Election 2016: A Reference Guide for Presidential Comparison Shopping

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It’s a popular strategy for any presidential candidate: compare yourself—and your opponents—to past commanders in chief. For Republicans, this means constantly identifying with Ronald Reagan. For Democrats, it’s all about avoiding overlap with Jimmy Carter. AP Images

It may be nothing more than a gimmick, but the compare game lets candidates win points in debates, add style to stump speeches and pounce on unsuspecting opponents.

But what if we went a step beyond the rhetorical? What does the data say about 2016 candidates and their presidential equivalents? To match up candidates with past presidents, InsideGov turned to OnTheIssues.org, which scores politicians across dozens of issues, from abortion to health care to military spending.

InsideGov normalized OnTheIssues’ numbers into four categories, each on a scale of -10 (liberal) to +10 (conservative). The categories included:

  1. Individual rights (abortion, women & minorities, marriage, religion, environment, voter rights)
  2. Domestic issues (crime, guns, health care, school vouchers, energy, drugs)
  3. Economic issues (stimulus, taxes, immigration, Social Security)
  4. Defense and international issues (trade, military, foreign relations, role abroad)

Candidates and presidents were each categorized into buckets based on how well their scores matched across all four categories. In the end, the following pairings emerged.

*Note that the comparisons here are based exclusively on the issues, not on more intangible factors like temperament, leadership style or communication talents. Additionally, OnTheIssues provides data only from Harry S. Truman forward, so the comparisons will focus on presidents from the past 70 years.

Matches Made in Heaven

Hillary Clinton = Barack Obama

The GOP candidates love to compare Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama, and the data backs them up. Clinton is nearly as liberal as Obama on economic issues, and a tad more liberal on individual rights.

The two diverge slightly on domestic issues (Clinton leans more liberal) and defense (Clinton is more of a hawk), but beyond that, they’re a close fit. It’s no wonder Clinton’s campaign seems to be embracing Obama. The numbers don’t lie.

Lincoln Chafee = Bill Clinton

You might guess that Bill’s best comparison would be Hillary. Instead, Bill’s closest match is little-known Lincoln Chafee.

Chafee famously jumped the aisle after serving as a moderate Republican for years, and he’s turned himself into a classic Clinton Democrat. Chafee comes down most liberal on social issues, like abortion and same-sex marriage. At the same time, he supports a more robust military.

The latest polls suggest Chafee will barely make any headway in 2016, but the data says the old Clinton loyalists should give him a second look.

Jim Webb = John F. Kennedy

The former Marine is the picture of a moderate Democrat, scoring no lower than -5 in any one sub-category. The best historical equivalent? John F. Kennedy. The two men score almost identically across every category, only deviating slightly on military and international matters. Surprisingly, it’s Webb—the former military man—who leans just a bit further to the left on defense.

Chris Christie = Dwight D. Eisenhower

Strictly based on ideology and issues, you might call Dwight D. Eisenhower "the conservative JFK”—a Republican president who nonetheless held moderate positions across most categories.

The easy comparison here is Christie, whose moderate views on individual rights and social issues make him one of the most balanced candidates in the race. To top it all off, both men trend noticeably more conservative in just one category: the economy.

Jeb Bush = Gerald Ford

When Jeb Bush says he’s his own man—and not an echo of his brother—he’s right, at least as far as the issues go. Jeb diverges from George most obviously on two fronts: the economy and the military. No doubt the Iraq War and 2008 financial collapse have factored into Jeb’s evolving ideology.

The closest historical comparison here is Gerald Ford, a president who sought to ease tensions with the USSR and move the country along from Vietnam. Naturally, the historical context is much different, but the two men’s ideological mindsets are quite similar.

Donald Trump = Ronald Reagan

Here, we expose the biggest problem with our comparison methodology. No sane political observer would call Donald Trump the modern-day Reagan, but that’s because the two men differ so drastically on the intangibles. It’s scathing versus sympathetic; divisive against unifying.

But here’s the thing: on the issues, Trump and Reagan are quite similar. Both men favor stricter punishment on crime and oppose universal health care. Each rates somewhat moderately on economic issues (though they diverge on the specifics). And finally, each individual has a skill for unifying a hodgepodge of diverse supporters.

Mike Huckabee = George W. Bush

If George W. Bush wrote the script for compassionate conservatism, Mike Huckabee is directing the movie. Across almost every issue, Huckabee has taken a similar tack: support the conservative viewpoint, but frequently invoke the teachings of a higher, loving power.

While both men have strong convictions in individual areas (see: abortion), neither comes out as especially conservative in any one overall category—making for a close match.


Too ideologically extreme: Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum

Bernie Sanders would likely be America’s most liberal president in history, while Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum would probably set the record for most conservative. This is why none of the three are ultimately viable in the general election.

Too unconventional: Rand Paul, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina

Both Rand Paul and Ben Carson lean slightly left on international issues, but hold strongly conservative opinions across several other matters. These libertarian-influenced platforms aren’t new, but they don’t translate to electoral victories—which is why neither has a good past-president equivalent.

Finally, Carly Fiorina stands out for her moderate views on women’s issues and voter rights. As a candidate who leans right across most other issues, she offers a unique—and unmatched—perspective.

Close, but Not Quite

Scott Walker = George W. Bush?

Scott Walker comes close to Bush, with an economically conservative mindset paired with a somewhat hawkish approach to foreign policy. But the comparison breaks down once you look at Walker’s extremely conservative views on all domestic issues, from crime to health care to the environment.

In fact, Walker’s consistently conservative bent on domestic issues is unprecedented among all modern presidents.

Marco Rubio = Ronald Reagan?

Marco Rubio would love nothing more than to be labeled the next Reagan, and in fairness, he has a decent case. He’s arguably the most charming candidate in the field, and he has a knack for answering complicated questions in simple terms. His ideological leanings also rise and fall with The Gipper—a little more conservative on health care and defense, a little less on individual rights and the economy.

The problem is that Rubio is simply much more conservative, overall, than the GOP’s favorite modern president. That said, this may all be intentional. Rubio knows the GOP of 2015 is simply more conservative than the 1980 version. If Rubio wants to appeal to today’s Republican base, this might be as close to the true Reagan as he can get.

Explore Every 2016 Candidate on InsideGov

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