The Republican presidential field surpasseth all reason. Not, let me hasten to say, in ideology or reason. In size. There are likely to be 15-20 "mainstream," loosely speaking, candidates by the time the serious campaign kicks in next fall. This is unprecedented in the modern primary era--or, perhaps, in any era. This has happened for several reasons. First, the growth of the conservative infrastructure has achieved such heights that running for office is a good career move, regardless of one's chances. Why not run? You could end up with a plum post at the Heritage Foundation or a nice talk show on Fox. The left simply does not offer such opportunities, which is why Secretary Clinton does not face a horde of eager "personalities" in the Democratic primaries. Second, in this new campaign finance era, all that's required to be plausible and make a real run, is one lousy billionaire. That's what Newt Gingrich did last time and Marco Rubio's life has but one sponsor. One billionaire. How hard can that be? Third, there is no one who is next in line. The Republicans always like to nominate a familiar guy (H.W., Dole, Bush, McCain, Romney) and, for the first time really since 1964, there is no next in line (Nixon did not run again, opening the door for Goldwater). That's over half a century for those counting. So, what will this mean? In no particular order:
1) The Republicans won't know how to manage this or be good at it. Nobody could, and particularly not a party so fond of precedent. There are traditional written and unwritten maxims for sorting candidates. Some still work but many don't. In the era of the interwebs and billionaires, fundraising simply isn't much of a measuring stick anymore. Most of these guys will find a way to ante up. Media attention will be a good indicator, too, but Tea Party conservatives hate the lamestream media so too much NYT attention might signal a particular candidate is one of "them." Poll standing matters but lots of early money, from that one lousy billionaire, could buy a temporary bump. It's a mess. Previous name will matter and help Jeb enormously, but he's not really next in line, despite his name. Too long since he last ran for Governor, too long (over a decade) since any Bush ran, and too much brother baggage.
2) How in Reagan's name will debates work? 17 of them on stage? It's insane. I suspect the RNC wants to get rid of this troublesome platform for charismatic crazy people (I'm looking at you, Ben Carson) so they'll cut way down (and already have) on debates for one thing. For another, they may have to consider poll or support cutoffs in the early debates, which would be unprecedented and, in past years, would have eliminated some eventual Democratic nominees. And do you use national or state polls? Do you limit a debate to a single topic in hopes of giving people more time? I think they may well end up, helter skelter, having a series of partial 10-12 person debates with a rotating cast. Kinda like American Horror Show.
3) Is there even enough time on Iowa or Boston tv stations for all these people to buy it? Srsly. How much time are they going to want to purchase?
4) The traditional R strategy is to cut right in the primaries, then drive back to the center in the general election. The sheer size of the field may both help and hurt that effort. I'm honestly not sure how it will work out. On the one hand, unspoken agreements about where you'll debate and where I'll debate may end up sorting the field into "crazy" debates and "sane" debates, limiting the times when Jeb Bush is seen vigorously nodding his agreement with Ben Carson. Plus, the field will be such a mess that many, most, Americans may simply choose to ignore the whole thing until the winnowing is over, until they're only really paying attention, say, to Bush, Rubio, Walker, and a token extremist, maybe Cruz or Paul. That might make it easier to move back to the center.
On the other hand, a very small amount of votes--Ben Carson led a recent poll--could make a "winner" of someone or make a huge difference, so even the mainstream candidates may have to cater to some pretty petty interest groups. And, of course, everything and every step is recorded by someone, somewhere, somehow now, so any pandering will be caught and endlessly available. For instance, Walker is clearly not a bright guy and I'm guessing he'll really mess up somewhere or another.
5) The primaries will be covered by online entrepreneurs and the conservative infrastructure. The mainstream folks--the networks, the cable news networks, the NYT, Washington Post, etc.,--simply do not have the resources. NBC has recently had 1 correspondent covering the Rs--Kelly O'Donnell. What are they going to do, clone her? Their inability truly to cover and report this massive race means that the coverage will turn on ever more shallow, eyeball catching incidents--witness the Iraq kerfluffle of the past week. Not that it, in particular, is shallow, but it's the result of a gaffe, in the classic sense, and that's all they'll really be able to cover. Which will add to the general impression that this is a clown car.
6) Finally, it's important to note that the flood of candidates does not generally reflect any ideological fragmentation. Nearly all agree on big tax cuts for the wealthy, big cuts in social programs, increases in defense spending, more trade agreements, more military rather than diplomatic solutions to foreign policy problems, a purer "Christian" nation, a denial of climate change, etc. There simply is not much disagreement at all. Which means, in this array of people, the race will turn ever more, one suspects, on blown out of proportion minor issues, perceptions of electability, and who would you like to have a beer with?
Again, no particular order here nor am I wedded to any of this. But it is an unprecedented issue.