At this point in 2006, rising star Obama and the not-yet-disgraced former vice presidential nominee John Edwards were in the race. But this year, the candidates likely to challenge Clinton look increasingly like a B-team, and many of them had awful years themselves.
First there's Martin O'Malley, whose preferred successor as governor of Maryland embarrassingly failed to win election — perhaps partly because of a fee O'Malley passed that opponents dubbed the "rain tax." O'Malley never articulated a clear reason he wanted to run, and the year closed with reports that he had pulled staff out of Iowa and will delay making up his mind about whether to enter the race.
Next is Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont who is not actually a Democrat, but is considering a bid anyway. Sanders presents a populist economic critique that might sound appealing to Democratic base voters in Iowa or New Hampshire. But the good economic news closing the year may make his critique seem less urgent. And his longtime support for single-payer health care got a giant setback when his own state scrapped its first-in-the nation plan to adopt such a system.
Then there's Jim Webb. If one squints just right, one can imagine Webb's non-interventionist foreign policy views and anti-corporate but non-socialist economic views appealing both to the left and to working class whites. Yet Webb is also the author of an infamous 1979 article saying women shouldn't be allowed into military service academies, bluntly headlined "Women Can't Fight." He also called investigations into the Tailhook sexual assault scandal in the Navy a "witch hunt." The potential first female president will understandably be thrilled if someone with a paper trail like that turns out to be her chief rival for the nomination.
As for Joe Biden — usually, a sitting vice president who's expressed interest in running would be viewed as competitive. But his performance in polls is simply dreadful, and he doesn't seem to be moving toward what would seemingly be a long-shot run.
An Elizabeth Warren run was the biggest potential threat to Clinton — but despite the efforts of many to make it happen, 2014 will close without any movement by Warren toward a bid. That means Clinton had the best year of any Democratic hopeful, and remains the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination.
The Republicans who didn't win 2014
For most of the year, the situation on the Republican side looked much messier. Chris Christie's buzz died down quickly in January after the Bridgegate scandal broke, and hasn't fully recovered despite federal investigators reportedly finding no evidence he ordered the lane closures in Fort Lee. Marco Rubio was damaged by backlash from the party's base over his involvement in an immigration reform effort. Scott Walker was busy with his own reelection, and he won that handily, but did little to stand out nationally.
Rand Paul, in contrast, has a strong case for having won 2014. He's done the most and best work toward building a campaign operation of anyone, and has repeatedly positioned himself at the center of conversations about the future of the Republican Party, on both foreign and domestic policy. Chris Cillizza predicted recently that the GOP nomination will likely come down to "a battle between whoever the establishment nominates and Paul."
But if that contest transpires, Paul will likely remain the underdog. Serious doubts about Paul's electability, party loyalty, and foreign policy views remain among GOP elites. His long ties to his iconoclastic father's network and ideology provide ample ammunition for attacks on Paul in both the primary and general elections. And the rise of ISIS this year also may have hurt Paul's chances — an October poll found that 41 percent of Republicans said ISIS would be the most important issue affecting their vote in the midterms.
Instead, the GOP's winner of the year emerged quite late.
Jeb Bush is the Republican who won 2014
When 2014 began, few people were mentioning Jeb Bush as a possible presidential contender. Now, at the end of the year, he has a claim to being the GOP frontrunner.
His rise was slow and nearly imperceptible if you weren't paying attention. Back in February, Damon Linker was one of the first to go out on a limb when he surveyed the post-Bridgegate scene and made the bold call that Bush would "probably be the nominee," because "what are the alternatives?"
But at the end of March, Philip Rucker and Robert Costa reported that "many of the Republican Party's most powerful insiders and financiers" shared that analysis, and had begun trying to coax Bush into running.
Many reporters and analysts were skeptical for months. Bush had been out of politics for nearly eight years after all, and wasn't in touch with the changes that had occurred in the GOP since. He seemed to be quite happy with his new money-making lifestyle. There were the family concerns. And there was that last name...
But as the year went on, Bush sharpened a unique pitch for himself. He deliberately positioned himself as a candidate who wouldn't be beholden to his party's base on issues like immigration, who would avoid harsher conservative rhetoric, and who, therefore, would be a good bet to win the general election. (When conservatives examine his actual record as governor of Florida, though, they may find quite a lot to like.)
Now, it's still far from clear how Bush's sales pitch — particularly on immigration and the Common Core — will play out in a competitive primary situation. And it remains quite possible that GOP elites have made a dramatic miscalculation about whether Bush can distinguish himself from his brother's legacy.
And, unlike with the Democrats, the potential challengers to Bush still look like they could be formidable. Bush's new poll lead of 23 percent is not all that meaningful or impressive. Christie could come back. Walker could catch on. Rand could make a stand. There are other possibilities too. It's not even completely certain that Bush will run — some past contenders have gotten cold feet after forming exploratory committees.
But if Bush does jump in, he'll immediately be viewed as the person to beat. That's why he won the year. We'll see what happens next.