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The Five Political Stories to Watch in 2015

Say goodbye to this year's political stories, and hello to the ones to follow in 2015.

Say goodbye to this year's political stories, and hello to the ones to follow in 2015.

Here are five stories we’re sure to be watching next year:

1. Who officially enters the 2016 presidential race?

So far, only one person – former Democratic Virginia Sen. Jim Webb – has formed a presidential exploratory committee.

And just one other – former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush – has indicated he's "actively" exploring a White House run.

That's it.

But expect many more to jump in at the beginning of 2015.

On the Democratic side, most are anticipating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will enter the presidential race. After all, if she wasn’t going to run, Democrats believe she would have announced that decision earlier this year – to give other possible candidates the chance to get wider name recognition.

Some progressives are encouraging Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to challenge Clinton. But a recent Washington Post/ABC poll found that the onetime first lady and New York senator has a nearly 50-point lead over both Warren and Vice President Joe Biden.

On the Republican side, Jeb Bush’s clear signals that he’s likely to run could complicate bids by 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (because they share much of the same establishment and donor support) and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. (because they share the same home state).

But Rubio said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Bush’s likely bid won’t influence his decision. “When you reach a point where you're thinking about running for president, as I am, what you have to make your decision on is not on who else is running,” he said. “It's on whether you think that's the right place for you to achieve your agenda and serve your country.”

A handful of Republican governors could throw their hats into the ring, including Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Well-known conservatives -- such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa – could also make bids.

And there’s Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who’s also likely to run.

Bottom line: Expect a bigger – and more competitive – Republican field than the Democratic one, especially if Hillary Clinton runs.

NerdScreen: Jeb and Hillary

Dec. 21, 201402:13

2. What does the '16 presidential primary calendar look like?

Besides the presidential field, keep an eye on the 2016 primary calendar, which will come into clearer focus next year.

As of now, the nominating contests are expected to begin in Iowa (Feb. 1, 2016), New Hampshire (Feb. 9), Nevada (Feb. 20) and South Carolina (Feb. 27).

And Politico reports that several southern states – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee – are thinking about holding their primaries at the beginning of March. Call it the “SEC Primary.”

But as we’ve seen in past presidential cycles, all it takes is for one state to move up its primary to have all of these contests start much earlier.

3. Can the GOP-controlled Congress govern – or at least function better than the last one?

Only 16 percent of Americans approve of Congress' job, and it's not surprising why.

The last two Congresses – the 112th and 113th – passed the fewest number of bills since that statistic has been recorded.

Yet because Democrats controlled the Senate, and because Republicans controlled the House, both sides arguably shared the blame for gridlock and dysfunction over the past four years.

But that won't necessarily be the case beginning in January, when Republicans will be in charge of BOTH chambers of the 114th Congress.

And rest assured that Democrats – especially those running for president – will try to make Republicans own any future dysfunction or unpopular legislation coming out of the next Congress.

“It provides an early foil for the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate before the Republican nominee is clear,” says Democratic strategist Ben LaBolt.

4. Does the good economic news keep coming?

One of the most important – but also underreported – stories has been the rapid improvement in the U.S. economy.

The unemployment rate continues to decline. Job growth is up. Consumer confidence is rising. And gas prices are still falling.

The question is whether this improvement continues – which could change the political dynamic and possibly increase President Barack Obama’s approval rating.

According to the Dec. 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 31 percent of Americans said they believed the economy would improve in the next 12 months, up three points from October.

Still, another 51 percent said the state of the economy would remain the same, and 17 percent said it would get worse.

5. Will the U.S. Supreme Court gut Obamacare?

Finally, get ready for the Supreme Court to hear yet another challenge to the Affordable Care Act.

In 2012 – in the middle of that year’s presidential contest – the court ruled, by a 5-4 decision, that the law was constitutional.

This time, it’s hearing a case called King vs. Burwell, which will examine whether Americans enrolled in federal exchanges should be able to receive the same tax credits that those in state-based exchanges get.

Drafters and supporters of the health care law say that was always the clear intention of the legislation, while the plaintiffs in the case argue that the law explicitly refers to marketplaces established by a state.

If the court rules that Americans in federal exchanges are ineligible to receive tax credits to offset their premium costs, then that could jeopardize the law’s economic architecture. It would also result in a gigantic premium increase for these Americans.

And just like in 2012, Chief Justice John Roberts could very well cast the deciding vote.