A year ago, it looked like 2016 would be a good year to be a Republican.
While the Democrats had pretty much resigned themselves to the reality that Hillary Clinton (and baggage which, despite early polling, made her a general election crapshoot) would win their nomination, the Republicans enjoyed an embarrassment of riches. There were seven multi-term governors, most of whom could point to a record of conservative reforms in purple-to-blue states. There was one freshman Senator whose background as the sone of immigrants read like an instruction manual for acheiving the American dream, and another whose libertarian leanings offered a fresh prism through which to view conservatism. A former CEO and a retired neurosurgeon offered unique and diverse perspectives. Other candidacies, especially those of Lindsey Graham and even Ted Cruz, seemed more like attempts to bring certain issues or viewpoints into the discussion. And other candidates, like Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Jim Gilmore, were obvious grasping for book deals or gainful employment.
But a funny thing happened to the Dream Team on the way to Iowa.
The most obvious element is Donald Trump blowing up the race, but Trump is more accurately labeled a symptom than a disease. The Republican Party came down with what the folks at the Mayo Clinic might call Three Stooges Syndrome: There were so many candidates trying to get through the door, no one made any progress among the electorate.
With so many candidates, it has been easy for a loud, celebrity self-funder like Trump to swoop in and make waves. He didn’t have to spend last summer doing the behind-the-scenes organization building and fundraising that keeps most candidates out of the limelight. When Trump roared, he filled a media vacuum and shot to the front of a crowded field.
He wasn’t – and still isn’t – particularly popular among Republicans. The problem was – and is – that so many candidates in the big crowded field had a legitimate shot to win the nomination with just the right breaks. Even now, there are seven candidates left in the race today and all but Jim Gilmore and Ben Carson can honestly chart a path to victory. Sure, they aren’t all particularly likely paths, but until the money runs out why not give it a try? What does Jeb Bush or John Kasich have to lose by hanging around?
The candidate with the most reason to drop out right now, oddly enough, may be Marco Rubio. His debate gaffe is not necessarily fatal, but it makes his climb a bit steeper. As a relatively young guy, there’s time for him to make a second run in four or eight years after rehabilitating his image. At the same time, he has to look at the primary calendar and think – accurately – that he has a better shot than Bush or Kasich.
Meanwhile, look at even a partial list of people who have already bowed out: Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Perry. In another year, those profiles would make for a compelling primary slate on their own. In this cycle, they are also-rans.