Winnowing Down The GOP’s 18 Candidates

May 27, 2015 8:48 a.m.

With Rick Santorum and George Pataki set to announce candidacies this week, and with the ranks of proto-candidates rapidly converging on those who haven’t made it official strictly for fundraising purposes or day-job responsibilities, we are very likely looking at a field of 15 candidates or so, not counting those beyond the pale of party or media respectability. Bush, Carson, Christie, Cruz, Fiorina, Graham, Huckabee, Jindal, Kasich, Pataki, Paul, Perry, Rubio, Santorum, Walker: all are currently running. Add Donald Trump, former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, and we’ve got 18 candidates. For a point of comparison, there were nine candidates in 2012 (or ten if you count former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, who announced late and was not invited to appear in the televised debates).

Republicans typically attribute the mega-field to party-wide excitement and to the high odds of a GOP presidential victory. The technical term for that is “spin.” But two other factors are just as important: the absence of any early frontrunner for the nomination (nobody is consistently above the teens in support in horse-race polls so far), and an increasingly decentralized fundraising landscape in which anyone who is friends with a billionaire (and hey, who’s not?) could find him- or herself with the kind of high-life Super PAC support that kept Mr. Damaged Goods, Newt Gingrich, viable for a good while in 2012.

The big field is also self-perpetuating to some extent, as both likely caucus/primary voters and party elites are spread thinner each day. And more dangerously, the field is interacting with a tightened nominating process calendar to encourage late-innings strategies.

So how does the field get winnowed, if the price of admission has dropped and no one is intimidated by the frontrunners, such as they are?

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Traditionally the Iowa GOP Straw Poll has served as a winnower. In 1999, such well-known names as Dan Quayle, Lamar Alexander and Pat Buchanan withdrew after poor performances at Ames; the money Liddy Dole spent to finish third pretty much wrecked her campaign as well. In 2007, Mike Huckabee became the Christian right’s champion by besting Sam Brownback at the straw poll (which also croaked Tommy Thompson) and went on to win the caucuses; and famously, the on-paper smart money favorite in 2011, Tim Pawlenty, spent all his money losing in Ames and dropped out almost immediately.

Even though the Iowa GOP has taken a number of steps (including moving it to a site in Boone with plenty of parking) to make the event less expensive and circus-like, the only candidate so far to commit to competing on August 8 is Donald Trump. Jeb Bush, whose strategy doesn’t depend on winning Iowa, is already out, as is Mike Huckabee, who doesn’t need to prove much to Iowans, and has a lot to lose from anything other than a win. Everybody’s watching Scott Walker to see if he fishes in; otherwise the straw poll could either become a winnower for second-tier candidates or even go belly-up.

But the big development in winnowing was announced just last week: Fox News—host of the first GOP candidate debate in Cleveland on August 6, two days before the Iowa Straw Poll—will limit participation to the ten candidates who do best in selected national polls. Those left behind will get some sort of consolation prize publicity, and the host of the second debate in September, CNN, is planning to hold a “junior varsity” debate before the main event. But the reality is being left off the stage will probably be a candidacy-killer.

At FiveThirtyEight, Harry Enten discussed the Fox News “screen” (noting it excludes robo-poll data) and concluded some very well-known candidates, like 2012 retreads Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, or one of the few “moderate” dark horses, John Kasich, or diversity prizes Carly Fiorina and Bobby Jindal, or the Great Big Washington pooh-bah Lindsay Graham, could succumb.

However you calculate it, though, a number of candidates are in danger, which leads to an interesting question: If boosting your national horse-race poll standing is suddenly the only way to avoid an existential threat, how should you spend your time: screwing around making preparations for a single state straw poll, or even focusing on the early states? Or making a big noise in the news media? Here’s how the Wall Street Journal’s Reid Epstein sees it:

With national polls largely a function of name recognition, strategists working for various campaigns said they expected long-shot candidates to spend time in cable TV studios in New York that may instead have been used to meet voters at small events in Iowa or New Hampshire. Money that might have gone to build a campaign infrastructure in early states could instead be diverted to buying national TV ads.
Moreover, candidates traditionally have tried to time their campaigns to peak right at the time of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, scheduled this cycle for February. Now, candidates with low name recognition must try to build national profiles— ahead of the first primary debate, set for Aug. 6.

How? Saying something crazy would be a pretty good bet.

Once the field is winnowed to ten candidates, it’s a whole different game, with the shape of the remaining field a big factor. If, for example, Perry, Santorum and Jindal all get winnowed, then Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz have a pretty obvious one-on-one battle for the kind of Christian right juice that could win Iowa and give the survivor a step up in South Carolina and the big batch of southern primaries on March 1 and March 8. If it’s a more ideologically scattered field, candidates who are counting on sizable proportional delegate hauls from strong financing (Bush) or a national base (Paul, Walker and Rubio) could do really well. And then the next big winnower could be winner-take-all states holding primaries on or after March 15 (Florida—home to four candidates—has already moved in that direction).

Still, for the first time since, well, forever, the idea of multiple candidates making it to the late stages or even the convention is not necessarily delusional. In the process, one other thing is probably being winnowed: Reince Priebus’ belief that the RNC had gotten a firm hold, once and for all, on his party’s nominating process.

Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.

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