Avoiding the “Clown Car” Primary

As the Republican Party continues to stumble into its position as the governing party in both chambers of Congress (still not quite sure what to do now that it is there) following the 2014 Midterms, the gears of the next election cycle are already turning. Though no one from either party has officially declared their candidacy, there is a vigorous “shadow primary” underway for the 2016 presidential election. Were Republicans shrewd political strategists, they would use this pre-primary period to quickly coalesce around a limited number of candidates, narrow the field, and look prospectively toward winning the White House rather than a drawn-out, unnecessary slugfest in the interim.

Despite that the first primary is still eleven months away, votes are already very much at risk, and potential candidates are jockeying to establish a foothold in the states with early primaries and to win the support of donors, political power brokers, pundits, and grassroots organizers. This shadow primary effectively whittles the field of contenders down to only the most viable candidates – at least in theory. Mitt Romney’s announcement that he would not seek the presidency, despite earlier signals to the contrary, is a testament to that theory and to the vital importance of these early, behind-the-scenes bouts. While Romney polled above a slew of potential contenders – ten points above his closest competition – he nevertheless lost the shadow primary, failing to convince donors and Republican intelligentsia that he stood a better chance in 2016 than he did during his dismal 2012 campaign.

However, the theory’s effectiveness only extends so far. In particular, the 2012 cycle serves as a painful reminder to Republicans that a litany of contenders frequently moves beyond this preliminary round and proceeds to crowd early debates and straw polls with candidates who cannot or should not win (not always mutually exclusive categories). Whether ignorant of their prospects  or more interested in the short-term publicity, book sales, and speaking fees,  more than a few candidates remain in the race long after they should have conceded.

This is politically detrimental for a number of reasons. First, primaries are costly – both in terms of financial capital and political capital. Every dollar spent in a primary is a dollar that could have been spent during the ultimate race between the eventual nominees. Additionally, if donors – particularly small, individual donors – contribute to a campaign that stands no chance, though it has convinced them otherwise, those donors will in all likelihood be unable or unwilling to contribute in the final few months of the race. This means less money to run an effective campaign vis-à-vis a party with a much shorter, less contested primary.

Then there is the political cost. A party that slings mud upon itself in a primary merely saves work for the opposing party. While an ideal primary would involve a rational discussion of ideas and the policies that flow from them, they are more often filled with the same acrimony that frequently appears during the general election (see: Republican criticism of Romney’s work at Bain Capital in 2012). The party that insists on entertaining every candidate that puts his name forward for as long as his whim dictates runs the risk of making all its candidates unpopular.

Further, one should not discount the effect of fatiguing the base. While elections are won by independents, that notion presupposes that the base itself will be excited and show up at the polls. The prospects of an excited base can conceivably decrease over the course of a prolonged and vitriolic primary. This is especially true if enough candidates run such that everyone has a chance to pick their “perfect” candidate who then proceeds to lose, against whom all remaining candidates seem inferior and uninspiring.

As for the candidates who “should not win,” promoting toxic positions throughout a primary process can reflect poorly on the party as a whole. The further that a candidate promoting such positions proceeds, the more the rest of the public may grow wary of supporting the eventual nominee by reason of association, regardless of the nominee’s actual views. And “toxic” does not mean “unpopular.” There are a number of potentially unpopular opinions (e.g., entitlement reform) that ought to be taken, and a rational candidate would take them and work to reverse public opinion rather than be reversed by it. Instead, “toxic” means dangerous, unacceptable, or abhorrent. Positions that would fall under the label of “toxic” would include Rick Santorum’s assertion that the states have the authority to ban contraception, or Ron Paul’s belief that the US should allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. The fact that the former finished second in the 2012 Republican primary certainly did nothing to advance the image of the GOP as a rational, twenty-first century political party.

