If there’s one word to describe the field of candidates running for president in this primary cycle, it’s “crowded” — historically so. That’s especially true of the Republicans, who don’t have a clear successor. Experts say that will cause campaigns to run differently, increase the chances for unlikely candidates to win the party nomination and invite more long-shot candidates to build up name recognition for future races.
Playing political pool
Dante Scala is a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire and a regular analyst of local and presidential elections. He said having 22 presidential candidates (17 Republican and five Democratic) jostling for TV time, handshakes and photo ops with little elbow room in the polls is like a game of billiards.
“The more candidates you have in a primary, the more instability you generate,” Scala said. “When there’s multiple balls on the table and you set the balls in motion, they can make some unexpected bounces.”
It’s an intuitive truism, but there’s also some math behind it.
“When it’s a simple, two-candidate primary, the dividing lines are fairly clear. It’s what social scientists call a zero-sum game. … A vote that I gain, you lose, and vice versa,” Scala said. “In a multi-candidate primary, all that changes because ... I may persuade someone not to vote for you, but that doesn’t mean that person is going to vote for me.”
And campaigns know this, Scala says. As a result, they adopt different strategies, like hitting the other team’s balls. In other words, for the Republicans in this race to target their attacks on Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton instead of fellow Republicans. Or it can simply mean skipping a turn and letting other players misfire or, in some cases, scratch by inadvertently sinking their own campaigns.
“Campaigns have to carefully think through things like going negative because, if you have two candidates tussling with each other, being critical of each other, they may both lose and a third candidate may stand to gain,” Scala said.
He points to the 2004 election when Democratic candidates Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt were busy attacking one another in Iowa.
“Both of them crashed and burned in Iowa, and then along came John Kerry, who stayed out of the fray, stayed positive, and he zoomed forward. He won Iowa and became the nominee,” Scala said.
Assuming the list of candidates remains relatively long when it comes time to put their names on the New Hampshire primary ballot, math will continue to play a serious role. Someone could win with only about 25 percent of the vote.
“That’s certainly possible,” Scala said. “It’ll certainly get you in the top three and you’ll certainly have a shot at two or maybe even one.”
And assuming the field is larger for the Iowa caucus, someone there might win with numbers in the teens. What does all this mean? Despite what polls may suggest, no one is really on top. It’s wide open.
“It certainly lowers the bar for dark horse candidates,” Scala said.
This is good news for relatively unknown candidates like Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who’s enjoying 12 percent in the polls next to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 13 percent, or for candidates like retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson or former HP CEO Carly Fiorina.
Lessons from history
Historian Douglas Egerton agrees a dark-horse candidate will have better chances and he points to the most famous dark horse as proof: Abraham Lincoln. Egerton wrote the book Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln and the Election that Brought on the Civil War. It focuses on the election of 1860, which had the most crowded field in election history. He says 2016 may go down in history as the second largest.
“I’m quite convinced that these are the two elections, these two cycles, that have far and away the most candidates tossing their hat into the ring,” Egerton said. “I can’t think of another election that comes close in terms of actual numbers.”
In 1860, there were not only a lot of candidates, there were a few third parties involved. Besides the 26 Republicans in the race, there were 10 Democrats, about eight candidates in the Constitutional Union, which was a party formed out of the remnants of the Whig party, and Gerrit Smith, who ran as a sort of protest candidate, according to Egerton.
“Voters had quite a few options. With the Republican party, as with the Republican party now, it was quite unclear which one of these candidates was going to come out on top,” Egerton said.
He says that while the elections now and then have some similarities, the reasons for the wide open field are different.
“There’s a handful of reasons why there are so many Republicans running this time. One is, in the last several decades, Republicans have developed this odd tradition of ‘you gotta get in line.’ You lose the nomination this time, but it’s your turn four years down the road,” Egerton said.
Without a clear candidate to have earned their ‘turn,’ it’s as though newcomers and regulars are on equal footing. Plus, Egerton says, some get in line for very different reasons. He suspects candidates like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are running to raise their brand identification in order to later charge higher speaker fees, sell books and land high-paying jobs as TV personalities.
But a lot has changed in 155 years.
“I think one of the reasons there were so many candidates in 1860 is that the two-term tradition had pretty much stopped with James Monroe,” Egerton said.
That meant cycling through a lot of new candidates more frequently. Egerton said party rules played a part as well.
“There was also the tradition of dark horse candidates getting the nomination. The Democratic party, especially, had a number of very bizarre rules that actually hurt the very top, the frontrunners, and elevated the dark horse candidates,” Egerton said. “They all actually thought they had a pretty good shot at the nomination of their respective parties.”
Ultimately, the field is destined to be winnowed down. Scala thinks that will begin even before the New Hampshire primary.
“For the true political junkies of the New Hampshire electorate, it’s been a banquet. They can see all sorts of different candidates,” Scala said.
But he said the window for seeing them all may soon be closing.
“Name ID is a big hurdle that many of these candidates are not going to get over,” Scala said.