The election year is officially under way -- here’s what you need to know about the GOP presidential contenders
Republican presidential frontrunners Donald Trump (C) and Ben Carson (R) came in for fierce criticism of their policy plans from other White House candidates (AFP Photo/Robyn Beck)

If the chaotic 2016 election has a theme yet, it is the angry howl of middle American anguish. Anti-establishment politicians have so far dominated every stage of the Republican primary (and fared surprisingly well in the Democratic race too) as polls suggest a majority of American voters simply do not trust traditional politicians to tackle perceived economic and physical insecurity.

For real existential anxiety, you have to spend time with what is left of the Republican establishment. Party leaders have watched dumbfounded as all the accepted rules of modern politics are ripped up before their eyes. Jeb Bush’s shock-and-awe strategy of raising $100m in big donations to blow rivals out of the race before it began has instead blown up in his face. The candidate with the strongest name recognition and record of official endorsements has become a near laughingstock in the polls.

Three almost as well-known and well-financed governors – Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rick Perry of Texas and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal – have seen their campaigns sink before the first ballot has been cast. The most experienced lawmaker of the field, senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, dropped out in the dying days of the year with barely a ripple.

Yet there are still a dozen candidates in a race that remains as fractured and wide open as it ever was, with just five weeks to go until the Iowa caucus. Trump leads less convincingly, particularly in early states, where he is now behind Cruz in Iowa and also vulnerable to Rubio and Christie in New Hampshire. But further out, polling is thin for South Carolina and Nevada and reliable indicators virtually non-existent by the time Super Tuesday’s 12 states are reached on 1 March.

The bookies may have Trump at 6/1 to make it all the way to the White House but, in truth, all bets are off. Here are the Guardian’s runners and riders:

Donald Trump

Drive the back roads of early-voting states and you will see surprisingly few yard signs and bumper stickers to hint at the imminent election, with one exception: emblazoned on pickup trucks across Iowa and New Hampshire is Trump’s slogan “make America great again”.

Pundits have been predicting his imminent demise since this reality TV caricature first overtook Jeb Bush as the party’s frontrunner in July. But a canny knack for commanding attention with ever more outrageous speeches and pugnacious debate appearances has left Trump with the last laugh so far.

The real test comes on 1 February when the man who has built a career on the myth of his invincibility faces the real threat of a defeat by Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucus – a race where he has slipped behind in recent polling by as much as 10 points.

Opinions differ on whether Trump has invested the time and money to build a lasting ground operation in early states, where TV celebrity has historically proved less important than door-to-door combat by volunteers and well-organised campaign staff. The New York Times claims he has “fallen behind in the nuts and bolts of organising ”. Guardian interviews suggest he retains a master plan behind the bombast.

Nationally, the picture is also much stronger. Pre-Christmas polling saw Trump up by as much as 21 points over Cruz, having dispatched previous threats by Ben Carson and (briefly) Carly Fiorina. His establishment rivals remain nowhere to be seen.

Bio: 69-year-old property investor from New York

Signature policy proposal: Building a wall at the US-Mexico border

The strategy: Win the battle of the TV studios

Three-month polling average: 29%

Odds on becoming president: 6/1

Most likely to say: Anything that gets him airtime

Least likely to say: “As secretary Clinton wisely observed, we need a measured approach”

The bottom line: Don’t underestimate a man who finished off the Bush dynasty

Ted Cruz

The notion that this maverick senator from Texas would become the more reasonable pick for the Republican nomination would have been met, until recently, with hollow laughter by his many enemies in Congress.

By far the most conservative candidate in the field, this former lawyer may have been born in Canada to a Cuban father, but he has out-trumped Trump in his desire to pull up the drawbridge after him and reverse Barack Obama’s “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants. While he’s at it, this climate change denier plans to roll back Obamacare for the uninsured, abolish the US Department of Education, and replace the IRS with a flat tax that would cost $16tn .

