The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 2016 GOP field is the most fractured in recent memory. By a lot.

Lots of candidates; no clear frontrunner. (AP)

Yes, your presidential-election memory is serving you correct. We haven't seen anything like this 2016 race in decades.

The Republican 2016 presidential primary is the most fractured in recent memory while the Democratic side is one of the most unified in recent memory -- with one very obvious frontrunner. To prove this point, Bruce Mehlman, a Republican lobbyist at the firm of Mehlman Castagnetti, pulled polling averages at 16 months out from the election going back to the early 1990s. What he found is that even this far out from election day, the front runner on the Republican side historically has had at least 30 percent of support from likely voters and a double-digit percentage point lead over the No. 2 candidate.

That's definitely not the case today. In July 2015, "frontrunner" former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had 15.5 percent of the party's support and a statistically insignificant half a percentage point jump on the next-in-line candidate Donald Trump, according to a Real Clear Politics average of polls.

[The GOP presidential race, broken down into 5 lanes]

Here's Mehlman's chart:

There's a few reasons for such a fractured race, Mehlman noted in an email to me:

  1. Super PACs are making it easier for long-shot presidential candidates to stay in the race. All they have to do is find a billionaire sugar daddy who's willing to stake their candidacy. You can see this phenomenon starting in the 2012 race. It was the first presidential election since the Supreme Court paved the way for Super PACs in its 2010 Citizens United decision, and billionaires like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson helped candidates like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stay in the race longer than they would have otherwise. Until this year, 2012 held the modern-day record for previously lowest-ever support for a front runner.
  2. The Republican party has typically rewarded runners-up from previous cycles. (Most recently see Mitt Romney competing for the front runner status in 2008, dropping out, and getting the nomination in 2012.) This time around there is no inevitable front runner like the Democrats have on their side. Rick Santorum, who was widely seen as the runner-up to Romney in 2012, is a blip in the polls.
  3. Then there's the Trump phenomena: Republican voters in 2015 seem to care more about sending a message to Washington -- we don't like you being that message -- than picking a candidate who can serve them best in Washington. It's one of our theories as to why the blustery real estate mogul is doing so well despite, or maybe because of, his divisive rhetoric.

The Democratic side has some equally stark historic trends, but for very different reasons. This is the first time since the 2000 election that there appears to be a close-to-inevitable winner. (When you throw out 2000, which was an anomaly for having just two primary candidates, this year's record goes back even further, to 1992.)

As you can see from Mehlman's chart below, Clinton has a tremendous, almost unheard-of lead ahead of her No. 2, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Regardless, both parties are set to make history in 2016 -- albeit for very different reasons.

[This post has been updated with a new graph to accurately reflect the years polls were taken on the Democratic side]