As the political world sang “Auld Lang Syne” at the dawn of 2015, Beltway pundits and journalists contemplated another Mitt Romney run for the White House, Hillary Clinton geared up for another run and Jeb Bush looked like the one to beat in a Republican field long believed to be anyone’s guess.
But almost a year later, the race for the presidency has cut a decidedly different path, in an election cycle with a rhythm and character all its own.
Through a year of headlines in POLITICO, here is a collection of the mile markers along the road leading to the White House, some mere pit stops on the journey and others destinations in their own right:
Jan. 6: “Bush leadership PAC raising money fast“
Weeks after announcing that he was actively exploring a presidential bid, Jeb Bush’s leadership PAC Right to Rise USA reported raising $100,000 in online donations in the first few hours after launching. The big number marked the launch of a fundraising juggernaut for a soon-to-be candidate who held much promise. “Everybody, today we are setting up the Right to Rise PAC, which is a PAC to support candidates that believe in conservative principles to allow all Americans to rise up,” Bush said.
Jan. 6: “Rubio tries to thread immigration needle“
Knowing that his participation in the ultimately failed Gang of Eight immigration push in 2013 would haunt him, Marco Rubio sought to explain his role as one that was reasonable and practical. It showed the early signs of Rubio’s strategy of not running from his record, while attacking others as not all that different from him. “On the one hand, calls to grant amnesty to twelve million people are unrealistic and quite frankly irresponsible,” Rubio wrote in his book “American Dreams,” of which POLITICO obtained an advance copy. “On the other hand, not a single opponent of the Senate bill I helped author proposed that we try to round up and deport twelve million human beings.”
Jan. 29: “Sanders wants to take on ‘billionaire class’“
Bernie Sanders, the quirky Independent senator from Vermont, in January heavily flirted with a presidential run during an interview with C-SPAN while pledging any such campaign would not be a negative one against Hillary Clinton.
In the interview, Sanders said that he would focus on the “collapse of the middle class” if he ran for president, as well as the need to “take on the billionaire class” influencing elections. “My God … if you run for president, you’re going to need a gazillion dollars,” Sanders said at the time. “I will not run for president if I can’t do it well and if I can’t run to win.”
Jan. 30: “Romney not running“
During a five-minute call with donors, the GOP’s 2012 nominee made official his decision to forgo another campaign for the White House, with POLITICO reporting that top Republican sources suggesting that he “flinched at Jeb Bush’s strength in fundraising and early polling.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was also seen as a beneficiary of Romney’s decision to sit out the race. Romney had met with Bush in Utah the previous weekend, ramping up speculation about his political future.
Remarking that he was both surprised and heartened after a visit to Mississippi earlier in the week, Romney told donors that he was “convinced that we could win the nomination, but fully realize it would have been a difficult test and a hard fight.”
Jan. 30: “Jeb’s big test“
Later in the day, a POLITICO subhed asked, “Can Bush capitalize on Romney’s exit?” with the point being that the former governor of Florida stood to benefit from the largesse of the establishment donor base with the former governor of Massachusetts’ decision.
“It sets up the first big test for Jeb on whether he can start closing all these big donors right now and cement his status as the premier candidate in the field and the one who offers the best chance in the general election,” Kevin Madden, a senior adviser and spokesman for Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, told POLITICO that day. “Many donors were held in check waiting on Mitt and now the question is how quickly can [Bush] lock them down while facing competition from Christie and some of the others.”
Clinton offered her first explanation for exclusively using private email addresses and a homebrew server as secretary of state, telling reporters gathered at a news conference at the United Nations that she did so as a matter of “convenience.”
“Looking back, it might have been smarter” to have used a government account, she conceded at the time, though declined to turn over 30,000 of the 60,000 emails that she and her lawyers examined, deeming them “personal.”
Questions surrounding Clinton’s practice lingered throughout the year, culminating in her Oct. 22 hearing. (More on that later.)
