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What If No One Drops Out of the GOP 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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Is the normal winnowing of the presidential field going to work in the 2016 cycle? 

With former Maryland Governor Bob Ehrlich's departure from the 2016 Republican contest, five politicians, by my count, have campaigned for the nomination but dropped out before officially announcing.  Seventeen Republican candidates have formally announced their candidacies. Unless someone I don't know of is quietly campaigning out there, this means no one else is primed to jump in on the GOP side. 

Among those who have announced, I’ve been expecting Bobby Jindal or Rick Perry or Chris Christie or Rick Santorum to withdraw at some point this summer. It hasn't happened yet, but perhaps it's getting to be time, because two or three or even four of them won't qualify for Thursday’s prime-time debate. 

People are saying the regular winnowing of contenders won’t work the way it has in the past because the law now makes campaign money so easy to come by. Candidates who would have dropped out in 2000, say, or 1988 will stick around this time. If so, that would be important. Party influence over the nomination depends on a predictable process. This includes the expectation that trailing candidates will quit when they no longer have a realistic chance of winning, or when they run out of money or other important campaign resources. 

If winnowing stopped working, new and unpredictable things could happen. A random candidate could win the nomination (as happened to the Democrats in 1976, the last time the procedures were unsettled), or the convention could be deadlocked.

All we know at this point is that the process basically worked in 2008 and 2012, and that it has worked so far this time, with five of 22 candidates already eliminated (sure, Ehrlich wasn't on anyone's list of major threats, but some others were).

In recent Republican cycles, a number of candidates dropped out after officially announcing but before the Iowa caucuses. If no one drops out from the oversize field by Columbus Day, it could just be luck of the draw: Nothing forces the candidates to drop out, and some have a higher tolerance for hopeless causes than others. It could be that the lack of a strong front-runner encourages those with limited prospects to stick around.

Or it could be a clue that something in the process has changed. 

  1. The five are Ehrlich, Mitt Romney, Rob Portman, Mike Pence and John Bolton.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net