The first-term senator who once held up the US Senate by reading Dr Seuss books was famously called one of the “ wacko birds ” by John McCain and a “ little bit of a maniac ” by Trump. But before American liberals start packing their bags for Canada, it is also worth noting that one reason McCain hates him is he is less interventionist than many – despite calling for “carpet bombing” in Syria – and is a fan of Edward Snowden-inspired surveillance reforms .

Most importantly, Cruz benefits from an election map that could give him crucial momentum among Christians in Iowa and South Carolina, and the blessing of southern Tea Party supporters on Super Tuesday, by which time there may only be Democrats left to stop him.

Bio: 45-year-old senator from Texas

Signature policy: Roll back Obama’s legacy

The strategy: Unite the Tea Party and evangelists

Three-month polling average: 14%

Odds on becoming president: 6/1

Most likely to say: “These are dangerous days for America”

Least likely to say: “As a Cuban immigrant I appreciate Obama’s struggle for peace”

The bottom line: The Republican with the clearest path to the nomination

Marco Rubio

You can call this fresh-faced Florida freshman many things, but just don’t call him a member of the establishment. Rubio bristles when he is characterised, increasingly, as the best remaining hope of the Republican mainstream.

Told to wait his turn by mentor Jeb Bush after battling his way into the Senate on a wave of Tea Party revolt against the party’s preferred pick, this son of a Cuban bartender was once viewed among the quintessential outsiders.

But his support for the so-called “ gang of eight ” immigration reform bill two years ago and early focus on inequality have also raised hopes he could become a Republican JFK, providing a compelling contrast to a likely Democratic opponent at least a generation older.

In truth, Rubio has pulled to the right considerably since then, to claw himself back into a primary race that was largely ignoring him at first. The promise of a more tolerant approach on immigration has been replaced by a belligerent foreign policy as his hallmark.

Rubio has shined in debates and recovered in polling in New Hampshire, where he stands a chance of beating Trump, but has been accused of lacking a clear path to the White House, lacking clear policies and failing to put in the legwork on the ground.

Bio: 44-year-old senator from Florida

Signature policy: Arguably he does not really have one

The strategy: Air war over ground war

Three-month polling average: 12%

Odds on becoming president: 5/1

Most likely to say: “It’s time for a new generation”

Least likely to say: “If this doesn’t work out, I can always have another go next time”

The bottom line: The most likely to beat Hillary Clinton in November

Ben Carson

Of all the implausible candidates to dominate the 2016 election so far, few can match retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Devoid of any political experience or overarching philosophy, this soft-spoken firebrand has made a name for himself as a gentler version of Donald Trump – outraging liberals by comparing Obamacare and abortion to slavery and questioning whether a Muslim could become president, but avoiding the taint of racism that follows his rival outsider.

An African American from humble roots in Detroit, Carson has made much of his inspiring back story fending off questions about the veracity of many details – and often talks of the time he turned his life around with the help of his faith after attempting to stab someone but hitting their belt buckle.

A highly regarded doctor who specialised in separating conjoined twins, Carson nonetheless has been sceptical of climate change science and opposes abortion and the use of foetal tissue in research.

After briefly overtaking Trump for a week or so, Carson’s poll numbers have been falling fast and he may not win a state despite being one of the most prominent outsiders in the race so far. The loss of two key campaign aides on New Year’s Eve added to a sense of gathering chaos.

Bio: 64-year-old retired surgeon from Detroit

Signature policy: A version of the flat tax based loosely on religious tithes

The strategy: Pray for Trump to implode before the establishment catches up

Three-month polling average: 17%

Odds on becoming president: 125/1

Most likely to say: “America needs a steady hand”

Least likely to say: “America needs another black president”

The bottom line: Proof of how odd the 2016 race has been

Jeb Bush

When Bush first began preparing to run for president last December, he was seen as a natural unifier: conservative enough to bring the party behind him in the primary, moderate enough to take on Hillary Clinton among the changing presidential electorate.

