THE BLOG
01/28/2015 08:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Multi-Ring Republican Nomination Circus

The 2016 presidential election cycle is already underway. Whether you are delighted or horrified at the prospect, the race is indeed now on. While it might seem impossibly far in the future, consider that the Iowa caucuses are only a year away. So we're going to take a very early look at the Republican field, which seems to be getting larger every week.

The 2016 election will be rather unique, since it is a wide-open presidential election on both sides. No incumbent will be running, in other words, but the truly notable aspect of the race is that the parties seem to have switched their basic nominating strategies. Democrats are (as Republicans normally do) getting behind their "next in line" candidate, who looks pretty formidable at this point. Republicans, on the other hand, are about to hold an extended nomination circus, open to all candidates, no matter how viable their prospects (which is more normally a situation found on the Democratic side).

The sheer size of the Republican field, even at this early date, is downright astonishing. By some calculations, there are over two dozen valid possibilities for the Republican nomination. Now, not all of these folks are going to wind up launching an actual campaign, but there may also be later entrants in the race that nobody's even considered at this point. No matter who decides to run, it's going to be an enormous field to contemplate. For example, there are currently even four guys named "Rick" to choose from on the list of possible contenders.

Sorting through over two dozen names is pretty tough, so we're going to break them down into groups. Each of these groups will really be running almost a separate mini-primary process, in order to winnow down the field within each subdivision. Any of these candidates, to put this slightly differently, wants first to knock out all the other close ideological contenders before taking on Republicans from the other groups. Having only one "Tea Party Republican" to take on one "Evangelical Republican" (and all the rest) means increasing your chances of winning the nominating contest. The reverse of this theory is that having two equally-balanced candidates within one group means the vote from the base of that group will wind up split -- meaning candidates from the other groups would have a better chance overall. The most-watched of these internal races is already the Establishment Republican contest (i.e., Romney versus Bush), and will likely remain so for quite a while.

At least for now, it's more informative to take these candidates by group rather than assessing their individual chances against each other. I came up with six of these groups, although there is admittedly a considerable amount of overlap between some of them. I then took the full list (from the link, above) and shuffled each candidate into the proper category.

 

Establishment Republicans

The labels for most of these groups are somewhat fluid, and even the most powerful of these could bear another name (perhaps "Wall Street Republicans" or "Invisible Primary Republicans" would work just as well). To be blunt, this is the race for the money. The three candidates in this group are all looking to amass a mountain of campaign cash from big donors very early on. By doing so, they can effectively outspend many of the minor candidates and emerge as early frontrunners.

There are really only three candidates in this category: former Florida governor Jeb Bush, current New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Massachusetts governor (and two-time presidential loser) Mitt Romney.

Romney has shocked the Establishment Republican world by expressing a strong interest in taking a third turn around the center circus ring. He shifted from saying he'd never run again to wholehearted enthusiasm so quickly that both Christie and Bush must have experienced a bit of political whiplash. The conventional wisdom is that all three of these guys will be chasing a very small pool of deep-pocket donors (in what is called the "invisible primary"). Christie is the longshot here, since he's seen as somewhat of a loose cannon. But Christie has a lot more charisma than either Bush or Romney, so it'll be interesting to see how this all shakes out.

The key concept within this group is maximizing "electability." Big Republican donors do not want to waste their money on another losing race. They have their eyes firmly on the prize, and are looking for someone who can compete not just in the savage world of the Republican primaries, but also in the general election against the expected Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.

 

Tea Party Republicans

The "Tea Party" label has always been somewhat nebulous, so it'd be easy to argue that a few other candidates really belong in this category. It'd also be valid to argue that at least two of these four don't really belong here, as well. But the way I see it is that four candidates will be competing for this particular slice of the Republican electorate: Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Rand Paul, former Texas governor Rick Perry and Senator Marco Rubio.

Cruz and Perry are really the Tea Partiest of the Tea Party Republicans. They are unabashedly against all things Obama, and are not afraid to say so in the fiercest terms possible. Unfortunately for them, they both hail from the same state, meaning they may have their own one-on-one money race among the big oil donors in Texas. Rand Paul is more of a libertarian than a Tea Partier, but he fit in this category better than any of the others. Marco Rubio truly did want to bridge the gap between the Tea Party and the Establishment Republicans, but he's run into a number of problems with that route (not least of which is having Jeb Bush run, splitting the Florida donor class Rubio was eagerly eyeing). Rubio and Paul both will have policy problems with the grassroots Tea Partiers (Rubio on immigration and Paul on foreign policy), but they both have their own small base of supporters within the party ranks. An interesting footnote is that both Paul and Rubio cannot, by current law within their states, run for both Senate and president at the same time -- which could complicate the decision to run for both of them.

It's a real tossup between all four, though, in terms of who is the strongest Tea Party candidate right now. This may be a crucial decision, because if even two Tea Partiers wind up pulling roughly the same amount of votes, it could doom their chances against the Establishment frontrunner.

