On Monday, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina became the sixth and seventh candidates to join the GOP presidential field. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is expected to make it eight on Tuesday, and another dozen candidates of varying degrees of credibility are jostling each other at the edge of the pool, deciding whether or not to jump in.
Ask Republican activists about the increasingly crowded field, and you’ll hear happy talk about how “wide and deep” the GOP’s bench is. But it’s hard to believe that worries about an unwieldy primary field and visions of debate stages crammed with a dozen lecterns aren’t haunting the dreams of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
The 2012 Republican primary was, by all accounts, significantly damaging to the eventual candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He was forced further to the right than he probably wanted to go, and had to endure weeks of internecine warfare that cost a lot of time and money.
Priebus has already pledged to assert more control over the debate process this time around. Back in January, he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that candidates looking to participate in the nine-to-12 debates sanctioned by the RNC would need to hit certain polling thresholds to earn a spot on the debate stage, and that the field would be culled that way.
The obvious subtext was that the RNC desperately wants to avoid a repeat of 2012, when “clown car” analogies frequently accompanied discussions of the GOP field. But the expanding roster of GOP candidates seems to be driving the party in exactly that direction.
“You have the potential for it to become a circus up on the debate stage,” said Republican campaign strategist Ford O’Connell. “It’s going to be difficult to avoid that.”
Here’s the problem: The presidential map is a tough one for the Republicans. The Democrats start with a huge Electoral College advantage when you divide up the states that reliably vote for each party. That means winning will require keeping all solidly Republican states red, and convincing multiple swing states that have recently gone to the Democrats to vote Republican instead.
Doing that, in turn will require scraping together as many votes as possible. But if the GOP wants to drive turnout, it also needs to avoid offending voters in the early going by barring their chosen candidates – or at least candidates who speak directly to their concerns – from even getting a place on the debate stage.
“That’s the problem right there,” O’Connell said. “To win the presidential election what Republicans have to do is increase their appeal to Hispanic voters, bring every white working class voter into the tent, and try to stop the bleeding with single women under 50.”
At the same time, he said, the party has to engage its traditional base of establishment Republicans, its vocal Tea Party minority, as well as independent-minded Libertarians and social conservatives.
Because no individual is likely to emerge as the consensus choice of all these various groups, the task for the GOP is to run a nominating process that doesn’t alienate groups such as social conservatives or Tea Partiers, by not even giving them a voice during the debates.
And there are other concerns as well. What if Carson and Fiorina, he the only African American and she the only woman currently running, fail to hit the arbitrary cutoff number? Is it worth adding a couple of extra microphones to the podium to avoid the prospect of a Republican field made up solely of middle-aged white men?
When he announced the preliminary debate schedule earlier this year, Priebus said, “The 2016 cycle is underway, and I can tell you it will be a landmark election for Republicans. By constructing and instituting a sound debate process, it will allow candidates to bring their ideas and vision to Americans in a timely and efficient way.”
Like a lot of construction projects, though, this one looks likely to be more complicated than it looks, and – politically speaking – to be more expensive than anybody wanted.
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