In 2012, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was defeated by incumbent President Barack Obama by a margin of 332 electoral votes for Obama to 206 for Romney. Obama carried 26 states (along with the District of Columbia) with Romney winning the remaining 24 states. In the popular vote, Obama received 65,915,796 votes (or 51.1%) compared to 60,933,500 votes (47.2%) for Romney. In the aftermath, no apparent presumptive Republican nominee for 2016 presented himself or herself. Romney's running mate Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin elevated his profile during the campaign, but also attracted some negative attention over certain alleged embellishments such as the time it took him to run a marathon. (Ryan stated that he misspoke when he initially said that he had run a marathon in under three hours. His actual time was over four hours.) Ryan ultimately decided against seeking the nomination.
Without a clear future nominee, potential candidates began to be identified from within the different segments of the party. One faction of candidates emerged from within the Tea Party movement, a group that had developed after President Obama's first presidential inauguration in January 2009, when his administration announced plans to give financial aid to bankrupt homeowners. When CNBC business news editor Rick Santelli called for a "tea party" response by conservative groups, a series of protests took place, including the 2009 Taxpayer March on Washington. (The movement took its name from the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773). Potential candidates from the Tea Party Movement included Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. In most national polls from late 2012 to mid-2013, Rubio was usually leading the pack. He was seen as having a broad appeal among conservatives and moderates. His Latino heritage and efforts on immigration reform were seen as possible tools to draw Hispanic voters to the Republican fold.
Others in the party felt that the next nominee should be a governor or former governor, ideally from a swing state or a blue state. Possible candidates that met this criteria included former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, Ohio governor John Kasich, former New York governor George Pataki, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Christie's bellicose manner was viewed as having crossover appeal to Tea Party voters as well, although many Republicans resented how he had posed for photo ops with President Obama during the 2012 campaign when Hurricane Sandy hit his state. Christie overtook Rubio in many polls taken between mid-2013 to early 2014. But when the "Bridgegate" scandal broke (in which Christie was alleged to have been a party to the deliberate closure of a bridge in order to punish his political opponents), these allegations negatively affected Christie's poll numbers. Even after Christie was later cleared of personal responsibility in a subsequent investigation, he never seemed to regain his lost momentum.
Polls fluctuated from January 2014 to November 2014. Some candidates had momentary surges in these polls, such as Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Texas Governor Rick Perry. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush often polled in the low double digits and was considered a prominent candidate due to his broad support among the party establishment and his high fundraising ability. He was also the former governor of a crucial swing state. His biggest negative has his connection to his brother, former President George W. Bush, wish was said to adversely affect his electability. By November 2014, Bush had finally solidified his lead in the polls.
In late 2014 there as also some discussion of the possibility of Mitt Romney making a third run for the presidency. During the period from November 2014 until late January 2015, Romney's name rose in many national polls as well, and at the time many speculated that the nomination fight would be a race between Romney and Bush. Romney initially said that he was not planning to seek the nomination in 2016, but he later said that he was reconsidering the idea. Ultimately however, on January 30, 2015, Romney announced that he did not intend to seek the nomination.
In late February of 2015, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker expressed interest in seeking the nomination. As the governor of a traditionally Democratic state, and coming of victory in a recall election in 2012 (the first governor in American history to do so), followed by his reelection in 2014, Walker had what were seen as a number of positives. He and Bush led in the polls from late February until about mid-June. Walker's challenge to Bush also caused other candidates to briefly resurge in some polls from late April up until mid-June, including Rubio, Paul, and Huckabee. During this time, the polling numbers of Ted Cruz and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson also improved.
On June 16, 2015, businessman and reality TV host Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the nomination. Initially this was not taken seriously by the media due to Trump's outspoken nature and blunt language, which were seen as impediments to political success. But despite pundits' predictions, Trump began to rise in the polls. By mid-July, only a few weeks after formally entering the race, Trump surged into first place in all major national polls. He continued to lead the polls consistently into November. Trump also polled well in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, often leading or coming in second in those states.
In light of his status as a political outsider and as someone who had never held elected political office, Trump's success also helped other candidates who were also lacking in prior experience in office. Former Hewlitt-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina rose in the polls, as did Carson. Two all-candidates debates were held during the late summer of 2015. The first was held on August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio (where the 2016 GOP Convention is scheduled to be held) and the second took place on September 16, 2015 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. After the second debate, Fiorina gamed some momentum, but it faded quickly. Carson rose into second place after a well-received performance in the first debate, while Fiorina rose into the top three after her performance in the second debate. The rising popularity of non-politician outsiders surprised many political analysts.