The first major Republican candidate to jump in the race, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz took to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, to tout his conservative religious bona fides at the Baptist school founded by the late evangelical leader Jerry Falwell. Channeling John Lennon, Cruz invited students at the mandatory weekly invocation to “[i]magine a president who stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel” and to “imagine in 2017, a president signing legislation repealing every word of Obamacare,” and to “imagine repealing every word of Common Core.”
“I believe God isn’t done with America yet,” he told the crowd.
In launching his presidential bid, the often iconoclastic Kentucky senator sought to cast a wide net, plopping a diverse set of supporters behind him for the event, and promising to appeal to young and minority voters. While Paul has since failed to energize a broad base, he made a strong pitch at the time.
“Those of us who have enjoyed the American Dream must break down the wall that separates us from ‘the other America,'” said Paul, who made reforming the criminal justice system a central theme of his burgeoning campaign.
April 12: “Hillary Clinton formally announces 2016 run“
The former secretary of state ended months upon months of speculation about when she would enter the race with a YouTube video in which she did not even appear until the 1:35 mark.
“Clinton is the first candidate in the thin Democratic field to formally announce a 2016 run, and is unlikely to face any real challenge until the general election,” POLITICO reported, 18 days before Sanders would announce his bid from Capitol Hill.
April 13: “Rubio battles Bush in quest for money“
Ahead of Rubio’s official campaign announcement, POLITICO reported on the high-powered scramble for cash with Bush, a tête-à-tête fueled by their mentor-mentee relationship when Bush was governor and Rubio was speaker of the House.
“I don’t think he’s frozen out of Florida,” a Bush fundraiser said about Rubio. “He certainly isn’t in as commanding of a position as Jeb is, but he’s got a cadre of supporters. He’s got a lot of folks in Miami who are for him and he has pockets around the state of folks who helped him run for Senate, or have been involved when he ran the Florida House.”
April 30: “Dems to Bernie: Fat chance“
Scant political insiders gave the Democratic bid of Sanders much of a chance when he declared in late April, with one New Hampshire Democrat telling the POLITICO Caucus that it would be “hard to believe” the chances of an independent socialist outside of his home state of Vermont.
“The Clinton campaign should be ecstatic,” another operative said. “Sen. Sanders gives Hillary the benefit of a credible primary opponent who has absolutely no chance of winning. She can now comfortably continue her progressive window-dressing while still looking practical and moderate in comparison.”
“The 2016 election is going to come down to Hillary vs. Jeb, of course,” Bill Scher wrote for POLITICO Magazine. “Dynasty against dynasty. The campaign that would horrify our Founding Fathers and will bore everyone to tears.”
As spring turned to summer and summer to fall, Bush saw his poll numbers plummet.
June 2: “Top pro-Warren group says she’s out“
Officially ending speculation over whether she would mount a liberal challenge to Clinton, a pro-Elizabeth Warren group closed up operations in early June, after the Massachusetts senator indicated she would not be throwing her hat in the ring.
“We still think there’s plenty of time for Sen. Warren to change her mind,” said Democracy for America Executive Director Charles Chamberlain, whose group jointly operated the effort with MoveOn. “But now that we’ve shown that she has the support she would need to mount a winning campaign, we’re excited to take the grass-roots juggernaut we’ve built with our members and stand shoulder to shoulder with Warren in the battles ahead.”
The decision came as Sanders began to pick up in the early state polls, suggesting that some of her supporters had begun to take to Sanders.
On the day Donald Trump launched his campaign for the White House, POLITICO’s coverage included skepticism about whether the Manhattan real-estate mogul would actually file the paperwork to officially enter the race.
“If he follows through, the real estate tycoon poses a potentially big headache for more serious candidates,” the subheadline read.
In the speech itself, at Trump Tower in Manhattan, Trump uttered his infamous line about undocumented immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere bringing crime and being rapists. The U.S. has become a “dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” he said, in a preview of remarks to come.
July 1: “Bernie’s big-crowd strategy“
Sanders’ campaign began turning more heads by early July, when the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont drew 10,000 for a rally in Madison, Wisconsin, the largest attendance for any candidate up to that point.
