The more, the merrier.

Republicans Can Afford a Nomination Brawl

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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Republicans are worried that their enormous field of 2016 presidential nomination candidates will be a problem, according to a good article from Maggie Haberman and Jake Sherman in Politico:

The message from Republican officials has been crystal clear for two years: The 2016 Republican primary cannot be another prolonged pummeling of the eventual nominee. Only one person ultimately benefited from that last time — Barack Obama — and Republicans know they can't afford to send a hobbled nominee up against Hillary Clinton.

Yet interviews with more than a dozen party strategists, elected officials and potential candidates a month out from the unofficial start of the 2016 election lay bare a stark reality: Despite the national party's best efforts, the likelihood of a bloody primary process remains as strong as ever.

Republicans shouldn't fret.

First of all, today's field of 15 or so viable candidates will almost certainly be winnowed down over the next nine months. Republicans are concerned that the possible cancellation of the Ames Straw Poll will eliminate a clear marker that pushes out candidates. Sure, candidates including Tim Pawlenty in 2011 and Lamar Alexander in 1999 dropped out after disappointing finishes at Ames. But former North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole gave up in October 1999, well after the August ritual. And in 2012, candidates including Haley Barbour and John Thune dropped out long before Ames, as did John Kasich in 1999. It's likely that just a half-dozen viable candidates will make it to the Iowa Caucuses in January 2016.

Even if a large number of candidates make it that far, the field will be winnowed rapidly after Iowa. The odds are very good that a candidate will be in control after the South Carolina primary, even if some mop-up work remains (as was true for Mitt Romney in 2012 ).

The worst-case scenario would have two or more viable candidates still standing after the South Carolina primary on Feb. 13. That hasn't happened to Republicans in decades. Or perhaps spoiler candidates would stay in the race and continue winning delegates, even though the Republican delegate process generally doesn't reward also-rans. It's possible to imagine Senators Rand Paul or Ted Cruz in such roles -- with the resources and support to pick off a few states (or at least congressional districts) -- while two more credible heavyweights fight it out for the nomination. Still, that could happen only with a convergence of unlikely, even unprecedented, events.

In any case, the nomination will be locked down by June 2016, at the very latest. Could it be a rough journey? Absolutely. Will that matter in November? Almost certainly not. The closest, longest presidential nomination battle since 1976 was the Democratic contest in 2008 between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It had no apparent ill effects.

Republicans who worry that Clinton will lock up the Democratic nomination easily while Republicans continue fighting among themselves should remember what happened to Vice President Al Gore. He was nominated practically by acclamation and then proceeded to fall short of projections by a greater degree than any modern candidate. By contrast, his Republican opponent, George W. Bush, fought an extended battle against John McCain.

Political scientists have looked at how hotly contested primaries affect general elections, and haven't reached any conclusions that should alarm Republicans in 2016. It may be that energy generated by a contentious nomination process carries over into support for the nominee in November. It's also possible that most political events of the spring, when few voters pay close attention, are long-forgotten by autumn. So I agree with Ed Kilgore that lots of candidates will want the Republican nomination, creating an excellent chance it will get nasty. I don't see that making any difference in the general election.

  1. Romney lost South Carolina to Newt Gingrich, but the disgraced formerHouse speaker was never a viable nominee. By knocking out Texas Governor Rick Perry and preventing Iowa Caucuses winner Rick Santorum from breaking through, Romney effectively wrapped up the nomination at that point.

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

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net