And Christie makes 16: Why are so many people running for president?
As of Tuesday, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie squeezing into the clown car that is the race for the Republican presidential nomination, 15 men and one woman are competing to carry the GOP standard. Never before under modern nomination rules have so many plausible contenders been in the mix.
While it’s tempting to ridicule this colorful cast of characters, these candidates — with the profound exception of real-estate mogul Donald Trump — aren’t fools chasing free airtime. All but three are former or current senators or governors who, in a smaller group, would be considered viable contenders. If all these candidates hang in there for eight to 12 months, GOP voters will find that every vote counts.
So why is the 2016 race so crowded? The key reason is that the authorities who used to be gatekeepers have lost power.
In past, elite political leaders wielded considerable influence over the election process. Which candidates receive enough money to wage a full-fledged campaign? Which bathe in the media spotlight long enough to ensure that the public knows them?
It’s true, there are often surprises — surges by long-shots, flops by front-runners. But the campaign’s main contours were typically drawn by the influential figures who could bestow standing, funds and media attention.
Since the early 1970s, however, when the political parties began to place ever-greater weight on voters’ choices in the primaries, power has shifted to the public. In the last few election cycles in particular, the influence of several sets of gatekeepers has ebbed.
The first big losers are party leaders. Traditionally, the candidate who gets support from the key panjandrums can bigfoot rivals out of the race. By lending logistical support, knowledge of local politics and endorsements, these power brokers can shore up a favored contender – say, a vice president or a leading candidate in the previous election.
This year looks different. For one thing, in 2016, there’s no Republican heir who can peremptorily claim the front-runner mantle – as George H.W. Bush, did in 1988 or Al Gore on the Democratic side in 2000. Nor has any strong finisher in previous nomination fights pulled ahead, as Senator Bob Dole did in 1996 or Senator Gary Hart in 1988 (until he was caught in a sex scandal). This year looks more like one of those wide-open races where an outsider emerged victorious — as Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, a relatively obscure Democrat, did in 1976.
Some GOP insiders hoped that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush would emerge as the 2016 consensus choice. To the extent that Bush can claim top-tier status, it’s because many big shots have stood by him. But at this early stage, most Republican voters don’t seem to be taking cues from their leaders.
A second diminished group is the financial gatekeepers. This might sound odd, given how much money campaigns must now spend. But there’s been a critical change since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling.
The consensus judgment of big donors used to help pare down the field. Now, eccentric contributors with extreme wealth can keep longshot candidate in the race. Citizens United gave rise to the super-PACs — organizations that, though legally and operationally distinct from a candidate’s campaign, could spend unlimited amounts on his or her behalf, and can take unlimited donations from one person.
In 2012, both former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were kept alive through the largesse of a single superrich sponsor: Santorum by financier Foster Friess and Gingrich by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. This election cycle, Friess is again backing Santorum, while mega-car dealer Norman Braman is helping to keep Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) awash in cash. The billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch have talked about supporting several candidates, though are reported to be favoring Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Finally, media gatekeepers have also declined. In recent years, the news environment has fractured. The nightly network news broadcasts no longer reign supreme. More and more voters get political information from a combination of cable channels — including partisan outlets like Fox and MSNBC — and social media.
As a result, a candidate with little experience who can get airtime to voice forceful opinions, like neurosurgeon Ben Carson, or someone who goes viral for being outrageous, like Trump, can surge in popularity — or at least name recognition — distinguishing himself from the pack. The wave of mainstream media attention that once conferred credibility on a candidate is ever more elusive.
Without gatekeepers to pump up perceived winners and strike down perceived losers, any candidate with a plausible case to make can calculate that, at least at this early stage of the race, jumping in is worth the risk. In fact, the sheer number of aspirants encourages more to run, creating a snowball effect.
Many of this year’s hopefuls surely don’t expect to begin as front-runners (though all it takes to be a front-runner in a dense pack may be 11 percent in a poll). Rather, the mavericks may envision the mainstream vote being sliced and diced by several contenders, while they remain viable thanks to a plurality of diehard fans.
Former business executive Carly Fiorina, for example, would likely never win a race against a few big-name opponents. But as the only woman in the Republican race, if she fares well among female voters, she might rise to the top tier. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is distrusted by vast swaths of the GOP electorate, but if traditionalist conservatives divide their votes, his libertarian backers could propel him to the endgame. With few moderate Republicans remaining today, former New York Governor George Pataki may hope that a fractured conservative vote will position him to win.
In other words, the gates are wide open.