Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, center, speaks at a rally for Senate candidate Dan Sullivan, on November 3, 2014.

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, center, speaks at a rally for Senate candidate Dan Sullivan, on November 3, 2014. Ted S. Warren/AP

National Security Professionals Pick Mitt Romney in 2016 Poll

The national security community’s top pick for 2016 isn’t a rising GOP senator or the former secretary of state – it’s Mitt Romney. By Molly O’Toole

Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is the national security community’s top choice for the next commander in chief, according to a new survey commissioned by Defense One. Amid a pack of polarizing GOP and Democratic leaders, survey respondents made up of federal national security workers and troops ranked Romney, the middle-of-the-road GOP candidate from 2012, above another mainstream voice, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, followed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Among the 10 potential presidential candidates in the survey, rising Republican stars garnering much of the media attention -- such as Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; and Rand Paul, R-Ky. -- tanked. The full results of the “Defense One National Security Survey” will be released next week.

Many of these potential presidential picks for 2016 stumped for their party’s candidates in the closely contested midterms, and the GOP’s big gains last week are seen as a referendum on President Obama and the Democrats. From Cruz and Paul to elder statesmen such as Romney, Republicans all along the campaign trail slammed Obama’s national security strategy and foreign policy, to their party’s electoral advantage.

But while the former Massachusetts governor is enjoying something of a renaissance given the success of his midterm endorsements and the seeming vindication of some his 2012 foreign policy pronouncements – cue Romney’s statement that Russia is the U.S.’s “number one geopolitical foe” – Romney’s top ranking in the survey is still somewhat surprising, given the publicity spotlight centered on up-and-comers such as Cruz and Paul, and that their likely opponent, Clinton, is practically unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

(RelatedEverything You Need To Know About the GOP’s 2016 Frontrunners On National Security)

Bush, who, like Romney, is often discussed as a more experienced, mainstream Republican pick to contend with a name as established as Clinton, came in at number two. Last week, former President George W. Bush put his younger brother Jeb’s odds of running at 50-50, and Romney’s aides are convinced that he will consider a run only if Bush does not, according to The Washington Post. But as Clinton’s survey results hinted, for both Bush and the former secretary of state, the family political dynasty could prove as much of a burden as a boon.

Clinton remains a polarizing figure among the national security community, despite having perhaps the deepest national security experience of the future field, given her time in the White House, Senate and State Department (and leading the department from which a number of the respondents drew.) She received more first- and second-place votes than anyone else -- but she also received more last- and second-to-last place votes, save for Vice President Joe Biden, putting her in third place behind Romney and Bush. 

Conducted by the Government Business Council and Defense One, divisions of Government Executive Media Group, the survey received responses from 427 individuals currently serving within the national security community, including from the State Department, Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security. The margin of error is 4.74 percent.

Wannabe candidates from Congress didn’t fare well among those inside government, according to the survey. While Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., House Budget Committee chairman and former Romney running mate, came in fourth behind Clinton, respondents ranked frontrunner Paul seventh, only ahead of Biden, Rubio and Cruz.

Rubio’s second-to-last place finish indicates that despite his long-time efforts to gain credibility on defense, the national security community still doesn’t see him as commander-in-chief material.

Cruz, whose best shot is as the grass-roots conservative candidate, was the least popular pick -- perhaps due to recent comments indicating he hasn’t muffled his willingness to obstruct government in order to be seen as a more viable candidate capable of attracting moderate voters.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- both trying to revive presidential ambitions amid political scandals, and, for Perry, a gaffe-filled 2012 run, ranked in the middle of the pack, at five and six, respectively. The governors have suggested that state executives make better presidents than congressmen, but when the Ebola scare brought an opportunity to demonstrate leadership on national security to their states, both Christie and Perry received mixed marks.

Then again, respondents didn’t have much faith in Congress, either -- 68 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that enough current members of Congress are sufficiently qualified to exercise oversight over military and intelligence operations.

Those findings come even as Congress returns from recess Wednesday to consider the Obama administration’s updated budget request for $5.6 billion to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the Islamic State, and a potential authorization for the use of military force against the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.