 

Evangelical Republicans

These might also be called the "Socially Conservative Republicans," and there is a large overlap between these folks and the Tea Partiers. There are currently three possible Republican candidates in this group, two of whom ran last time: former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, current Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

So far, it appears that Huckabee is the most eager to stake out a frontrunner spot within the Evangelical Republican ranks. Santorum personally thinks he could have snatched the nomination away from Romney last time around if things had gone slightly differently (this is somewhat -- but not completely -- delusional, I should mention). Bobby Jindal truly wants to be considered a strong Tea Party candidate as well, but for the time being his ideology puts him closer to the Evangelical Republican base (as evidenced by the fact that he just kicked off his early campaigning by attending a giant prayer rally).

Huckabee and Jindal probably have the best chances out of the three, since they're from the South. But you never can tell with this group of voters, so it's still pretty much up in the air who will be the strongest. Much like the Tea Partiers, the primary for the Evangelical Republican voters will be more dangerous for all other Republicans in the race, because these two groups will be the ones trying to outdo each other by staking out the most extreme and unforgiving political stances possible (on gay marriage, for instance) -- and, by doing so, force the rest of the field further right.

 

Uber-Hawks

This might also be called the "Bomb Everyone Now" group. They used to be called "Neo-Conservative Republicans," but that label has been tarnished so much by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that it likely will not be used.

Unless I'm missing someone, there are only two candidates in this category (which used to be dominated by John McCain): former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, and Senator Lindsey Graham.

Bolton really belongs much further down this list (in the "Longshot" category) because there is not one iota of a chance of him ever becoming president, or even the Republican nominee for president. Republican primary voters just aren't foolish enough to pick Bolton over any other candidate with much more political experience, and it's not even a certainty that he'll mount a campaign. Even having said that, ideologically he really does belong in the Uber-Hawks category, because that's really his only strong point.

Lindsey Graham's apparent interest in launching a presidential bid is somewhat surprising (even more surprising to some than Romney jumping back in the fray). I guess he is one of those Republicans who figured: "Hey, everyone else is running, why shouldn't I?" Whatever his rationale, Graham has always set himself up to the heir to the McCain all-hawkishness-all-the-time faction within the Republican Party, so it's easy to see that Graham could become the strongest foreign policy candidate in the entire Republican field. If an international crisis pops up at just the right time, this could propel him to the frontrunner ranks. If the election is about the economy and the middle class, however, Graham doesn't have much of a chance.

 

Republican Governors

These last two categories are somewhat different, because they are not ideological but rather situational. The first is a catch-all category for all the governors who may run. Governors almost always run on pretty much the same campaign, when reaching for the White House ring: "I have executive experience running a state government, therefore I know best how to get things done -- much better than these other guys." It's a slightly different take on the "electability" argument. Call it the "best experience" argument.

Being a catch-all, this category has more names in it than any of the others: Jan Brewer (Arizona), Jim Gilmore (Virginia), John Kasich (Ohio), George Pataki (New York), Mike Pence (Indiana), Rick Scott (Florida), Rick Snyder (Michigan) and Scott Walker (Wisconsin).

Not all of these folks will likely wind up running. Mounting a national campaign is a lot more different (and a whole lot more expensive) than winning one state, no matter how big. There are several interesting candidates in this list due to the states they hail from (any of which could be crucial battleground states in the general election): Gilmore, Kasich, Pataki, Scott and Snyder (a case could even be made for Walker and Pence). Of all of these candidates, however, the strongest (should they even run) may be Kasich and Walker. Most on this list who do decide to run will likely be darlings of the national media for a while, but then wind up getting only a few percent of the actual vote (think: Jon Huntsman). Walker is currently getting a lot of good press for his performance at the Steve King event last weekend, but the electability argument Kasich is bound to make ("Republicans cannot win without Ohio!") might wind up being more convincing.

 

Longshots

Finally, we come to the Longshot candidates. This was the most polite term I could come up with for the group. If you'd like, please create your own label for them in the comments, perhaps expanding on my "multi-ring circus" metaphor as you see fit.

There are five candidates who don't have a snowball's chance down below of actually becoming the Republican nominee for president. They are: Dr. Ben Carson, Senator Bob Corker, Carly Fiorina, Congressman Pete King and Sarah Palin. Now, you can quibble whether they belong in other categories or not (Carson and Palin are Tea Partiers, Fiorina would be going for the Establishment Republican vote, etc.), but barring any unforeseen circumstances, these five people have exactly the same chance as Donald Trump of becoming the 2016 Republican nominee (which is to say: absolutely none).

They may all run, but what they will be running should be seen as nothing short of a vanity campaign (think: Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Fred Thompson). They may spend a whole lot of other people's money (or, in the case of Fiorina, her own), but they will have very little to show for it at the end of the campaign. The Longshot category is the only one, in fact, where no frontrunner at all will emerge. None of these five names is going to last past Super Tuesday, if they even get that far. Granted, there are more than a few other names from within the other groups (most of the Republican Governors group, for instance, and John Bolton) who also have precisely zero chance of winning, but these were the ones who didn't really fit anywhere else.

However, this category might provide the most entertainment for political commentators. Out of all the multiple rings in this circus (to return to our theme), this one could easily provide the biggest laughs. That's good for something, at the very least.

 

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