“The news of large crowds manages to make its way to people, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire,” senior Sanders adviser Tad Devine told POLITICO. “It’s demonstrating that the message Bernie is delivering is connecting with a large audience.”
Like Trump, Sanders often cited the number of people at his rallies as evidence of his underground support going mainstream. By mid-August, Trump had already eclipsed that figure, claiming more than 30,000 at a rally in Alabama,
Just 70 days before he became the second Republican to drop out of the race, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker launched his White House bid from the electorally significant Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha. Touting himself as a Washington outsider with real accomplishments, Walker also brought up his thriftiness and his affinity for shopping at Kohl’s, a frequent talking point for the governor both before and during his official campaign.
Sporting rolled-up sleeves, Walker declared, “My record shows that I know how to fight and win. Now, more than ever, we need a president who will fight and win for America.”
The first Federal Election Commission filing deadline of the campaign put the Bush dynasty’s fundraising power on full display, with the former governor blowing his competition out of the water. During the first 16 official days of his candidacy that began June 15, the campaign reported raising $11.4 million.
Between his campaign and the top super PAC backing his campaign, Bush’s effort had $119 million behind him, making him “fully loaded to outlast 16 Republican rivals” POLITICO reported at the time.
In an appearance at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, Trump stoked outrage from both sides of the aisle with his remark that Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam War prisoner of war, was not a war hero.
“He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump said, later clarifying to reporters that he believed McCain to be war hero. He also maintained, however, that the senator had done “very little for the veterans.”
In one of the first, but certainly not the last, instances of the Trump-generated outrage cycle, nearly all of his Democratic and Republican opponents piled on in condemnation. All the while, Trump’s standing in the polls grew larger by the week.
The first Republican debate in Cleveland began with a simple question from Fox News moderator Bret Baier: Raise your hand if you will not commit to supporting the eventual party nominee and will not rule out an independent run.
The only candidate to raise his hand: Donald Trump, drawing boos and jeers from a crowd that greeted home-state Gov. John Kasich with some of the loudest applause of the evening.
“I can totally make that pledge if I am the nominee, I will not run as independent,” Trump explained. “We will win but I want to win as the Republican, I want to run as the Republican nominee.”
Aug. 7: “Donald Trump’s war on Megyn Kelly“
Trump clashed repeatedly with Fox News moderator and anchor Megyn Kelly during the inaugural debate, leading him to remark upon her lack of fairness to him in an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon the next day.
“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her — wherever,” Trump said. He later tweeted a clarification that he was referring to her nose, slamming those who thought it was a reference to her menstrual cycle.
The remark led some to speculate that Trump might have endangered his nascent bid, with many conservatives leaping to Kelly’s defense. After subsequent dust-ups with Kelly, Fox News chief Roger Ailes called on Trump to apologize. In September, Trump declared that he would no longer appear on Fox News programs for the “foreseeable future,” before appearing on “The O’Reilly Factor” after less than a week.
Aug. 8: “Trump camp in crisis“
Political observers began to see some cracks in Trump’s candidacy after the abrupt departure of longtime adviser Roger Stone from the campaign. The circumstances behind the parting of ways remain unclear, as Trump insisted that he fired him, while Stone said that he had already quit. Regardless, Stone remains a staunch supporter of Trump’s campaign.
“We have a tremendously successful campaign and Roger wanted to use the campaign for his own personal publicity. He has had a number of articles written about him recently, and Mr. Trump wants to keep the focus on how to keep America great again,” explained campaign manager Corey Lewandowski at the time.
Amid intensifying questions about her use of a private server for her State Department emails, Clinton continued to explain why she had done nothing wrong, despite having turned over her server to the FBI.
“I don’t know, I have no idea,” she told reporters in Nevada, when asked whether she had tried to wipe her entire email server clean. “Like with cloth or something? I don’t know how it works digitally at all. I know you want to make a point, I will just repeat what I have said: in order to be cooperative as possible, we have turned over the server … we turned over everything that was work-related. Every single thing.”