But Bush’s support for immigration reform has become a millstone around his neck during a primary race that has become defined by Trump’s xenophobia and a series of humiliating debate exchanges in which the real estate mogul accused him of being “low energy”.

At times seemingly too grownup for the raucous mood, Bush has also tacked further to the right – replacing early attempts to distance himself from George W Bush’s foreign policy with an embrace of the neocon worldview as Obama has struggled in the Middle East.

The $100m he raised from rich backers at the outset has brought precious little poll recognition but kept Bush in contention as similar candidates have had to drop out. Expect pressure on him to call it quits and give some back, however, if he fails to make the top three in New Hampshire.

Bio: 62-year-old former governor of Florida

Signature policy: Cut taxes to boost economic growth

The strategy: Use his money to outlast establishment rivals

Three-month polling average: 5%

Odds on becoming president: 20/1

Most likely to say: “We need to get America growing again”

Least likely to say: “Mommy, Donald is bullying me”

The bottom line: Money still talks, so don’t count him out yet

Chris Christie

Another party heavyweight who was once tipped to go far is the governor of New Jersey. A local bridge scandal, in which he denied involvement, contributed to a reputation for bullying that meant the campaign got off to a slow start. But Christie is now back in contention thanks to a tightly focused campaign in New Hampshire .

Where others such as Rubio have tried to fight a national campaign from the start and arguably stretched themselves thin in the process, Christie claims to have made more trips to the Granite State than any other Republican and has recently been rewarded with a strong performance in the polls.

Though once portraying himself as a moderate with a bipartisan record in a traditionally Democratic state, this former prosecutor has also adapted readily to the hawkish tone of the Republican primary, bashing Rand Paul and Ted Cruz for their support of surveillance reform.

If he comes in the top three in New Hampshire, expect to hear more from Christie as he tries to use the state as a springboard for national momentum. Otherwise, he may quickly drop out.

Bio: 53-year-old New Jersey governor

Signature policy: Treatment, not jail, for drug addicts

The strategy: All or nothing in New Hampshire

Three-month polling average: 3%

Odds on becoming president: 25/1

Most likely to say: “It’s been fun to watch, but showtime is over”

Least likely to say: “It’s a big job for a big person”

The bottom line: With weight loss has come growing electability

Rand Paul

Once dubbed the most interesting man in politics by Time magazine , the junior senator from Kentucky has proved a surprise in ways he had not imagined.

In theory his libertarian mix of small government and civil liberties promised to bridge the divide between right and left for a new generation of younger voters.

Were he ever to make it to a general election, such new alliances might still be possible, but in the brutal world of the 2016 Republican primary there is little room for nuance and Paul has somewhat mysteriously sunk without trace.

Poor performances in televised debates and a weak ground operation have compounded the problem, as has Paul’s stubborn insistence on explaining his passion for freedom through sometimes dry lists of the individual amendments in the bill of rights.

Nevertheless when he has brought issues of personal liberty to life, such as in the case of a young black man jailed for three years without trial , there were glimpses of a new politics that may yet catch fire one day.

Bio: 52-year-old senator for Kentucky

Signature policy: Fighting for the bill of rights

The strategy: Redefine a libertarian third way

Three-month polling average: 3%

Odds on becoming president: 200/1

Most likely to say: “We need to protect not just the second amendment, but the fourth and fifth amendments too”

Least likely to say: “The constitution is just a bunch of words”

The bottom line: It’s only a question of time before he drops out

Carly Fiorina

When the history of the 2016 primary is written, special mention deserves to go to this former Silicon Valley businesswoman for fighting her way out of obscurity and (briefly) into contention.

As a star performer in the early presidential debates, Fiorina was the only candidate to claw her way up from the so-called kids table debate and on to the main stage by sheer force of personality.

Her calm, businesslike response to Trump’s casual sexism when she got there impressed many and she briefly emerged alongside Carson as an alternative choice for those seeking an outsider untainted by Washington politics.

