Home/Daniel Larison/How the GOP Ended Up with Too Many 2016 Candidates

How the GOP Ended Up with Too Many 2016 Candidates

Michael Brendan Dougherty looks back at the Republican candidates from the last two cycles and sees nothing but wreckage:

Just think of how many Republican governors have gone to the political graveyard in the last five years, simply because the field was too crowded or they ran into an ugly matchup. Arguably the two figures who had the most success implementing Republican policy ideas, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry, have likely torched any ambitions they have for high federal office. One branding problem or a bad debate becomes unfixable. Jeb Bush, a moderately successful governor, was able to soak up a ton of intellectual and financial resources in his run, but newcomer Trump became his political kryptonite. Tim Pawlenty and Scott Walker tried to run as frontrunners early in their successive cycles, only to discover that with so many candidates vying for donors, they could not keep up momentum.

I agree that there were too many Republican candidates running for president this year. One reason this happened is that Republican pundits and activists keep lowering the standards for acceptable presidential candidates, and another is that the same people consistently exaggerate and oversell the abilities and qualifications of the party’s latest group of new political leaders. In the 2016 cycle, they treated practically every current or former two-term governor as a credible presidential candidate, and the would-be candidates’ lack of preparation on foreign policy (among other things) was never counted against any of them. When almost any officeholder is taken seriously as a potential nominee, there are bound to be too many contestants.

It’s true that Pawlenty and Walker both acted like top-tier candidates and created expensive, unsustainable campaign organizations as a result, but neither of them should have been elevated to that top-tier status in the first place. Movement conservatives have an odd habit of trying to promote new political talent too quickly and they usually overrate the politicians that they happen to like. That encourages many people that would never have tried running for president in a previous era to enter the race.

The size of the field certainly made it harder for some of the more obscure and first-time candidates, but we shouldn’t forget the candidates’ own significant weaknesses when accounting for their failure. Perry never got any traction in his second campaign, but supposing that he had it is unlikely that he would have fared any better than the other pro-immigration candidates that stayed in longer. The 2016 campaign marked the formal end of many Republican political careers, but in many cases those careers were otherwise already finished. Did Jindal do so poorly because the field was too large or because he had presided over a fiscal disaster in his home state? Rubio wasn’t ready to be president, and it showed during a campaign he should never have run. No one was forcing Rubio to run this year, but he was already tired of being in the Senate and seemed to buy into the media hype about his prospects. His national political career is very likely over now, and in the end he has no one but himself to blame for that.

Another factor that often gets overlooked in all this is the influence of the conservative media in creating an imaginary political landscape in which Obama is perceived as a deeply unpopular failure. We saw how that affected Republicans in the 2012 cycle, when almost everyone in the party was so confident that Obama would lose. Almost all of the 2016 candidates have been working on the same assumption that the electorate is eager to repudiate Obama. That must have made the Republican nomination seem that much more attractive to a larger number of politicians and others. I assume that this also explains why so many Republican voters are getting behind Trump and Cruz, neither of whom appears to have a prayer of winning the general election under current conditions. The same overconfidence in a Republican victory that encouraged so many candidates to enter the race has also led most Republican voters to back the candidates that are among the most likely to lose the election.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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