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Too Many Cooks Spoiling the Broth? - 9/2/16

Let me ask--and try to answer--this question-why have GOP Presidential nomination fights become such a zoo lately?  Ever since 1988, every race for the Republicans with no incumbent  GOP President running for re-election has featured at least four  and sometimes as many as eight plausible candidates running for the big prize, leading to some real barnyard brawls in some years.

This might seem surprising, as traditionally it was the Democrats whose Presidential fights were cases of "every man for himself" while the GOP contests were more sedate and generally went for the candidate who was "next in line" for the nomination.  So in 1976 and 1992, the Democrats chose candidates who would have seemed very unlikely to win the prize a year before the convention in the persons of two little-known Southern governors, Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Bill Clinton of Arkansas, in races featuring half a dozen candidates or more.

Things were generally much more sedate on the Republican side.  So in 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon, who was considered the heir apparent to President Eisenhower, was easily nominated with almost no opposition to run against Democrat John F. Kennedy and although Nixon was narrowly beaten in that contest, when he tried again in 1968, he was the frontrunner almost from the beginning in the primary season that year, with only occasional opposition from other Republican figures.

Similarly, in 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush was regarded by many as Ronald Reagan's heir apparent and likewise, although there were a few speed bumps at the beginning, ended up winning the nomination fairly early on.  Then in 1996, after the elder Bush had been beaten for re-election, Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, who had provided the most opposition to George Bush's initial nomination, was chosen to carry the torch for the GOP.

2000 was an exception to the rule as the eventual nominee, Texas governor George W. Bush, was a first time candidate, but one with the strong support of the party establishment.  However, after that, the rule of nominating the next man in line resumed.  Senator John McCain, who had given Bush the strongest opposition eight years earlier, was the nominee in 2008, and four years later, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the main GOP competition for McCain in the previous election,  took the prize in 2012.

Despite the strong tendency of the party to nominate the runner-up in the previous nomination fight, this did not stop other candidates from getting into the race.  By my count, in the years when there was no President Bush seeking re-election, there  were 8 serious candidates in 1988, another 8 in 1996, 6 in 2000, 8 in 2008 and then it jumped up to 12 in 2012.

Then in 2016, the GOP primary race included at one point, 17 candidates running!  This is including, by the way, only candidates who were present or past office holders, or who like Ben Carson, were prominent public figures in another way.  There were so many candidates that the Republican National Committee this year had to set up two different sets of debates, one for first-tier candidates and another for second-tier, otherwise no one candidate would have been able to speak for more than a moment or two without making the debates unreasonably long.

Rick Santorum would probably have been regarded as the second-place finisher to Romney in the 2012 nomination fight and he did run again, but it certainly didn't help him this year, as he failed to gain any traction in the race. The list of candidates including a number of present and ex-Senators and Governors, but none of them were to win the prize either.   Instead the party nominated an eccentric businessman who had inherited his wealth and while Trump was unquestionably a public figure, he was not one who had been, before this year,a political figure in any important way, other than as a donor to political campaigns, including the Senate campaigns of Hillary Clinton, his opponent in the fall election.

In contrast, the size of the Democrats presidential field seem to shrink in recent non-incumbent Presidential  election years.  In 2000, only Vice President Al Gore and Senator Bill Bradley made serious runs for the nomination.  There were 4 serious candidates in 2004, but in 2008, only Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were real contenders and in 2012, only Senator Bernard Sanders offered any significant opposition to the "next-in-line" and eventual nominee Hillary Clinton.

Why, you may ask, do you think that Republican Presidential candidates increased in number in recent years, while the Democrats produced fewer contenders for their nomination?

I think there are two reasons.  One, I can blame on the other side (which is always a pleasure).  The success of long-shot candidates like the Democrats' Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton encouraged Republicans who might not have entered the face to feel that they might have a chance of beating the odds.  The increase of the number of state presidential primaries and caucuses, instigated by the Democrats in the so-called McGovern reforms, greatly changed the previous situation where most presidential delegates had been chosen by state party bosses, also made it easier for initially little-known candidates to target states in the early voting where they thought they might have a special appeal to their electorates and a good chance of winning these contests and gaining as a result the publicity and funding to continue their campaigns.

But you may ask, why does this change in the electoral process not encourage more Democrats to run? The reason for that is also a reason for the increase in the number of Republican candidates, namely, the success since 1994 of the GOP in congressional and local elections.In the 22 years since then, the GOP has controlled the US Senate for all but 8 years and has held a majority of the U.S. House of Representatives for all but four years.  The Republicans have also held the majority of state governorships for all but 5 years of that time, as well as majorities in most of the state legislatures.  This has enabled them to control the drawing of the lines of the congressional and state legislative districts in the states they control, which further reduces the number of Democrat congressmen and officeholders.

The result is that the size of the Democrats' "farm team" of up and coming Senators, governors and congressmenhas been greatly reduced while that of the GOP has grown.  As the expression goes, you can't beat somebody with nobody, so the number of plausible Republican presidential candidates has grown in recent years, while there are fewer and fewer Democrat office holders who can realistically aspire to Presidential stature.

There is also the fact that the Democrats have held the White House for all but 8 of the last 22 years.  When a President of one party holds the White House, he becomes the unquestioned face of and spokesman for his party until he leaves office and it is difficult for any other officeholder of the President's party to escape the President's shadow and gain the public's attention.

So we are seeing more and more Republican candidates for President and fewer and fewer Democrat ones every four years.  This can easily change if the Democrats make a comeback in state and local races, of course.

This multiplicity of candidates on the GOP side is a problem in that it enables a candidate with a relatively small core of dedicated supporters to win the nomination with a bare or less than a majority of the total votes cast in the state presidential primaries, which of course is what happened this year, when Trump gained the top of the Presidential ticket with only 45% of the total votes, despite the fact that he was virtually unopposed in the later primaries.  Mitt Romney,did win a slight majority of 52% of the vote in 2012 and John McCain won 47% of the votes in 2008.  In earlier elections, the winning candidates did much better.  George W. Bush got an overwhelming 62% of the vote in his first race in 2000, Bob Dole 59% in 1996 and George Bush the elder beat his son's total twelve years later by gaining 69% of the Republican primary votes in 1988.  In 1980, Ronald Reagan had gained nearly 60% of the total.  So it appears that there is a trend where the more candidates there are on the GOP side and the longer most of them remain in the race, the smaller the mandate achieved by the eventual plurality winner.

Is there a solution to this problem?  I don't think so, as there is no possible way for the Republicans to formally restrict the number of seekers for the nomination.  The best that can be done is for party leaders to urge individuals who have no plausible chance of winning the nomination to stay out of the race and I can imagine how these leaders would be strongly reluctant to make such appeals.  Perhaps the only solution would be for the Republicans to begin taking such a beating in state and local elections that only a few possible candidates would be available and that is definitely a case of the cure being worse than the disease!