WaPo’s Dave Weigel and Jose DelReal have an interesting piece up today addressing the rather notable lack of “winnowing” of the GOP candidate field, which among other things underlines the big polling advantages of Carson and Trump. Turns out it’s the very presence of Carson and Trump and the palpable weakness of other supposedly first-tier candidates like Jeb Bush that keeps hope alive for the also-rans:

[A]ll of the stragglers look at the first tier of the race like an October apple tree, ready to drop its fruit. Jeb Bush has only grown weaker since the early fundraising hauls that were intended to scare competitors out of the race. His very public triage and staff salary cuts cheered even Rick Santorum, exiled to the “undercard” debates but bragging in a donor e-mail this week that “while some campaigns have received headlines for laying off staff, we just hired five new members of our team.”

Donald Trump and Ben Carson, the celebrity candidates who have dominated the race since summer, are viewed as flashy and flawed. Kasich has spent the days before the debate mocking Trump for taking credit for some Ohio factory jobs; John Weaver, Kasich’s campaign manager, who specializes in candidates who surprise in New Hampshire, tweeted that Trump was like “the melding of Richie Rich and Walter Mitty….”

The persistence of Carson and Trump works to the stragglers’ benefit, too, as proof that the political class has no idea what is happening in 2016.

“Why would I be so concerned about what the pundits are saying right now if they have been so, 100 percent, totally, absolutely wrong about everything up to now?” Huckabee asked in Gaffney.

Some of the best quotes in the piece is from the only candidate to drop out of the 2012 nominating contest before the voting started, Tim Pawlenty.

Pawlenty understood that optimism and where it came from. “That’s like hanging around the basketball rim waiting for a rebound,” he said. “Sometimes, it does happen. If you’re a candidate whose already put two years of your life into this, you could do worse than try.”

But this atmosphere makes any pre-Iowa “winnowing” that much less likely, and that’s a problem for the GOP.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.