All of these concerns are particularly acute in this cycle for the Republicans. While the Democratic shadow primary essentially concluded months, if not years ago in favor of Hillary Clinton (should she run), the Republican battle is still an open contest.  The leftovers from 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries have expressed interest in a political mulligan, and there are several newcomers who may also run. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight lists at least eighteen potential candidates (chosen by their presence in at least one national poll since the midterms), most of whom have expressed some interest in running. Though the list includes Romney who has officially declined to participate, it fails to include others like Sarah Palin, who stated that she was “seriously interested” in running.

Fourteen of those candidates have rated a three or higher on FiveThirtyEight’s statement scale of one to five (one representing a decision not to run, and five representing a declared candidacy). Of these fourteen, four are officially exploring a candidacy, and eight others – while they claim to be unsure – have visited Iowa or New Hampshire at least once. Including Palin, there are thirteen potential Republican candidates who may enter the ring for the 2016 primaries, compared to two Democratic possibilities (plus Clinton) when using the same metrics. Of course, all thirteen Republicans deciding to run is seriously unlikely. But even assuming a few dropouts, the Republicans run the very real risk of turning their primary into a disorganized circus.

Part of this “circus” possibility is undoubtedly due to the GOP’s aptly named “big tent” policy – simply trying to encompass more voters by standing for less rather than attempting to attract them through persuasive and principled policymaking. As we have expressed previously at The Mendenhall, the Republican Party is highly factionalized, divided not two, but three ways between the Republican Establishment, the Religious Right, and the elements of the Tea Party that took to heart its message of “free markets, fiscal responsibility, and constitutionally limited government,” with a possible fourth faction if one distinguishes between the neoconservatives and purely pragmatist factions in the Establishment. As a result, if each faction is to be represented in the primary, there will necessarily be several candidates.

However, this is only a partial explanation. After all, does the Religious Right need Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry trying to outdo one another in who has the most contempt for the Establishment Clause? Does the Establishment need to run Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and Lindsey Graham? Does the Republican Party need the now reality-show-and-scandal-tainted Sarah Palin or the utterly politically inexperienced Ben Carson as candidates at all? All factions are represented, and then some.

Fielding a dozen or even several candidates, many of whom merely vie to be the loudest echo in their faction’s echo chamber, can hardly be considered smart politics from a partisan standpoint, and it certainly is not rationally self-interested behavior on the part of the candidates. Though it is too early to say definitively that longshot Candidate X cannot win the primary or the election, it is not too early to say that Candidate Y stands a substantially better chance. Insofar as the differences between Candidate X and Candidate Y are minimal, the choice facing Candidate X is whether to play the long odds for a spot in the Oval Office at risk of foiling both himself and ideologically similar candidates. Alternatively, Candidate X could drop out, throw his support by Candidate Y, and give his ideals a better political chance at success – a considerably more self-interested option. To the extent that the differences between Candidate X and Candidate Y are immense, the choice turns on whether the expenses – personal and financial – of an uncertain political campaign are worth the opportunity to oppose a countervailing ideological trend within Candidate X’s party and to move his party in a more positive direction, in spite of the unfavorable odds. In that case, each candidate must make the choice for himself.

Regardless, a couple of institutional safety valves are in place that should reduce the Republican Party’s risk of turning its own primary into a circus. First, the Republican National Committee has scheduled the 2016 Republican National Convention in the middle of July – considerably earlier than in previous elections – in hopes of concluding the primary as quickly as possible. Moreover, the media itself self-regulates the field by requiring candidates to poll at certain levels in order to participate in debates. Of course, the effectiveness of this particular safeguard is limited by the candidates’ own stubbornness, and many may choose rather to make a spectacle of themselves than to withdraw (such as Gary Johnson in 2012).

In any case, a primary field cluttered with unnecessary, irrelevant, or even toxic candidates provides little benefit to the Republican Party, Republican voters, individual candidates, or the nation as a whole. The primary does not need multiple candidates promoting the same principles and policies any more than it needs a candidate from left-field promoting nonsense. At some point, an election must focus only on the most serious, viable, and legitimately at-odds candidates. At some point, even the clown car has to get full.

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