Aug. 28: “O’Malley slams DNC for ‘rigged’ debate plan“
Speaking at the Democratic National Committee’s annual meeting in Minneapolis, the former Maryland governor and longshot candidate excoriated his own party for its limited debate schedule, a point of frequent contention among the campaigns and supporters of candidates not named Clinton.
“How does this help us tell the story of the last eight years of Democratic progress? How does this promote our Democratic ideas for making wages and household incomes go up again and not down?” Martin O’Malley asked, with DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz sharing the stage. “How does this help us make our case to the people? One debate in Iowa. That’s it? One debate in New Hampshire. That’s all we can afford?”
Seeking to end a particularly brutal week of headlines ahead of Labor Day, Clinton sat down with NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell for a rare national interview, declining to directly apologize when asked if she would for using her personal email address as secretary of state.
“I disagree with the choice that I made,” she said. “At the end of the day, I am sorry that this has been confusing to people.”
In a subsequent interview with ABC News’ David Muir four days later, Clinton offered an unequivocal apology. “That was a mistake. I’m sorry about that. I take responsibility,” he said.
Sept. 17: “Is the summer of Trump over?“
As the leaves began to turn, conventional political wisdom began to turn against Trump, even as he churned out dominant polling performance after dominant polling performance.
As POLITICO reported following the Sept. 16 debate in Simi Valley, California, Trump struggled to articulate his answers on several questions, including his position on mandatory vaccinations. He also faced heat from Carly Fiorina after criticizing her looks during an interview with Rolling Stone published the previous week.
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina remarked at the CNN-hosted debate, to which Trump responded, “I think she’s got a beautiful face.”
In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Carson indicated that he would not advocate that a Muslim be president of the United States, adding that he would be open to Muslim members of Congress, of which there are already two. He would later declare that he would support a Muslim president who renounced the tenets of sharia law. Candidates on both sides of the aisle pounced on Carson’s declaration.
Sept. 21: “Walker quits after blowing through campaign cash“
Just a little more than two months after launching his candidacy, the Wisconsin governor declared from Madison that he would end his campaign.
“Today, I believe that I’m being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race for a positive conservative message to rise to the top of the field,” he said, urging the party to unite against Trump.
Walker’s decision to drop out immediately benefited Rubio, who had already brought aboard some of his biggest financial boosters.
Oct. 21: “Biden not running for president“
“I’ve said all along what I’ve said time and again to others: that it may very well be that that process, by the time we get through it, closes the window on mounting a realistic campaign for president: that it might close,” Biden said at a mid-day announcement in the Rose Garden, flanked by President Barack Obama. “I’ve concluded that it has closed.”
The decision ended seemingly relentless speculation about whether Biden would seek the bid and thus perhaps divide loyalties in the White House. It also came after journalists and pundits interpreted what they believed to be Biden’s implied displeasure with Clinton’s remark at a debate that she considered Republicans her enemies along with “the NRA, the drug companies, the insurance companies” and “the Iranians.”
“It is necessary to end this notion that the enemy is the other party, end this notion that it’s naive to think we can speak well of the other party and cooperate,” Biden had said, a notion he repeated in the Rose Garden.
Oct. 22: “Clinton survives 11-hour Benghazi grilling“
For months, opponents of Clinton had banked on her Oct. 22 testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi damaging her candidacy. But after 11 hours of a spirited back and forth with Republicans, the former secretary of state emerged largely politically unscathed despite facing some tough questions.
As the court-ordered monthly releases of emails continued (and will do so until Jan. 31), Clinton emphasized that most of her work “was not done on emails with my closest aides, with officials in the State Department, officials in the rest of the government as well as the White House and people around the world.”
Oct. 29: “Bush walks into Rubio’s trap”
Coming into the third GOP debate in Colorado, Bush needed a lift to his sagging campaign. But instead, his fellow Floridian rolled him in Boulder. When Bush challenged Rubio on the number of votes he’s missed in the Senate, Rubio was ready. “I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record; the only reason you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that it’s going to help you,” the Florida senator said, as applause rose from the audience.
“Horrible,” one Bush supporter told POLITICO. “He got crushed.”
