The huge field of Republican presidential contenders is helping Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE maintain a big lead in the race for the GOP presidential nomination — and Trump's position makes it less likely candidates will drop out, Republicans say.
Buoyed by super-PACs, many presidential candidates have more money than in previous cycles to handle long campaigns. A single "sugar-daddy" donor can keep a struggling campaign afloat.
Many of the candidates also believe that Trump — who enjoys a double-digit lead over the 16 other big names in the race — will falter, and that they need to stay in the race to be his successor.
“As long as Trump is in the race, most of these candidates won’t see any reason to get out,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
Many Republicans still believe Trump will not become the party's nominee. They argue that he’s benefitting from a media frenzy, and that large swaths of the conservative electorate would never even consider voting for him.
Furthermore, Republicans say Trump’s past support for liberal causes, and his penchant for controversial remarks, will ultimately sink him.
That line of thinking could keep many of the GOP contenders hanging around, seeking to peel voters from Trump’s substantial base of support in the case that he implodes.
However, Republicans say Trump will continue to benefit from having more than a dozen candidates splitting the vote behind him.
“It’s definitely a net plus for Trump that the field remains so large,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist. “Support for the other candidates is completely fractured right now.”
Some in the party hope the field will winnow, potentially paving the way for a handful of what insiders have deemed “more electable” candidates to consolidate support and cut into Trump's lead.
Political watchers expect a few bottom-dwellers will exit the race before the end of the year, but say there could still be a dozen candidates running deep into next March, when the debates finally wrap up and the contests turn from awarding delegates proportionally to winner-takes-all.
And with huge sums of money flowing into super-PACs, the candidates will have the financial means to stick around.
“In the past you’d get out because you run out of money. That’s changed,” O’Connell said. “Now you just need a small strike force of five or 10 people and enough money to book a coach ticket on Southwest. You can sit back and rely on the super-PAC to land the haymaker.”
Trump has rocketed to the top of the polls nationally, in the early-voting states and increasingly on the home turfs of other top contenders in states like Florida and Texas.
He has led the field in national polls, according to the RealClearPolitics average, for more than a month now, and been above the 20 percent mark since late July, when he has largely led the field by double digits.
If Trump can maintain the floor of support he has consolidated heading into the early-state primaries and caucuses, and if low-polling candidates stick around on the strength of their supporting super-PACs, the businessman and reality TV star will be in good shape once voting starts in Iowa on Feb. 1.
“When you’ve got this many candidates in the field, all you need is 20 percent to lead the way,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster and veteran of Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign.
The fight for support behind Trump finds a cluster of candidates all within the margin of error or within striking distance of one another.
Fiorina is riding a wave of support in the wake of her strong performance at the first GOP undercard debate, adding fuel to the notion that a surge in the polls is only a debate performance away.
The Republican debates will continue through March of next year.
“You saw how that first debate shook things up,” Winston said. “That will happen after every debate. For these candidates, knowing that they have the ability to change the equilibrium on that scale is a huge component as they develop their strategies.”
Rather than obsessing over the carve-out states, several candidates have begun mapping out paths that go deeper into the contest, signaling the field may not winnow as it traditionally has after the first round of early voting in February.
Sen. Ted Cruz has called the “SEC primary” – the cluster of Southern states that will vote on March 1 – his “firewall.” And Sen. Rand Paul this week is campaigning in Alaska, Washington and Wyoming, where caucus dates have not been set yet. He’ll also swing through Idaho, where the primary is March 8, and Utah, where the caucuses begin March 15.
With so many in the race, candidates could seek to rack up delegates in late-voting states to use as chits at the convention, even if they’re otherwise not much of a factor in the race.
Still, there are limitations to this long game.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is already testing the limits of how far a super-PAC can take a candidate. The Perry campaign has stopped paying its workers because of a money shortage, even while a trio of supporting super-PACs has hauled in nearly $17 million so far this year.
Right now, only Bush and Cruz are believed to have enough money in their super-PACs to last deep into the primary season and influence races in places like Florida, the first winner-take-all-state, where costs for media buys are already skyrocketing ahead of the March 15 primary.
And while the super-PACs backing several candidates are flush with cash in the early going, “nobody is getting new money for a super-PAC after February unless their winning,” according to Mackowiak.
Many believe that past precedents will hold -- that the field will narrow in the wake of the carve-out state contests as the party coalesces around a defined group of front-runners and the media moves on from those who aren’t notching victories.
“At the end of the day, I still think our nominee will be someone who wins one of the first three states,” he said. “The money and support and media will go to people winning those early contests. From a scientific standpoint, a badly damaged candidate might still have a political heartbeat, but if you’re not growing, at some point they’ll stop inviting you on to the Sunday shows and debate stage.”
There will be pressure on candidates to drop out if they’re not winning or if they’re underperforming in states where expectations are high, particularly if Trump is still in the lead and the party moves to consolidate around someone who is viewed as a better general election candidate.
Still, the sum total has strategists and analysts at least acknowledging that the race for the nomination may not be settled by the time the convention rolls around in July.
“I’m not thinking much about a brokered convention at this point,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. “But certainly this time around, the argument that we’re headed there has a little more teeth.”