Whatever Happened to the Strong Republican Field?

Whatever Happened to the Strong Republican Field?
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When we kicked off this campaign season, there was an almost uniform consensus that Republicans were suffering from an embarrassment of presidential riches. With the sudden withdrawal of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker from the race and the rise of Donald Trump and Ben Carson in the polls, a number of observers are questioning the wisdom of these analyses, at times vigorously. But these reassessments overlook the true dynamics of the GOP race and misinterpret the strength of the GOP field. 

Let’s start with some basics. Analysts often despise the “horse race” analogy for elections, because it trivializes a crucially important event and distracts from more consequential stories about issues and positioning of candidates. This is a fair critique. 

But for those who really are simply interested in who is winning and who is losing, the horse race analogy isn’t a bad one. And to use horse race terminology, we’re barely out of the gate. At the end of the first quarter mile of the Kentucky Derby in 2014, Uncle Sigh was first, Chitu was second, and California Chrome was third. By the time the dust had cleared, California Chrome had won, handily, Chitu had placed ninth, and Uncle Sigh was 14th. In 2015, the early positions were more predictive of the final outcome, but the horse that was in third place toward the beginning of the race still won.

The point is that people who follow horse racing know that at the first turn, you don’t pay too much attention to the position of the horses. You don’t ignore them altogether, but you’re more interested in how the horses are running, how they are performing compared to previous races, whether they are running the type of race they are trained to run, and so forth. 

In the same way, it’s a mistake to read too much into the fact that a horse that looks an awful lot like a show horse is in first place at the first turn of the Republican primary. We might be surprised he lasted this long, and we shouldn’t write him off, but it would likewise be grossly premature to write off an entire field based upon this. In other words, we should also be looking at things like fundraising numbers for Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Ted Cruz, as well as the sorts of ground games and campaign strategies they are putting together.

When analysts write that the summer/fall leaders of the past three primary cycles – in other words, the leaders at the first turn – have lost, it isn’t just lip service: John Kerry and John Edwards really were in fourth and fifth places in late fall of 2003, John McCain really was in third place in early fall of 2007 (with the “Huckaboom” still a few months off), and Hillary Clinton really did lead by more than 20 points at this point that year. Rick Perry really did lead Mitt Romney in the RCP Averages at this point; eventual challenger Rick Santorum languished at less than 3 percent of the vote. Like actual horse races, these things tend to break late, and have done so, rather consistently, over the past few cycles.

Which brings us back to the GOP field. With the idea that it really is early tucked away in the backs of our heads, there are three more things to keep in mind here:

First, with respect to Walker in particular, he didn’t drop out because he had dropped to zero percent in a CNN poll, nor did he drop out because everyone was wrong about what a good candidate he was. In fact, the initial assessment of Walker’s candidacy – you don’t win the governorship of Wisconsin three times as a conservative Republican without some candidate skills – still strikes me as correct.

But even a good candidate can run a terrible campaign. Indeed, one does so almost every cycle (Phil Gramm and Tim Pawlenty are the most prominent examples). All of the points made in the latest pieces from Josh Kraushaar and the Executive Editor are good ones, but it’s Kraushaar’s second point that resonates with me in particular. Walker lost because he had a bad strategy. More accurately, Walker lost because he had no strategy. There was no David Axelrod for the Walker campaign; Scott Walker hired Scott Walker to be his David Axelrod. 

The old saw about the client of the man who represents himself comes to mind. A presidential candidate has a more-than-full-time job: being a candidate. He or she does not have time to follow ever-changing electoral dynamics. So when a candidate without a good strategist is faced with Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage, questions about the legality of abortion to save the life of the mother, the rise of birthright citizenship as an issue or, say, the ascendency of Donald Trump, that candidate will flail. That, combined with an unwillingness to “live off the land,” as McCain did for much of 2007, is precisely what happened to Walker.

Second, early exits by reasonably strong candidates are the norm. I went back through the GOP nominating contests through 1980, and somewhere between a tenth and a quarter of the field always drops out by this point. With two of 17 candidates now gone, this field is more or less on track.

In 1979, Sen. Lowell Weicker dropped out before October. In 1987, former Sen. Paul Laxalt gave up on his race. In 1995, Gov. Pete Wilson exited early. In 1999, former Gov. Lamar Alexander, Rep. John Kasich, and former Vice President Dan Quayle had all left the race by now. In 2007, former Govs. Tommy Thompson and Jim Gilmore were out, while Rep. Thad McCotter and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty quit by early fall of 2011.

The key point is that the early dropouts have never been the extremists, the single-issue candidates, or the “joke” candidates. Those candidates tended to stick around through actual voting. The candidates who exit early tend to be capable candidates, if a bit past their prime in many cases, who were able to read the writing on the wall. So it shouldn’t surprise us too much when a candidate like Rick Perry or even Scott Walker drops out; they are just the latest “Lamar!” or “T-Paw” to disappoint as candidates.

Finally, much of the “Wow, this field isn’t as strong as we thought” analysis suffers from a slight misdiagnosis. Here’s what I wrote back in January of this year:

"2016 really is the deepest GOP field in a very, very long time. In fact, it isn’t even close. To be clear, that doesn’t mean that the eventual candidate is (or will be) the strongest Republican nominee ever. I think that’s unlikely, and in fact, that is crucial to my analysis. It just means that number eight is unusually strong. In 1996, eighth place in Iowa was businessman Morry Taylor. In 2008, it was Alan Keyes (who placed fourth in 2000)."

As of today, eighth place in Iowa would most likely belong to Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul or Bobby Jindal, all of whom have been mentioned as serious presidential contenders at some point in the past. Huckabee even won Iowa in 2008.

This is still true. To return to our horse race analogy, this field is not strong because it features a Secretariat, a Man-o-War, a Seattle Slew, and a War Admiral. That would be more akin to the 1988 Republican field, which featured a sitting vice president to a popular president, a former vice presidential candidate and sitting Senate minority leader, and the godfather of supply-side economics with a devoted ideological following. That field was strong because it was so top heavy, though it was not particularly deep. The strength of the 2016 field lies in the fact that, although there are no Secretariats, there are an unusually high number of potentially derby-ready horses running. 

Two relevant points follow from this. For starters, without a Secretariat, there is no one who can automatically squelch insurgent campaigns. To be more direct, no one can do this cycle what George H.W. Bush was able to do to Pat Robertson after Robertson finished ahead of Bush in Iowa. These insurgencies will linger, especially since Donald Trump, with years of communicating to average Americans through his television show, is stronger than many of the previous insurgents.

In addition, with everyone so tightly bunched, there is little incentive not to stick around, if a candidate can stomach carrying his own bags, a la McCain in 2007. On the one hand, yes, Chris Christie is stuck at two percent of the vote. On the other hand, he is six points out of third place. Why wouldn’t he stick around, at least through New Hampshire, especially after watching Carly Fiorina’s rise?

So top to bottom, this really does remain a strong Republican field – and one that is polling well in head-to-head matchups with Hillary Clinton. But without any overwhelmingly strong candidates, it really does remain anyone’s game. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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