“Marco is a [expletive] Jedi master,” said another Bush donor. “Hopefully these idiots learn not to [expletive] with him anymore. Not necessary.”
Nov. 4: “Jeb Bush’s view from the bottom“
A day before he dropped like a rock in the latest Quinnipiac University national poll, Bush put on a happy face campaigning in New Hampshire at the outset of his “Jeb Can Fix It Tour,” an effort to rehabilitate the candidate’s standing in the polls and stature ahead of the early-state caucuses and primaries.
“You all know that in New Hampshire in particular, people make up their minds four, five, six days away. And Governor Bush is working hard, as is every other candidate, to try to get out and answer your questions,” former Sen. Scott Brown told supporters.
Bush campaign manager Tim Miller warned the media that several bad weeks of polling were still to come for their candidate. “Comebacks take time, we recognize and are prepared for that,” he tweeted.
For years, Carson had told a story, including in his book “Gifted Hands,” about how he had met Gen. William Westmoreland in 1969 and shortly thereafter received an offer of a “full scholarship” to the military academy. But West Point had no record of Carson applying or being extended admission.
The POLITICO story reporting that Carson had neither applied nor gained admission to West Point drew blowback from the Carson campaign, with the candidate remarking to “The Brody File” that the media “will go through all lengths trying to discredit me.”
“I guess it could have been more clarified. I told it as I understood it,” Carson told Bill O’Reilly the same day.
It was the latest in a series of skeptical stories and media questions about Carson’s life story and fitness for office, which included, among other things, 17-year-old comments that the biblical Joseph built Great Pyramids of Giza as granaries, not as pharaohs’ tombs.
Five days after a Muslim husband and wife killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California — the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil since 9/11 and a day after President Barack Obama appeared to do little to assuage the fears to a jittery nation — Trump sought to ratchet up his rhetoric another notch.
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” a statement from the candidate’s campaign said, a measure that Trump later stressed was only temporary.
Candidates from both parties pushed back against the call, with all three Democratic candidates meeting with Muslim leaders to emphasize their solidarity with the American Muslim community.
The Dec. 15 Republican debate in Las Vegas ushered in the next phase of the race, one in which Trump still leads in most state and national polls but also one that has increasingly resembled a cage match between Rubio and Cruz over immigration.
For the Texas senator, Rubio’s accusation that Cruz had once supported legalizing undocumented immigrants with his amendment to the 2013 Gang of Eight legislation proved too irresistible.
“I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization,” Cruz said, touching off days of a back-and-forth over whether Cruz’s support for amendments constituted support for the bill, a point that the Texas senator has vehemently and repeatedly denied.
In making his case, Cruz has cast himself as the conservative in the race, casting off Rubio as one of many in the moderate lane who faces a steeper climb to the nomination.
Dec. 18: “Chaos in the Democratic presidential primary“
If this list is any indication, the Republican primary has generated significantly more fireworks than the Democrats’ race. But that began to change by year’s end, when news broke that members of Sanders campaign had improperly accessed Clinton voter data thanks to a technological glitch. The DNC at first revoked the Sanders campaign’s access to its own data on Dec. 18, prompting the threat of a lawsuit, though the committee and campaign had reached a decision to restore access by the next morning.
The scandal broke just a day before the third Democratic debate in New Hampshire, though Sanders punctured further drama with an apology at the outset, and Clinton accepted. As part of the agreement to have its data restored, the Sanders campaign agreed to an independent investigation into the incident.
The senator who had to get a new cellphone number thanks to the antics of Trump announced that he was throwing in the towel on the first day of winter and the last day he could remove his name from South Carolina’s primary ballot, saving him the likely embarrassment of a poor showing in his home-state contest.
Graham became well recognized for his one-liners on the debate stage and on the campaign trail. Among them: “You know how you make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell,” in a Dec. 8 interview with CNN, calling Trump a “jackass” in July, and this crack about the country’s broken immigration system in September: “Strom Thurmond had four kids after age 67. If you’re not willing to do that, we need to come up with a new immigration system.”
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