Poll numbers have slid fast, though, as Fiorina appears too moderate for the activists, too inexperienced for the establishment, and alarmingly anti-abortion in the eyes of many women.

A swift exit after New Hampshire seems likely, but this is one longshot candidate who will have emerged from the bruising primary process with dignity intact.

Bio: 61-year-old former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard

Signature policy: Bring business acumen to Washington

The strategy: The insider’s outsider

Three-month polling average: 3%

Odds on becoming president: 200/1

Most likely to say: “Women all over this country hear very clearly what Mr Trump says”

Least likely to say: “Look, OK, so things weren’t so great when I ran HP”

The bottom line: Could still pop up on someone’s ticket as vice-president

John Kasich

Back when it was thought the Republican primary would be focused on finding a candidate who could win a general election, much attention was given to those with potential for bringing swing states with them. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio both offer the chance of swaying Florida, but the governor of Ohio is another figure with a purple state pedigree not to be dismissed.

Since then, things have got a little messier, but Kasich has reinvented himself as the man prepared to say harsh truths to a party in need of a cold towel.

Not only has he suggested that states may not have legal authority to block Syrian refugees , but he has dared to suggest there may be some scientific evidence for manmade climate change and led the charge against Trump, who he compared to the Nazis in a tough series of negative campaign ads.

None of this has endeared him to the conservative faithful but just might yield a flicker of hope yet for his campaign in New Hampshire.

Bio: 63-year-old governor of Ohio

Signature policy: The Republican who believes in climate change

The strategy: Be the last grownup left standing

Three-month polling average: 3%

Odds on becoming president: 200/1

Most likely to say: “Donald Trump is a fascist”

Least likely to say: “Make America great again”

The bottom line: He may be too sensible for this race

Mike Huckabee

In the old Republican party, a Christian minister and Fox News presenter might be expected to do better than trail at the back of the list of potential presidential nominees.

But Huckabee feels like a throwback to a period when the religious right was the key swing demographic in the party. Though Cruz is demonstrating that Christian voters remain an important faction, the appeal of social conservatism and “family values” is no longer enough to build a nationwide strategy.

Even in Iowa, where Huckabee has been campaigning hardest, his strident positions against same-sex marriage and abortion can appear out of touch with the new mood of tolerance in America.

Unless there is a miracle in the Iowa caucus on 1 February, this serial presidential candidate may choose to bow out again quickly.

Bio: 60-year-old former governor of Arkansas

Signature policy: Rolling back the permissive society

The strategy: Bible bashing

Three-month polling average: 2%

Odds on becoming president: 200/1

Most likely to say: “I am unapologetically a person who believes that the Bible is the inerrant word of the living God”

Least likely to say: “Live and let live”

The bottom line: A sign of how far America has come

Rick Santorum

Another man trying to relive past glories is former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania who ran against Mitt Romney for his party’s nomination in 2012 and briefly shook up the race by winning Iowa and then 10 other states.

That contested win in the first caucus was so close it a took a while to emerge and was overshadowed by Obama’s surprise defeat of Clinton, but Santorum believes his mixture of religious social conservatism and a focus on working-class voters is due a revival.

The name of his book, Blue Collar Conservatives, has been copied by British conservative David Cameron and outlines a philosophy that argues the Democrats have lost touch with their working-class base.

Unfortunately similar appeals have been made more effectively this time around by Donald Trump who has squeezed the air out of this niche.

Bio: 57-year old former senator for Pennsylvania

Signature policy: “Blue collar” conservatism

The strategy: Relive that Iowa moment

Three-month polling average: 0%

Odds on becoming president: 300/1

Most likely to say: “Democrats are no longer the party of the workers”

Least likely to say: “Do you know what happens if you Google my surname ?”

The bottom line: Iowa wasn’t enough then and it won’t be enough now © Guardian News and Media 2016