AUSTIN, Texas -- The year 2013 began with President Barack Obama taking the oath of office for his second term.
Now the year ends with increasing speculation over who will replace him in 2016. Will it be the former Democratic opponent turned secretary of state, or the outspoken Republican governor of New Jersey reelected in a landslide?
Though neither have said they'll run, a CNN / ORC International poll released Thursday shows Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton neck and neck among American voters. The survey shows Christie and Clinton favored by 48 percent and 46 percent of registered voters respectively, well within the poll's 3 percent margin of error.
"She is the heir apparent," said Democratic strategist Jason Stanford. Clinton according to a Fox News poll released Friday, Clinton is favored by 68 percent of Democratic voters for the party nomination in 2016. The next potential candidate, vice president Joe Biden, stands at just twelve percent. The only question for Clinton, says Stanford, "Does she have the energy and the fire in the belly to do this?"
Stanford attributed Christie's popularity among independent voters to the his seeming break from the GOP party line on issues such as climate change and willingness to work with the Democratic president in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
"This is interesting. The way for Republicans to appeal to the rest of America is to not act like Republicans," said Stanford, who said Christie's shine will fade once subjected to the harsh spotlight of a national presidential campaign.
"As people start to learn more about him they'll realize why Mitt Romney was not about to put him on the ticket," Stanford said. "There are some big problems with his record that aren't widely known right now. Right now, he's dealing with a pretty big scandal about why he shut down a bridge to Manhattan to punish a Democratic mayor who was against him. All of these are little window dressings on the fact that Chris Christie's a bully."
Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak acknowledged that Christie's partisan unorthodoxy is a concern for many conservatives who felt the 2012 election was lost in part due to an insufficiently conservative GOP nominee in former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Yet, Mackowiak said the tough talking Christie benefits from a track record of bipartisan success and a powerful political brand that is unique among the recent crop of candidates.
"He's seen as being the blunt speaking guy who tells you the truth," Mackowiak said. "He does it in ways that maybe sometimes people may not receive very well, but he tells you directly. So, as long as he can continue that brand, it's tremendously valuable. Secondly, he governs a blue state that's been dysfunctional for decades. He's turned it around to a great extent, though they still have problems, and that's big. He just won overwhelming reelection, won huge votes from Hispanics and minority groups that Republicans have had challenges winning in the past."
Friday's Fox News poll shows Christie barely ahead of party firebrands such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY) among Republicans, supported by 16 percent of primary voters compared to 11 and 12 percent respectively. The same survey shows Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) at 12 percent, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) at eight percent and former Florida governor Jeb Bush at 12 percent.
Each of the potential candidates below Christie benefits from strong support among the conservative faithful, and those such as Cruz have proven their ability to mobilize the conservative grassroots and raise significant sums of money. On the other hand, Christie would likely benefit from the top tier of GOP megadonors. Christie remains the only Republican the polls show capable of beating Clinton head-to-head, but Mackowiak argues that could change.
"Once Hillary gets back into campaign mode, people are going to be reminded of some of the things they don't like about her," said Mackowiak. "They're going to be reminded that she's the past and not the future. They're going to be reminded about Hillarycare in the context of Obamacare. They're going to be reminded of the Clinton scandals. So all these things are negatives that she's been able to essentially avoid for the last four years."
This far out from the elections, both Mackowiak and Stanford agreed the poll results likely aren't able to predict very much. What they can do, however, is pressure more popular candidates into declaring a campaign and discourage less popular candidates from jumping into the fray. Positive numbers can also be used to drive fundraising efforts and shore up support for those seen as more electable.
The bottom line?
"I think what they clearly show is what we can all tell," said Stanford. "That Democrats are completely united behind Hillary Clinton and the Republicans are not united behind any of these candidates right now. That's the biggest point that no one's talking about."
"The question's going to be: Are Republicans going to nominate a conservative?" said Mackowiak. "And number two, are they going to nominate someone who can beat Hillary if she runs? And can someone do both of those things at the same time?"