Not all in it to win it
For sheer number of candidates, the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is unprecedented in modern campaign politics. As of today, a dozen Republicans have formally declared their candidacy, with at least another four likely to do so. What explains why so many Republicans have thrown their hats in the ring? The answer likely lies in a combination of technological and political developments that have lessened the barriers to entrance and increased the payoffs of running for president.
Of course, one's count of the number of presidential candidates will vary depending on the criteria one uses to define a candidacy. Here I follow the standards developed by political scientists Bill Mayer and Alan Silverleib, who define a candidate as one who both formally announces they are running for president and who files a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission. Even with these criteria, however, some judgment still needs to be exercised to weed out fringe candidates who might fit this definition but who nonetheless are extremely unlikely to attract even minimal support, never mind win the nomination. Because FEC filings were required only after passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, as subsequently amended, my candidate count begins with the 1976 presidential campaign, which is generally considered the start of the modern presidential nomination era.
Based on these criteria, the previous Republican high was 11 candidates in 2000 and again in 2012. In both 1996 and 2008, 10 Republicans threw their hat in the ring. All told, during campaigns in the modern era in which no Republican incumbent president is running for re-election, the Republican field averages a shade over 9 candidates. Note, however, that the size of the Republican candidate pool has grown deeper across four decades; there were only 7 candidates in 1980, 6 in 1988 and 10 in 1996. In the three most recent open-seat nominating contests, however, Republicans have averaged 11 candidates, including the dozen-and-counting that are running during the 2016 cycle.
What accounts for this growth in candidate numbers? In part, it is a function of historical circumstances. Candidates are strategic; the more favorable the conditions for winning, the more likely a higher number of stronger candidate will choose to run. In 1980, Ronald Reagan, who had nearly unseated the incumbent president Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican primary, was viewed as the clear front runner, and his presence likely cleared some candidates from the field. In the last Gallup poll in January 1980 before the Iowa caucus kicked off the electoral campaign, Reagan received 41 percent support . His nearest competitor, Howard Baker, had only 14 percent.
Similarly, albeit to a lesser extent, the incumbent Vice President George H.W. Bush was viewed as the front-runner in 1988, a position again reflected in the pre-Iowa Gallup Poll that had him garnering 45 percent support, compared to the second place Bob Dole's 30 percent. But while pre-election national polls are often a reliable gauge regarding who the eventual nominee will be, they are not foolproof and there is some evidence that they have become less so in recent nominating campaigns. (See Howard Dean in 2004, Hillary Clinton in 2008 or Newt Gingrich in 2012 – all of whom lead the national polls for their nomination in the December before the Iowa caucuses.)
Moreover, not every presidential candidate is necessarily in it to win it. Although all profess their fervent belief that they should be the party standard bearer, some are likely motivated to take advantage of the highly visible platform a national campaign can provide to push a particular set of policies or to promote themselves. For example, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky used the visibility of his presidential campaign to help gain publicity for his effort in the Senate to scuttle an extension of the USA Patriot Act – legislation he had opposed since entering the Senate. Not coincidentally, his very public opposition during Senate debate likely also boosted his presidential campaign profile. Similarly, the socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has been pushing his populist economic agenda for years, but by running for president as a Democrat he has gained a more prominent platform from which to make his views known.
[SEE: Republican Party Cartoons]
Changes to campaign funding combined with the growing prominence of social media as a fund-raising tool have made it easier for more of these ideologically-extreme candidates to raise money and remain viable candidates, thus accentuating the nominating process' utility as a bully pulpit. The recent Citizens United and Speechnow court cases both contributed to a rise in outside spending on campaigns by more ideologically extreme groups and deep-pocketed individuals with single-issue concerns.
Gingrich, for instance, remained in the Republican race in 2012 long after it became clear he could not win the nomination, thanks to periodic infusion of funds by billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson. The traditional parties, meanwhile, have lost some of their gatekeeping abilities due in part to the ban on "soft money" imposed by the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. That was money ostensibly raised by parties for so-called party-building activities, but which was in fact used to bolster the campaign of the party favorite whose typically more centrist views were deemed by party regulars to make them more competitive in the general election.
The combination of campaign finance reform and technological developments has lowered the entry barriers for candidates with less moderate political views and allowed them to remain viable for a longer period. Even though their prospects of winning their party's nomination may not have increased, these long-shot candidates nonetheless have a greater incentive to enter the race.
Finally, in an era that has witnessed the proliferation of cable news shows and more ideologically-oriented media outlets, we should not underestimate the post-race benefits that potentially accrue to losing presidential candidates. Mike Huckabee parlayed his failed 2008 presidential bid into hosting his own political talk show on the Fox News cable network. Eight years later, Huckabee is once again running for president, and while he is unlikely to win, he will probably bolster his cache as a television talking head.
Similarly, thanks in no small part to his failed 2012 bid, Gingrich is now a permanent fixture as a political pundit on network and cable news shows. Perhaps with their examples in mind, real estate mogul Donald Trump has just announced that he is also running for the Republican nomination – a career move that, if nothing else, will no doubt help boost ratings for his "Celebrity Apprentice" television show and other endeavors almost regardless of how well he does.
For all these reasons, running for president today has become a more attractive proposition for candidates who in an earlier period might have decided it was not worth incurring the expense in time and resources associated with a long-shot national campaign. This proliferation of candidates is not necessarily an unwelcome development – indeed, it can be viewed as a sign of a healthy, vibrant electoral process, one in which voters have more and, perhaps, better choices.
But much will depend on how well the media fulfills its self-anointed role as arbiter of candidate viability – a role that history suggests it has not performed very well. Because the media is not very adroit at covering complex stories, it has an incentive to begin winnowing the candidate field long before most voters are even paying attention, never mind casting votes. It does this by signaling via media coverage which candidates it views as more or less viable.We see this already in the struggle by cable and other news outlets to develop a debate format that balances indicators, such as polling averages, of candidate viability against a desire for candidate inclusiveness in the name of fairness and balance. Initial efforts to limit debate participation to top-tier candidates was met by an outcry from other candidates and their backers, and plans were quickly put in place to accommodate all announced candidates. Still, it remains unclear just how committed the media will be to providing equal coverage to all candidates, and how soon they will begin relegating some in the historically-crowded Republican field to second-tier status.