On June 4, Rick Perry became the 10th Republican to throw his hat into the 2016 presidential ring.
On top of that, there are another half dozen candidates seriously considering running, including Jeb Bush.
Much has been made of the strength of the GOP field this year. Yet, as the competition heats up, there is a serious danger of the candidates canceling each other out.
The entire field could become damaged and look inferior to the Democrats’ single, strong candidate.
Most Popular Wins?
The crowded field will be particularly disastrous during the debates.
You see, Fox News has limited participation in the first debate to the top 10. The news organization will decide based on the average of five opinion polls leading up to the debate on August 6.
CNN has announced a similar approach for their debate on September 16. The station is planning to have two debates: one for the top 10 and the other for the leftovers.
The problem with this arrangement is that candidates with a strong media presence – such as Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump, and Ben Carson – generally score in the mid-single digits in polls. Behind them, generally, are the possibly more serious candidates, such as Ohio Governor John Kasich, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and even former Texas Governor Rick Perry.
These highly qualified, serious candidates could essentially be eliminated from the race by opinion polls six months before the first votes are cast.
Even in the debates themselves, the plethora of candidates is a problem. That’s because having 10 candidates on stage doesn’t allow time for the better candidates to distinguish themselves. The presence of the lightweight candidates can be a powerful distraction.
We saw evidence of this in 2012, when serious contributions from heavyweights Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry were upstaged by pizza salesman Herman Cain chanting, “Nine-nine-nine.”
Taking a Stance Erodes Footing
Even without frivolous candidates, experience has shown that the debates tend to knock down all participants, especially those with clearly identifiable views and track records.
For instance, Rick Perry was dinged in 2012 for allowing illegal immigrants to enroll in state colleges. Most candidates at the time supported this position, but Michele Bachmann demonized the stance and distracted republican supporters from other issues.
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In this election, the debates will undoubtedly include foreign policy donnybrooks between hawks like Lindsey Graham and doves like Rand Paul. While this will probably be highly entertaining, it won’t be very enlightening.
As a result, candidates without clear views tend to benefit from a large debate field: They are attacked less and their statements are so bland, they offend few. In 2012, this worked to the advantage of Mitt Romney.
In 2016, it’s likely to benefit Jeb Bush. Indeed, Bush’s well-funded campaign is enormously benefited by the plethora of candidates running against him. His opponents will attack each other and run behind Bush in the polls. Then, they’ll be denigrated as simply the “Seven Dwarfs,” like the Democrat contenders of 1988.
This will reduce the ability of any one of them to emerge as a leading contender until it’s too late, when the first primaries have cemented the field in place.
Playing the Wild Card
The other problem with a huge field is that several contenders will only get noticed if they stake out positions far from the Republican norm. These will be played up by the generally liberal media, making the Republican Party look divided and damaging the salience of its core policies.
Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, for example, oppose the central tax-cutting, small-government thrust of Republican policy. By running in 2016, they’ll inevitably damage the image of the party, if they get any traction.
Similarly, social conservatives who articulate extreme positions on subjects such as gay marriage or abortion will alienate moderates who may align with Republicans on other issues.
The GOP primary/caucus system’s track record of producing high-quality presidential candidates that are representative of the views of Republican voters isn’t a good one.
Though it’s generally agreed that the 2016 field is exceptionally strong, the plethora of candidates will reduce the benefits of that strength, making other candidates appear weak compared to Jeb Bush.
And the entire field will appear weak when compared to Hillary Clinton.
It’s probably not an advantage for Hillary Clinton to have no serious opposition within her own party, as she’ll face the presidential election with her positions untested and her debating skills unhoned.
But, it’s equally clear that 16 to 18 Republican candidates, many of whom will attack core Republican positions on a number of issues, are far too many. Whoever wins the GOP primary is likely to emerge both dinged and diminished by the conflict.