Look Out Cleveland!

RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende has a nice sugary treat for political animals today, with a set of scenarios for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination contest that conclude with the July convention in Cleveland having to make a choice among two or more surviving contenders.

The main reason this could happen, of course, is the size and (by conventional measurements of credibility) quality of the field, with no real front-runner and multiple candidates with different electoral and financial bases.

2016 really is the deepest GOP field in a very, very long time. In fact, it isn’t even close. To be clear, that doesn’t mean that eventual candidate is (or will be) the strongest Republican nominee ever. I think that’s unlikely, and in fact, that is crucial to my analysis. It just means that number eight is unusually strong. In 1996, eighth place in Iowa was businessman Morry Taylor. In 2008, it was Alan Keyes (who placed fourth in 2000). This year, eighth place will probably be a candidate we now see as a legitimate contender for the nomination….

Let’s rate this field using a points system as follows: 5 points for a sitting veep, 4 for a sitting senator or governor, 3 for a representative, 2 for Cabinet officials, and 1 for “other.” We’ll (somewhat arbitrarily) add a point for “star power,” and deduct one for candidates who haven’t won a race in the past six years. We’ll do this for all the initial fields going back to 1980 (minor note: Harold Stassen receives a 1 even though he was a former governor. An election in 1938 doesn’t have much bearing in 1988).

The total for the prospective 2016 field is 56 points, by far the highest of any field. The next-closest field, from 2008, totals just 39 points. Moreover, the average candidate quality in 2016 is the highest of the bunch: 3.5 points, compared with 3.1 points for 2012 or 3.3 for 2008. Even this doesn’t tell the whole story though, as the 2008 slate is filled with candidates who were much weaker than their ratings suggested (Jim Gilmore, Sam Brownback, Tommy Thompson). Almost all of the candidates on the 2016 list would have been top-flight contenders against the 2012 field, yet many of them will struggle to finish in the top five in a single primary or caucus.

What this means is that if any candidate with a decent following stumbles or withdraws, credible alternatives will be there to divide up votes instead of some front-runner gradually consolidating and extending a lead. In 2012 after Iowa, which fatally damaged Rick Perry, all Mitt Romney had to do was to outlast two seriously flawed rivals who were hurting each other, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. It should be a different game this time around.

[Y]ou have a perfectly plausible scenario where we exit the early primary phase of the contest with four winners, each of whom is a legitimate presidential contender. What’s more, it’s not entirely clear how they knock each other out. Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul all represent different wings of the party, would draw from different fundraising bases, and would have different demographic appeals. Just as important: None is an obvious choice, but at the same time, unlike 2012, all will have a group of supporters that really likes them; it won’t just be an “anti-Bush” vote trying to coalesce. You can mix up the various winners (Rubio, Christie, Perry, Paul), but the same analysis holds.

As Trende mentions, there are plenty of wildcards, including the Super-PACs that played so big a role in 2012. But the consolidation of primaries that the RNC encouraged to make an early winner more possible could, with this kind of field, backfire, with multiple candidates finding ways to survive a relatively short gauntlet and head towards the convention.

Now a lot of this may just be the wishful thinking of someone too young (Sean was born in 1973) to remember a nominating convention where the outcome was in any real doubt (the 1976 Republican convention was the last of those). Lord knows Democrats would enjoy watching an extended slugfest that concluded with shadowy power-brokers and outright criminals extorting huge favors from candidates desperate for the last few delegates they need, draining even the deep pockets of the GOP with more than three months to go before Election Day. It almost certainly won’t happen, I believe. But the odds are higher than at any time I can remember.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.