Let’s Root For A Smaller GOP Primary Field In 2016

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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You’ve probably heard former Gov. Jeb Bush is leading in a CNN/ORC poll, and you might be wondering what this all means. First, let’s not get carried away. Bush has huge name recognition (for obvious dynastic reasons) which always inflates early surveys. What is more, at this point in the 2008 cycle, a lot of smart analysts thought Rudy Giuliani would be the nominee (earlier, then-Sen. George Allen had been the odds-on favorite). And lastly, Bush has take formal steps toward “actively running” — which set him apart from the pack.

Aside from Bush’s commanding lead, perhaps an even more interesting finding is that the “establishment” candidates seem to be doing dramatically better than their grassroots conservative counterparts. For example, Bush is at 23 percent and Christie is in second place, at 13 percent. Nobody else cracks double digits.

I can’t help thinking the childish back-and-forth between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul (who essentially trolled Rubio on Twitter) over Cuba, coupled with the recent attempts by Ted Cruz and Mike Lee to block Obama’s immigration order (which hearkened back to the government shutdown) have only served to make the governors and ex-governors look serious in comparison.

Of course, another huge caveat is that this survey is a national survey, yet we do not have a national primary election. It doesn’t matter that Jeb Bush is winning in the polls today, and not just because it’s so early in the cycle. It doesn’t matter because, while he would presumably win in Florida, he might not make it that far if someone else wins Iowa and New Hampshire. And, even more to the point, how will those strong Bush numbers look after a few months of ads about his support of “amnesty” and Common Core?

There are also a ton of variables that could impact Bush’s fortunes, including the number of candidates who decide to run for president. Bill Kristol recently penned a post called “The More the Merrier.” It was partly meant to “troll” Sen. Rand Paul, who is not mentioned as a likely candidate in the piece. But one assumes Kristol’s general thesis, that he hopes for a large field of candidates, is sincere. “Dick Cheney, Tom Cotton, Mitch Daniels, Joni Ernst, Newt Gingrich, and Rudy Giuliani—you’re also more ready than Hillary. If you think you’re the right person .  .  . go for it,” he writes.

This sounds like something I might have written in 2008 — prior to the benefit of having endured two losing cycles where the Republican clown car of candidates made for an ugly primary fight. Donald Trump flirted with running, so we got a plethora of “birther” talk. There was also Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann. Some of these candidates sucked up oxygen, playing into the worst stereotypes about conservatives, and giving the media permission to paint conservatives as out of touch.

Being president is a serious job, and we should not be encouraging people to run whose motives are attention or landing a cable news show. To his credit, Kristol doesn’t encourage people to run just for the heck of it. But another problem with a large field of candidates is that they bring with them a set of unintended consequences. Add another grassroots conservative candidate to the mix and they could split the vote, allowing an establishment candidate to win a state with, say, just 16 percent of the vote.

There’s also the fact that they can sometimes serve as a stalking horse in debates, as Michele Bachmann seemed to do for Mitt Romney in 2012, when she attacked more conservative candidates like Rick Perry.

Speaking of debates, wouldn’t it be great to have a real debate with a few top-tier candidates, for a change. You can’t have much of debate with a dozen people on a stage. But there are real differences to discuss. For example, imagine a field that begins with just Bush, Christie, Walker, Rubio, Cruz, and Paul. I suspect you’d get to have some very serious discussion that would elevate the debate. And — as a bonus — they’d have time to actually say something.

Lastly, it’s simply laughable to suggest that Joni Ernst or Rep. Tom Cotton — who haven’t even been sworn into the U.S. Senate yet — ought to consider running. This is really indicative of the cult of newness (similar to the cult of youth), whereby tenure and legislative or governing experience isn’t terribly valued these days. (I would suggest that the CNN/ORC poll gives me reason for hope, but Dr. Ben Carson — a brilliant neurosurgeon who’s never held political office — is in third place.)

Whether the GOP decides on an establishment candidate with executive experience, or a grassroots conservative U.S. senator, or something else, I think we would all agree for the best candidate to emerge — not be foisted on us by weird circumstances. What is more, it would be best for whomever is the nominee to not inherit the nomination of a party with so much primary baggage as to render winning a General Election impossible.

In his post, Kristol says “the 2016 GOP nominee has a good shot to be president.” On this, we agree. Which is exactly why I hope the GOP doesn’t take his advice. Unless Republicans want to repeat the mistakes of the last two election cycles, only very serious (and qualified) candidates need apply.