In 2016 Republican Primary, a Stumble Can Cost You the Race

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Matt Yglesias made an excellent point today about assessing the chances of presidential candidates that gets overlooked too often and points to why Chris Christie could be hurt by scandal even if he "survives" it -- because at the presidential level, there's always someone else:

"It's very hard to win. Conservatives like Paul Ryan. Conservatives also like Scott Walker. But they can't both be the nominee! In fact, since they're from Wisconsin, they probably can't even both be serious contenders. Only one person gets to be the nominee in a country that right now has a lot of second-term Republican Party governors and a former VP nominee alongside the usual smattering of senatorial wannabes.

"That's just a tough landscape for candidates. For party elites, by contrast, it's an embarrassment of riches. You get to be quite choosy, so every stumble counts for a lot."

That's why, for example, candidates can't skip Iowa or New Hampshire at the beginning of the campaign process -- not so much because they would lose the chance to capitalize on early strong showings, but because their absence opens up a spot that someone else will take. And there's usually a "someone else" who has a chance.

It's a point that is always overlooked, but perhaps particularly so because of the last two cycles on the Republican side. Want a real horse-race analogy? The last two Republican cycles reminded me of N2L horse races -- races open only for horses that haven't managed to win two races in their lifetime. They're usually the worst-quality races at the track, even worse than races for non-winners, which usually have some promising competitors who are just starting their careers. They're also very difficult to handicap; I always have to keep reminding myself that the key to the race is that somebody has to win. That was basically the story of John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012: sure, they had all sorts of flaws, but they were both fundamentally viable candidates in contests that didn't have a lot.

By contrast, Yglesias is correct that 2016 for the Republicans is shaping up, at least for now, to be a stakes race, with half a dozen or more viable candidates -- that is, politicians with conventional qualifications for the presidency who are within the party's mainstream on public policy. Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Mike Pence and several others may all have flaws, but every candidate has flaws, and all of these are quite plausible nominees, at least so far.

It's not a major stakes race -- the field isn't nearly as strong as, say, the 1980 edition (which produced the next five nominations, plus a White House chief of staff as a bonus). But there's a very deep field this time around for Republicans.

Now, by the time of the Iowa caucuses, that large field may be down to only a small number of viable contenders plus a handful of people "running" for spots in the conservative entertainment industry. But for now, if Republican Party actors don't like one candidate, there are plenty more to choose from.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net