No one will blame you if you can’t keep track of the Republican presidential field. It’s huge. If you count declared candidates, prospectives, and announced aspirants, you have 18 people from across the Republican ideological spectrum: Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. Bobby Jindal, Gov. John Kasich, Gov. Rick Snyder, Gov. Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, Rick Perry, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. The field is so large that news networks have put limits on who can join the debates. Fox News, for example, will invite only candidates who placed in the top 10 of an average of national polls. Likewise, CNN will hold two debates: one for top-tier candidates, and one for the bottom tier. (One possible effect of this? Underdog candidates will pull every stunt they can to get onstage.)
Of this gaggle of candidates, however, just three—Bush, Walker, and Rubio—are contenders. Alone among their peers, they have the cash, the elite backing, and the grassroots support needed to win the nomination.
But if that’s true—if just a few people have a shot at actual success—then why is the field so crowded? Why are so many Republicans—especially those who have no chance—running for president?
Some of this is structural. In 2008, Sen. John McCain—the runner-up in 2000—was the “next man in line” for the nomination. In 2012 it was Mitt Romney, who sat through a year of one-hit wonders—Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and eventually Santorum—before clearing the field and taking the prize. This year is different. Santorum, the 2012 runner-up, is anathema to party elites and doesn’t have a dedicated base in the Republican Party. At most, in the last primary, he was the protest vote for anti-Romney conservatives. For the first time in recent memory, there’s no natural choice for the nomination. And while the front-runners—Walker, Bush, and Rubio—are strong, there’s no guarantee they’ll win. A presidential campaign is brutal, exhausting work. But right now, if you have the ambition, there’s no reason not to try. Barring a huge change in national conditions, the eventual nominee has an even chance of winning. You might get lucky.
Which brings us to the personalities in the 2016 presidential race. It’s easy to see why Bush (a two-term former governor and heir to a presidential family), Walker (a two-term governor with national bona fides), and Rubio (a young, charismatic star) would run. But what about factional politicians like Cruz, Huckabee, and Paul, who appeal to modest chunks of the Republican base but don’t have the broad party appeal that wins nominations?
The easy answer is they think they can win. Among conservatives, Cruz is popular and influential. He led House Republicans in a politically quixotic but financially successful drive to shut down the government in opposition to Obamacare, and plays well with conservative audiences, who devour his blend of red meat and erudition. (He likes to cite philosopher John Rawls, for example). With this kind of enthusiasm for your political persona, why wouldn’t you run? And to that point, in the week following his campaign announcement, Cruz raised $31 million and generated millions of social media interactions. His odds are still slim, but like other factional candidates in the past—from Barry Goldwater to George McGovern—he might strike lightning.
The same goes for Paul. Among libertarian-minded Republicans, he’s a phenomenon. His filibusters—of John Brennan in 2013, and most recently, of the Patriot Act—have attracted huge media attention as well as hefty fundraising from supporters. Yes, he’s outside the mainstream on foreign policy for a Republican, but there’s still a chance he could succeed in a primary—at the moment, he holds fourth place in national polls of the GOP presidential race. His aspirations, in other words, make sense. And if he’s doomed to sit in the second tier? Then, with forceful views on surveillance and criminal justice, he can at least pull the field closer to his positions.
The picture is a little different for candidates like Jindal and Christie. They’re also factional—social conservatives and Northeastern moderates, respectively—but neither has a base in the GOP that isn’t already occupied by one or more candidates. Still, they’re two-term governors with conservative success under their belts. Why not run, especially when—in the case of Christie—you were a onetime star? What do you have to lose?
Beyond “you only live once,” there are other reasons for these candidates—and others like them—to enter the ring. If they perform well enough, they have a chance at joining the ticket as vice president; they could make their way into the administration as a top official (this is my hunch for Graham); or, if they build a genuine following, they could turn their presidential campaign into national leadership.
And then there are the vanity candidates (Trump, Cain, and Gingrich in 2012; Carson, Fiorina, and Trump again for 2016) who are running to build their visibility in the conservative ecosystem. With their campaigns, they can build new audiences and find new venues—a Fox News show or customers for a new book. It’s unseemly, but it’s a part of the process like any other.
For us in media, this huge, colorful field is a lot of fun. For Republican Party professionals, it’s a headache that—with a few bumps—could become a nightmare. In the last primary, right-wing rhetoric from marginal candidates was enough of a force to push Romney to the right, forcing him into a pose (“self-deportation”) that didn’t look good in the general election. There’s a great chance this could repeat itself, and give Democrats wide material for an arsenal of negative ads.