Republicans have made no secret of their desire for a quick presidential primary fight aimed at rapidly producing a nominee to take on former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.
They almost certainly won’t see that wish granted — thanks to the greatly crowded GOP field and a drastically reshaped fundraising landscape that could combine to keep the fight for the Republican nomination active until late spring, and maybe later.
Let’s start with the size of the field.
At the moment, there are six announced candidates: Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. By my count, there are at least nine others — including bold-faced names such as Jeb Bush and Scott Walker — who will be in the race by this summer.
That puts the field at 15 (and it could easily be a few candidates more), which would make it the largest Republican primary to date — eclipsing the 12 candidates who actively ran in 2008 and 2012.
The enormousness of the Republican field is due to a number of factors. The most obvious is that there is no strong front-runner a la George W. Bush in 1999, and so every GOP pol who has ever looked in the mirror and thought “Hello Mr./Mrs. President” is getting in.
But it’s also become a winning business proposition for many second-tier (or lower) candidates to run for president. Think back to 2008. No one knew who Huckabee was before that race. By the time it ended, he was one of the hottest commodities in Republican politics — and cashed in (TV show, radio show, speeches, books) accordingly. Winning the nomination isn’t the true goal for some of the 2016 candidates; upping their speaking fees and visibility is. (And I’m not even talking about Donald Trump.)
Then there is the rise of the ever-present super PAC. Virtually every candidate — from the Jeb Bushes of the world on down — has an “independent” organization aligned with their campaign. And that super PAC can collect checks for unlimited amounts — meaning that a single donor or two could finance millions of dollars’ worth of ads for a candidate who might not be able to raise that sort of money in the $2,700 increments allowed by federal law.
We’ve already seen a glimpse of what this everybody-has-a-super-PAC world might look like. During the 2012 presidential primary, former House speaker Newt Gingrich was struggling to raise money after finishing fourth in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. But Gingrich had casino magnate Sheldon Adelson in his corner; Adelson donated $5 million to Gingrich’s super PAC in the run-up to the South Carolina primary, which Gingrich won. All told, Adelson and his wife, Miriam, donated $16.5 million to Gingrich’s super PAC; Gingrich raised $25 million total for his campaign committee.
Now, rather than just a handful of candidates with a well-funded super PAC, we could be looking at a dozen or more who have a setup similar to Gingrich’s in 2012. And, although Bush’s super PAC, which reportedly will have raised $100 million by the end of this month, gets all the attention, it’s actually super PACs for the Fiorinas and Rick Perrys of the world that will prolong this race.
Traditionally — that is, in the time before super PACs — the way that the field was winnowed was via fundraising. A candidate underperformed expectations in Iowa or New Hampshire (or both), the fundraising spigot dried up, and he or she was forced to acknowledge reality and drop from the race.
Now, though, your aligned super PAC can function as a sort of campaign life support — keeping candidates alive for as long as wealthy donors want them to be around.
Gone is the incentive to drop out of the race; here is the incentive to stick around as long as possible because in a field this wide open and with so many super PACs spending so much money, who knows when your opportunity might come?
Then there is the ever-present uncertainty about the state of the primary calendar. What we know is that Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada will be the first four states to vote. Beyond that, though, chaos reigns. There is talk of an “SEC” primary, named after the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference, featuring a passel of southern states on March 1. And several more states are trying to push their way closer to the front of the calendar.
What a crowded early primary calender could mean is that candidates pick and choose states where they think they can run well, meaning that there is rarely, if ever, a state in which every candidate is playing hard at the same time.
Add up a historic number of candidates, a potentially limitless amount of funding and the potential for a series of different winners in the early going, and you see why Republicans seem likely to be fighting for their presidential nomination well into next spring and even, possibly, as summer begins.
The nightmare scenario for Republicans is a brokered convention fight — playing out in mid-July in Cleveland. We’re not there yet. Yet.