In the debate on August 6, 2015, hosted by Fox News, Bret Baier asked the candidates whether, should they fail to win the Republican nomination, they would pledge not to run as an independent candidate and would support the eventual nominee. Trump was the only candidate who refused to pledge at that time. In the same debate, Megyn Kelly of Fox news asked Trump about how he would respond to a Clinton campaign saying that he was waging a "war on women". Trump replied, "I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct." In a later interview with Don Lemon on CNN Tonight, Trump called Kelly a "lightweight" and said that she had "blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her - wherever." Trump later tweeted that his remark referred to Kelly's nose but was interpreted by critics as a crude reference to menstruation. RedState.com editor Erick Erickson cancelled Trump's invitation to a RedState meeting, saying "there are just real lines of decency a person running for President should not cross." In response, the Trump campaign issued a statement calling Erickson "a total loser". The statement said that anyone who thought Trump's comment was a reference to menstruation was "a deviant". Trump retained his first place lead in the polls after the debate.
In mid-September, the first two major candidates dropped out of the race. Former Texas governor Rick Perry suspended his campaign on September 11, citing his failure to qualify for the prime time debates and his subsequent failure to raise a significant amount of money as reasons for dropping out. Ten days later, on September 21, Scott Walker suspended his campaign due to low poll numbers and two lackluster debate performances. Much of the attention the first two debates focused on Trump, making it difficult for many other candidates to capture more attention.
By September, six candidates seemed to be pulling away from the rest of the field: Trump, Carson, Rubio, Fiorina, Bush, and Cruz. Four of the other candidates (Christie, Huckabee, Paul, and Kasich) were polling in the range of roughly 3% or less, while the five remaining candidates (Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, and Jim Gilmore) were consistently polling below 1%.
A third debate was held on October 28, 2015 in Boulder Colorado. By this time Bush and Fiorina's poll numbers continued to fall, while Cruz's support in the polls grew. Trump and Carson were still well ahead of the rest of the field, with Trump often registering in the low 30s and high 20s, and Carson in the low 20s. During late autumn, Carson began polling even with Trump briefly. Carson's support decreased significantly following terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015. Trump seemed to attract support because of his blunt and direct nature and his tough foreign policy stances. Much of Rubio's support was based on his his appeal to Hispanic voters and his moderate stances on issues as immigration reform, along with his strong debate performances and significant donor backing. Cruz continued to appeal to Tea Party and Christian Conservative voters
The November 2015 Paris attacks appeared to boosting the campaigns of those candidates who espoused tough stances on immigration like Trump and Cruz. Carson, who was perceived as lacking in foreign policy knowledge, began to fall in the polls as Trump regained a double-digit lead over the rest of the candidates. Poll numbers for Rubio and Cruz began to rise along with Carson's decline.
On November 17, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal became the third major Republican candidate to drop out, roughly two months after Walker in late September.
By December, Cruz had overtaken Carson. Cruz was polling well with Christian conservatives, and he averaged around 18% in national polls, second only to Trump. Rand Paul, who held non-interventionist views, also continued to fall in the polls, while Carson fell down to about 10%, roughly even with Rubio. On December 15, another presidential debate was held in Las Vegas. Six days later, on December 21, Lindsay Graham suspended his campaign and days later, on December 29, George Pataki did so as well.
As 2016, Trump and Cruz began the year with a war of words as Cruz accused Trump of not being a consistent conservative as well as an unethical businessman. Trump responded by questioning Cruz's constitutional eligibility to be President, given the fact that Cruz was born in Canada. Trump also pointed out Cruz's past calls for immigration reform, suggesting that he was a flip-flopper on the issue. In the weeks leading up to the Iowa Caucuses, held on February 1, 2016, Trump and Cruz ran television commercials, tttacking the other's record. As this was taking place, candidates Rubio, Christie, Bush and Kasich were competing to be the establishment candidate, and Christie and Kasich both saw their polling rise. These conflicts were evident at the Republican debate held on January 14 on Charleston, South Carolina. .
In the Republican debate held on January 28, Trump chose not to participate, in part due to his conflict with moderator Megyn Kelly. Many candidates used the opportunity to criticize the second-place Cruz, who was also being heavily criticized by prominent Republican leaders in the weeks before Iowa.
The first contest to select delegates to the Republican Convention, the Iowa Caucuses, followed four days later on February 1, 2016.