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How Will Being Indicted Affect Rick Perry’s 2016 Presidential Hopes?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry was indicted late Friday on two felony counts for alleged abuse of power by a state grand jury, the AP reported.

Christopher Hooks at The Texas Observer has an outstanding deep dive into the scandal’s background. When a local district attorney (a Democrat) was arrested for driving while intoxicated, Perry called for her resignation and threatened to cut off all funding to her office, the Public Integrity Unit, which is tasked with enforcing ethics laws in the state, if she refused to leave office. She refused, and Perry followed-through on his threat. From The Texas Observer piece:

At the end of last year’s legislative session, Perry eliminated the entirety of the Public Integrity Unit’s funding–some $8 million over two years. Money that was going to investigate, in small part, his own party’s mismanagement of state government agencies, including alleged corruption in CPRIT [the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas].

Perry ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 and was making a lot of noise about running again in 2016. So how does this affect Perry’s presidential ambitions?

A lot of reporters and pundits will spend the next several weeks trying to answer that question, but the truth is we won’t know for quite some time. It looked like Perry would have had a difficult time capturing the nomination even before Friday’s indictment. According to recent polls by NBC/Marist, Perry was at 7 percent in Iowa and 5 percent in New Hampshire. His Iowa numbers are especially depressed from where he was polling when he first declared his candidacy in 2012.

Perhaps more importantly, Perry’s repeated gaffes in 2012 would have made it difficult for the GOP establishment to support him again in 2016. As we’ve noted in the past, establishment support (or at least a lack of opposition) is key to winning a Republican primary. It’s one of the reasons Newt Gingrich lost in 2012. The establishment wants to nominate electable candidates. Perry’s past missteps and misstatements may have rendered him unacceptable to Republican power brokers.

Perry’s likelier tactic would have been to try and rally the conservative grass-roots, a voting bloc that’s been willing to stick by a candidate attacked in the mainstream press. Perhaps conservative voters will rally around Perry, especially if the case against Perry looks politically motivated. It’s difficult to predict. Scandals sometimes sink a politician and sometimes barely register electorally.

For example: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of Perry’s potential rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. In the wake of the George Washington Bridge scandal, Christie’s support tanked both within his own state and nationally. He has yet to rebound. He’s clearly still in contention for the 2016 GOP nomination — polling above Perry, no less — but the bridge scandal made a sizable dent in his support.

Christie was polling nationally above 15 percent for the Republican nomination before the scandal hit. Since that time, his numbers have fallen to just below 10 percent. In New Jersey, Christie had a 65 percent job approval in December 2013 and a 50 percent rating in June 2014.

There was Herman Cain’s presidential bid in 2012. Cain led the Republican field with 30 percent in a national poll conducted by Quinnipiac in October 2011, a week before allegations surfaced that Cain behaved inappropriately toward two women while running the National Restaurants Association. The next Quinnipiac poll, taken two weeks after the scandal broke, had Cain at just 14 percent. He dropped out two weeks after that.

On the other hand, sometimes these things fail to have an impact electorally, as in the case of then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. A few days before Gennifer Flowers played audio tapes allegedly proving she had had an affair with Clinton, he led the Democratic presidential field with 22 percent of the vote, according to a CBS/New York Times poll. Just a few days after the audio tape was released, Clinton actually jumped to 31 percent in a Los Angeles Times poll. He would go on to place a strong second in the New Hampshire primary and win the nomination.

So is Perry’s 2016 goose cooked? We’ll need more time to know for sure. Christie’s number problems were immediately recognized in polling, but we still don’t know if he will recover by 2016.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.