What's Driving 2016's Huge GOP Presidential Field?
Many began with just a wink and a smile, hinting but not committing.
Now, it appears, virtually every Republican who has been flirting with a presidential bid is actually getting into the race.
The field officially grew to eight this week—even George Pataki, who is polling below 1 percent, is in. Lindsey Graham and Rick Perry are set to join the fray next week, making 10. Other bottom-of–the-poll dwellers, including John Kasich, are thinking now is the time. Bobby Jindal is picking fights with Rand Paul. Carly Fiorina is stalking Hillary Clinton. Back in April, Marco Rubio took a page from the Obama playbook and boldly declared he refused to wait his turn in line.
The only one who actually backed out after briefly entertaining a run had already tried twice for the White House in 2008 and 2012. (OK, besides Mitt Romney, John Bolton also opted to take a pass, too.)
2016 is the year of the audacious Republican.
No odds are too high. No terrain too bumpy. No other presidential candidate intimidating enough to deter a Republican from seeking out the highest office in land—not Jeb Bush and, more profoundly, not Hillary Clinton.
The likely Democratic nominee has 100 percent name recognition, money, and a historic campaign that could turn out women voters in unprecedented numbers.
Yet, Republicans are lining up because they believe she is vulnerable. And all of them, realistically or not, seem to think they can take on the Democratic frontrunner.
“People are jockeying for position, trying to make headlines, trying to establish themselves as the most fearless of Hillary Clinton,” says Kellyanne Conway, a Republican strategist and pollster. “It’s a little bit of a now or never, knowing Clinton is running for her husband’s and Obama’s third term.”
But soon, if they haven’t already, Republicans might grow concerned about how large the field actually is. A competitive primary can help sharpen the eventual nominee for the general election. But having more than a dozen candidates could extend the competition and has the potential to bruise the winner.
The size of the field and the prospect of extended campaigns, thanks in large part to well-financed super PACs, make the end to this whole thing seem more distant than ever—and that could wear out the eventual party victor.
The Republicans’ problem with an unprecedentedly large field was underscored by the debate stage dilemma. They literally cannot fit everyone running onto one stage.
And while Republicans argue a natural winnowing process will reduce the field—through primaries, shrinking funds, and even prospect-ending stumbles—that won’t likely happen for a while.
“I see a scenario where this presidential race will get through to South Carolina with as many of 10 candidates,” says Mike Dennehy, a New Hampshire Republican strategist working for Rick Perry. “It’s new territory.”
Still, most Republicans insist the more the merrier -- that a crowded field only showcases the party’s talent and diversity and stands in stark contrast to the Democrats’ field of one. (Though, with Martin O’Malley’s entrance into the race on Saturday, Clinton will have two challengers.)
“I’d be more concerned because their field is the opposite of crowded and diversified,” says Conway. “They are stuck with Hillary Clinton … It’s a real role reversal for the parties. Republicans are usually plagued by this patriarchal pecking order.”
Republican operatives insist that a crowded field reflects their party’s values of meritocracy and free markets.
“More quality candidates and a deeper field is always better,” says Brad Todd, a Republican communications operative who is working for a political action committee supporting Bobby Jindal, adding that there is no imperative to settle on a nominee quickly. “We have the selection you’d expect from a Super Walmart, and on the Democratic side it’s a Moscow grocery.”
And recent Pew study found Republican voters to be happy with the choices they have this cycle. “There is no Republican who will tell you they would rather have the 2008 slate of candidates than the candidates running today,” says Doug Heye, a Republican strategist.
But it seems Republican candidates themselves are not convinced the field can’t improve, because more and more of them are jumping in. The opportunities are bountiful.
For one, Republicans have the past in their favor in 2016, as it has historically been difficult for the party in power to secure a third term. The race is open, with no incumbent, so for many, now is the time.
Most of the candidates have political committees with deep-pocketed backers that will help even the unlikeliest of them start and sustain presidential campaigns. (And even a loss can turn into a win via a cable news contract or a lucrative book deal.)
Access to technology and digital media outlets allows candidates to campaign creatively and on the cheap. A spunky online ad can go viral and earn media and recognition, for example.
Additionally, no one, except for perhaps Romney, has been scared off by Jeb Bush, who raked in cash and took in top talent early on. Even Bush has acknowledged this, telling a New Hampshire gathering last month, “I’m really intimidating a whole bunch of folks, aren’t I?”
There is no clear frontrunner in the GOP race, and no heir apparent. A Quinnipiac University poll found a five-way tie between Bush, Rubio, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Scott Walker, each garnering 10 percent.
“As strong as the Bush name is, Jeb just is a little further removed from the Bush White House, and he’s shown he is not the frontrunner that some thought he could be,” says Dennehy. “I think the only true way to look at it is, because the top candidate in any poll right now is at 12 percent, every person running has a real opportunity to do well.
And then there’s Clinton.
Clinton “is the least appealing major party nominee, with the hardest ceiling of any national political figure we've ever seen,” says Todd.
“It’s more likely that having more mouthpieces advances our case against Hillary Clinton for a longer period of time.”
The vast group of Republican candidates has unified behind one goal: defeating Hillary Clinton. She is mentioned often on the campaign trail and in GOP early state forums, and she has been featured in some of their presidential launches. (Fiorina included a clip from Clinton’s announcement video in her own campaign kick-off spot.) The focus helps the candidates keep the big picture in mind and not bruise each other too much. In doing so, they have nearly defined this primary contest as going to the contestant best fit to take on the Democrat.
“At a time that’s reasonable enough for the Republican Party to feel satisfied [with the shaping of the field], it will coalesce around someone who is ready to be the foil to Hillary Clinton,” Conway says.
But Republicans are also starting to see the need to differentiate themselves from each other. Jindal, Walker, and Christie all lined up this week against Rand Paul over the rise of the Islamic State, seeking to isolate the libertarian senator in the non-interventionist lane as the party seeks to re-establish its foreign policy dominance.
A crowded field calls for a louder voice in order to be heard. Strategists say this imperative could lead some of the candidates to say controversial or damaging things, and the field could narrow that way. Lower-tier candidates are clamoring for name recognition to fight their way onto the first debate stage in August, open to only the top 10 candidates. That’s why Fiorina went to Columbia, S.C. this week to taunt Clinton and engage the press. Nearly every story or television segment about Clinton’s trip to the first-in-the-South voting state mentioned Fiorina’s hovering.
The debate stage will help to narrow the field.
“It's become clear that there are and will be top-tier and second-tier candidates. That becomes important once the debate season starts,” says Heye. “Those candidates who jump in just because the water is warm will not necessarily be in many of the debates -- depriving them of a ‘9-9-9’ moment or a Newt moment that can propel a cash-strapped campaign for a few more weeks.”
But even the debate stage requisites aren’t keeping away Republicans interested in their chance to take on Clinton. Pataki is an unknown, and it’s unlikely he will move up enough in the polls to make it onto the stage. And his views on abortion, marriage, and guns put him at direct odds with many conservative primary voters. Perhaps he and others simply figure, why not me?
“They see Hillary Clinton is vulnerable, and believe she can be taken,” New York Rep. Peter King told MSNBC on Thursday. “After eight years of Obama and problems that Clinton has shown, there’s a very strong feeling that 2016 is at least a 50-50 chance, and Republicans should be the favorite.”
And, with no better way to drive the point home, King added that he, too, was still considering a presidential run.