Is Anyone Not Running for the Republican Presidential Nomination?
Everyone, it seems, is in.
The multi-year “will they or won’t they” game that political reporters, operatives and junkies have been playing was all for naught. Just about every Republican whose name was floated as a potential 2016 candidate—and a few who never even entered the conversation—have taken a look at the political landscape and decided to enter the race or have given clear signals that a campaign launch is imminent. While there are clear benefits to the diverse field, it is also already creating headaches for party leaders looking toward a major general election fight.
Six candidates already are officially in the hunt for the Republican nomination. Over the next 10 days four more candidates may join the field. That group still won’t include expected players Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor; Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker; or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Or Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Or Ohio Governor John Kasich.
“The field is larger and deeper than in previous cycles,” says Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, a non-partisan analysis of campaigns and elections. And that, without question “makes things more complicated.”
Republican donors and operatives have for weeks been weighing the benefits (real debate over the issues; the type of race that excites all corners of the party; an unlimited number of attacks from all sides directed at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton) and negatives (no control of aforementioned debate; no unified message; donors spread thin; a primary process that, like the one in 2012, may suck resources, energy, and some of the sheen off the eventual candidate) of such a deep field. But the hypothetical exercise turned real last week when it was reported Fox News would limit participation in its August debate to the top 10 candidates based on the average of the five most recent national polls.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who will announce his decision on the race Wednesday, criticized the “arbitrary” nature of the debate metrics in an interview with National Journal. He pointed to the 11 states he carried in the 2012 campaign as Exhibit A of why using early national polls is a poor plan.
He also noted the possibility of excluding candidates with major government or business bona fides—like Jindal, or former technology executive Carly Fiorina, or South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who is expected to announce his entrance into the field on June 1—as other examples of why the threshold was flawed.
It was an issue put to likely GOP caucus-goers in last week’s Bloomberg Politics/Purple Strategies focus group in Des Moines and the response tracked closely with the operatives trying to reach them: it’s great that the field is deep, but there is real concern about how long a sizable field can be sustainable in advance of the general election.
“That will be a big issue when you get to the debates and they just start tearing each other apart and just give tons of tape to the other sides attack ads in the fall,” said Randy, 44, an underwriter. Last names of focus group members are withheld as part of the agreement for their participation.
That’s not to say there aren't clear positives to the size of the group. The diversity, both in viewpoints and in backgrounds, the group brings to the table is something Republicans gleefully point out as a contrast to the current Democratic field of two (and dominated by one.)
“The quality of the candidates is just higher,” says Gonzales, something the party's likely voters seem to agree with. A May 19 Pew Research Center poll found that 57 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning registered voters had a positive impression of the current field. That early enthusiasm, even with a looming hard-fought primary process, is certainly a step up from past years. The same poll found 50 percent of the same group had an excellent or good impression of GOP field in September 2007. Last cycle was even worse: only 44 percent had a positive impression of the field in May 2011.
Gonzales also points out a key, and too often ignored, point at this stage in the race: it's really, really early. No, it sure wouldn't look good to have the governor of Ohio, the premiere swing state, left off the stage of the first Republican debate, which just so happens to be held in Ohio. But early debates aside, gaming out an elongated primary process with a sizable field of financially viable candidates ignores a key data point: the voters. Nothing whittles a field down quite like a couple of eighth or ninth place finishes, he says.
Still, as Santorum, Graham, former Texas Governor Rick Perry and possibly even former New York Governor George Pataki prepare to enter the race in the coming days, the unease does exist in a party that has relied on clear front-runners in recent elections. That lack of a single candidate with big money, unified support, and a clear message to take the general election still sits out there for some, according to focus group participant Randi, a 59 year-old retired lawyer.
“I think that it needs to be whittled down and then, hopefully, somebody strong will rise to the top,” she said. “And I think that's scary right now with that big, wide open field. I don't see a really good, strong candidate and I think Hillary can be beaten if we had that strong candidate.”