Fruits of a Sprawling GOP Field

The diverse crowd of candidates makes strategic targeting of states more likely, as well. Candidates will be more inclined to pick and choose which states to compete in.  For example, more moderate candidates will set down their standards in New Hampshire; there the electorate is less conservative than elsewhere, and likely to be flooded with independent voters looking to cast a ballot in the only meaningful primary election they will presumably enjoy come February 2016.  More conservative candidates will flock to deeper-red contests in the South and Midwest.


By Andrew Thomas l June 1, 2015

The abundance of major Republican candidates for president is not only affecting the dynamic of the race. It is challenging basic assumptions about how Americans will pick their president in the coming election cycles.

Currently, there are seven declared Republican candidates.  Circling above the runway are anywhere from 8 to 12 more potential candidates, all with a legitimate following and their own gravitas. Americans have not previously witnessed a political nomination pageant on such a scale.

Such a bevy of GOP candidates raises basic and obvious challenges for the Republican Party. For example, how to fit so many candidates on one stage for a debate?  Increasingly, news organizations are concluding this is not possible.  Fox News and CNN, scheduled to host the first debates, have adopted a “poll test” to determine who receives an invitation.  The two organizations plan to invite only those candidates who crack the top 10 in national polling.  CNN will offer a second forum for those candidates not making the cut, hosting a separate debate in a sort of consolation bracket.

Greek mythology aside, this Procrustean arrangement makes the debates more manageable, but carries an obvious downside.  The poll test deletes certain candidates who are serious by objective standards before the voters even have a chance to evaluate them fairly.  Moreover, even the choice of polling is not without controversy.  Which polls are selected will determine, at the margins, which candidates make the cut.  Depending on the polls, notable candidates who may be excluded include former Senator Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa Caucuses in 2012, and Carly Fiorina, who is wowing Iowa crowds now.  Under the RealClearPolitics.com average, prominent governors from major states—Ohio’s John Kasich and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal—also currently would be left out.

Why so many candidates in 2016?  Cynics speculate many of these campaigns are merely public-relations ventures, a candidate’s gambit for gaining more exposure and income from speaking and writing fees once the voting is over.  Yet this oversimplifies matters.  Candidates who run credible campaigns certainly stand to reap impressive dividends.  Still, this generally requires winning some states along the way, or at least posting some strong showing of popular support. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee parlayed a string of victories in 2008, starting with his win in the Iowa Caucuses, into lucrative TV and radio deals and speaking engagements. Santorum enjoyed comparable political success in 2012 courting many of these same social conservative voters.  His professional gains afterwards were more modest than Huckabee’s, perhaps because Huckabee already had filled those media slots.  Candidates who performed poorly, such as Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, ended up with nothing but campaign memories. In the end, a high-profile candidacy does not ensure post-campaign opulence – but it certainly helps make it possible.

The rise of Super PACs as fundraising fortresses further ensures a proliferation of candidates. Changes in campaign-finance laws handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court have allowed a small number of benefactors to fund campaigns.  As a result, candidate reliance on individual contributions, capped by federal law at $2,700 per person, is becoming almost a relic of the political past.  In 2012, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Santorum enjoyed prolonged and feisty candidacies because of such political lifelines.  Indeed, voters appreciated the choice, casting their ballots for one or the other candidate for many weeks until Mitt Romney’s momentum became overwhelming.

The diverse crowd of candidates makes strategic targeting of states more likely, as well. Candidates will be more inclined to pick and choose which states to compete in.  For example, more moderate candidates will set down their standards in New Hampshire; there the electorate is less conservative than elsewhere, and likely to be flooded with independent voters looking to cast a ballot in the only meaningful primary election they will presumably enjoy come February 2016.  More conservative candidates will flock to deeper-red contests in the South and Midwest.

However complex their motivations, all who run surely want to be president.  That means almost all will court the conservatives who make up most of the Republican electorate.  That the Republican contest has drawn so many top-tier candidates is a boon to the democratic process, but especially conservatives concerned about the state of their nation in 2016.  At least until the Republican nomination is sewn up, they will enjoy an unprecedented freedom of political choice.


Andrew Thomas is a graduate of the University of Missouri and Harvard Law School.  Twice elected Maricopa County Attorney, the district attorney for metropolitan Phoenix, Arizona, Thomas ran one of the largest prosecutor’s offices in the country, successfully combating crime and illegal immigration.  Thomas ran for governor of Arizona in 2014, receiving endorsements from many conservative leaders.  The author of four books, including Clarence Thomas: A Biography, he is currently a fellow with the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.