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The 2016 GOP Field Is Shaping Up As Historically Crowded — And Unpredictable

The field of plausible Republican presidential candidates is historically flat — all the contenders are massed together with about the same level of support. A clear front-runner has yet to emerge. But here’s another unusual characteristic of the GOP race so far: It’s crowded. Very crowded.

At least 10 Republicans who hold a prominent political position1 appear at least somewhat likely to officially run for president. Unless a few people decide not to run, we’re looking at the most congested primary contest since 1976.

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Why does that matter? Well, the flatness of the GOP field and its size are related. Since the 1980 campaign, by which time parties had adjusted to the primary reforms of the 1970s, each party’s establishment has done a good job of winnowing out candidates early in the campaign. This process occurs, in part, during the endorsement primary. Many potential candidates, such as Mitt Romney for 2016, find little support within the party infrastructure and decide not to run. They realize they have very little chance of winning.

This process makes the race more predictable. There are fewer moving parts, fewer variables and a clearer sense of what the party establishment, a powerful force in presidential primaries, wants.

But if a lot of viable Republicans run in 2016, it will be a sign that the party cannot decide. The polls in which no candidate jumps out to a lead indicate something beyond lack of name recognition. The 2016 Republican campaign could look like the Democratic races in the 1970s, in which the top tier was crowded.

Back in 1972 and 1976, a record number of recent statewide and national officeholders officially declared they were running for the Democratic nomination. In both years, the establishment choice failed to win it (George McGovern won in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976).

Below is the number of statewide and national officeholders who ran for their parties’ presidential nomination starting in 1972 in open races (without an incumbent president). The figures for 2016 are a projection.

YEAR DEMOCRATS REPUBLICANS
1972 10
1976 11
1980 8
1984 7
1988 6 5
1992 6
1996 6
2000 2 7
2004 6
2008 7 7
2012 6
2016 4 10

Since 1980, the primaries have never had more than eight candidates who met the aforementioned criteria declare they were running. The two primaries (1988 for the Republicans and 2000 for the Democrats) with sitting vice presidents running featured the fewest candidates. All other primaries since 1980 have featured six to eight current or recent state or national officeholders.

I should say that a divided Republican field is far from a guarantee. In the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush looked like he’d face five current or former officeholders. Once he demonstrated strength through endorsements and polling, only two other candidates who officially declared and met our criteria made it to the actual primaries (John McCain and Orrin Hatch). It’s possible, for instance, as Bloomberg View’s Jon Bernstein pointed out, that the current polling surge by Scott Walker could lead to a bunch of endorsements, persuading other would-be candidates to take a pass.

Just know for now that for every serious Republican who officially declares, we know a little bit less about who the 2016 Republican candidate will be.

Footnotes

  1. As a proxy for “serious” candidates, I’m counting any Republican who serves, or served in the 20 years before the election, as governor, senator, vice president or in a Cabinet-level position. This method isn’t perfect. When applied to past races, for example, it includes George H.W. Bush, who served as U.N. ambassador and director of the CIA, which have both been Cabinet-level positions. It does not include Sargent Shriver who never held elected office or served in a Cabinet-level position even though he was the 1972 Democratic vice presidential nominee.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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