Crowded primary field creates dilemma for GOP leaders

Crowded primary field creates dilemma for GOP leaders

The rapid growth of the GOP presidential field is causing major headaches for party bosses ahead of a primary debate season that begins this summer. 

The dilemma for Reince Priebus, Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman, is stark: If the declared field grows to 18 or 20 candidates, as now looks plausible, how can those numbers be winnowed in a way that seems fair and reasonable rather than arbitrary and undemocratic?


“You’ve got to prevent it from becoming a ‘WWE SmackDown’ event on national television,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “You don’t want to bump everybody off the stage, but you have to realize your overarching goal is protecting the eventual nominee.”

“I would think that Reince Priebus has been thinking about exactly this issue, and also about how to ensure that the debates don’t turn into the ideological bloodfest that we saw in 2012, which pushed the whole ticket to the right,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

Already declared candidates — including Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBiden leans on Obama-era appointees on climate Ethics complaint filed against Biggs, Cawthorn and Gosar over Capitol riot Hawley, Cruz see approval ratings dip in wake of Capitol riot: poll MORE (Texas), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official MORE (Ky.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus Rubio: Biden 'talking like a centrist' but governing 'from the radical left' The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds MORE (Fla.) — are sure bets to get slots, as are former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, both of whom are expected to get in shortly. All are polling well in early surveys. 

But with the GOP field still growing, where is the cutoff? By The Hill’s count there are around 22 candidates who have declared candidacies or may do so.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is the latest GOP figure to leave the door ajar, telling Bloomberg TV on Monday that he is still mulling a run. 

Ohio Gov. John Kasich also talked up a bid last week, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — once a front-runner who has seen his stock tank — is still deciding, too. 

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is expected to announce next week, along with black neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, the only woman who looks likely to join the GOP field. 

Many of these possible candidates can make a credible case for why they should be included, especially as the GOP seeks to broaden its base. 

Snyder, for example, is governor of the nation’s 10th largest state, having won twice in blue-leaning Michigan. But he is scarcely mentioned as a real contender; he barely registers in polls, if he’s included at all. 

Other possible candidates include South Carolina Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair McConnell proposes postponing impeachment trial until February MORE; businessman Donald TrumpDonald TrumpNYT: Rep. Perry played role in alleged Trump plan to oust acting AG Arizona GOP censures top state Republicans McCain, Flake and Ducey Biden and UK prime minister discuss NATO, multilateralism during call MORE; Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Mike Pence of Indiana; former Govs. Rick Perry of Texas, George Pataki of New York, Bob Ehrlich of Maryland and Jim Gilmore of Virginia; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton; and New York Rep. Pete King.

There is also the question of diversity to consider for Republicans, whose party is repeatedly painted as a redoubt of older white men. 

A very large debate stage with only Rubio and Cruz offering ethnic diversity might tempt GOP leaders to try to ensure the inclusion of either Carson, who has a passionate following, or Fiorina, who has proven to be an aggressive critic of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden must wait weekend for State Department pick Texas Supreme Court rejects Alex Jones request to toss lawsuits from Sandy Hook parents Paris Agreement: Biden's chance to restore international standing MORE, even if their polling numbers are unspectacular.

“It is important to have some diversity on the stage, but it is not going to last very long in the cases of Fiorina and Carson,” Jillson predicted.

Put it all together, and it poses a real dilemma for the RNC. The first televised debate is already set for August in Ohio on Fox News. The following three months will see further encounters in California on CNN, in Colorado on CNBC and in Wisconsin on Fox Business.

Discussions are understood to be underway between the networks and the RNC as to how the field might be narrowed down to a manageable size. Most observers assume some kind of poll-rating threshold will need to be met in order for a candidate to earn his or her place on the debate stage. 

It is also possible that fundraising strength could be factored in, although applying that yardstick, even in conjunction with others, would seem to be problematic for a party often portrayed by liberals as having an overly cozy relationship with super wealthy donors.

RNC spokeswoman Allison Moore would say only the attempt to find a practical solution was “a work in progress.”

It is expected, however, that the RNC will issue the criteria for inclusion a considerable time in advance of the first debate. Releasing the rules only on the brink of that initial encounter would leave party bosses vulnerable to accusations of reverse engineering the rules to choose the field they want.

Some independent observers, however, note that even the basic measure of using poll ratings to disqualify contenders from the debate stage is questionable.

During the 2012 cycle, Santorum was polling very poorly early on, only to win the Iowa caucuses and become the most serious intraparty challenger to eventual nominee Mitt Romney. 

He ultimately proved a much stronger contender than others who enjoyed early polling waves, including businessman Herman Cain and then-Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannEvangelicals shouldn't be defending Trump in tiff over editorial Mellman: The 'lane theory' is the wrong lane to be in White House backs Stephen Miller amid white nationalist allegations MORE (Minn.).

“Early on, it’s a name-recognition game when it comes to polling,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “If you are going to say you have to meet a certain polling criteria, then it really becomes a question of ‘who becomes best-known?’ or ‘who has just broken into a news cycle?’ ”