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From The Archives -- The GOP Race At The Bottom

[ Posted Thursday, May 25th, 2023 – 17:16 UTC ]

Sorry folks, but there will be no new column today. I had to deal with some real-world stuff (car, etc.) and also will be preparing for tomorrow's column later, so I just didn't have the bandwidth to write a new one today. But there seem to be an adequate number of people commenting on how bad the Ron DeSantis "failure to launch" event was yesterday, and the temptation to write about it again would probably have been too much for me today, so I guess the rest of the internet already has that subject adequately covered.

Instead, just because I was curious, I went back eight years to May of 2015, just to see what I was saying about the state of the presidential horserace back then. I came across this column -- published eight years ago tomorrow -- where I reviewed the state of the Republican nomination race. Astonishingly, there was one prominent name missing. Which means I have to live down having written the following line, back then: "[Donald] Trump would be (quite obviously) nothing more than a vanity candidate...." We all had to eat a few words in 2015, and that was just one early embarrassing example from my own keyboard, I fully admit.

In any case, the reason I thought I'd re-run something from back then is for the object lesson: nobody now knows what is going to happen -- at least not at this point in the calendar. We've all got a long way to go. Eight years ago, we were all wondering if Jeb Bush had already wrapped it all up. Eight years from now, whatever we're all thinking now might be just as laughable. Just something to keep in mind, that's all....


Originally published May 26, 2015

Please note that today's headline does not refer to a GOP race "to the bottom," but rather "at the bottom." Examining Republicans racing towards the bottom (however you define that concept) would be an entirely different subject, but what I'm talking about today is what is likely to become the most fierce fighting within the Republican Party's primary campaign -- the race at the very bottom of the polling -- because it will soon have an outsized importance for the overall contest to see which Republican will become the presidential nominee.

The Republican National Committee has (so far) successfully ducked responsibility for what is shaping up to be a very contentious issue: who, exactly, is allowed on stage at the Republican debates. They've essentially passed this baton to Fox News, which will be hosting the first debate of the season (on the sixth of August). Fox recently announced that they'll only allow 10 candidates on their stage, to be determined by an average of the five most recent nationwide polls. This is a lot of candidates, to be sure, but even so, the Republican field is expected to have somewhere around 15 candidates (perhaps as low as 14, but also perhaps even more than 16). This means some are guaranteed to be left out in the cold.

Now, I don't blame Fox for limiting the field in such a fashion. If there were only, say, six candidates and they decided to exclude one or two of them, a good argument could be made that it would be discriminatory towards a possibly-viable candidate. However, with over a dozen vying for stage space, the debates themselves could turn into nothing but allowing two or maybe three soundbite answers from each candidate -- which would diminish the impact of even having debates in the first place. If 15 candidates were on stage in a 90-minute debate, this would mean each would only proportionally get six minutes of speaking time -- minus the time it took to ask the questions. Even with only 10 onstage, it still means an average of only nine minutes each -- not much time to lay out a platform, or even make a name for yourself.

What will get very interesting is the jockeying for the final few positions above "the cut." While there will be at least five or six candidates who are clearly in the front ranks, the real fighting is likely to be over the eighth, ninth, and tenth spots. To see why, let's take a look at the posted current polling averages (numbers taken from RealClearPolitics):

15.4 percent (average) -- Jeb Bush
13.2 -- Scott Walker
13.2 -- Marco Rubio
9.2 -- Rand Paul
8.6 -- Mike Huckabee
8.6 -- Ted Cruz
7.8 -- Ben Carson
5.4 -- Chris Christie

Those are the top eight candidates, as the polling stands today. All have a shot at gaining a sudden bump in polling to put them into "frontrunner" status. A few of them haven't even officially announced their candidacies yet, and high-profile candidates usually get at least a mini "bounce" in the polls when they announce.

But after this top rank (and middle rank, depending on your definition), there is a pretty sharp dropoff in polling numbers. Here is the lower end of the scale:

2.4 -- Rick Perry
2.3 -- Rick Santorum
2.0 -- John Kasich
1.3 -- Carly Fiorina
1.3 -- Bobby Jindal
1.3 -- Lindsey Graham

You'll immediately note a few things about this lower-tier list. The first is that not everybody's on it. George Pataki (for example) is rumored to be announcing his candidacy this week, but hasn't been included in many pollster's lists of candidates yet, so it's impossible to know what his numbers will turn out to be. Which brings up another unfairness question even with the data so far collected -- not every name in this bottom tier has been included on every poll. So the data at this point has to be seen as incomplete, at best. The other thing worth noting is that sometimes making an official announcement doesn't automatically mean getting any sort of bump in the polls. Carly Fiorina announced a few weeks back, but has never seen the slightest surge in her polling as a direct result. The Republican base is not catching fire for Carly, it seems. The final thing worth noting from the raw numbers is the gap between this list of candidates and the top tier. While Chris Christie could be included on either list (he splits the big gap, to put it another way), as either the top of the bottom tier or the bottom of the top tier, the difference between Ben Carson's 7.8 percent and Rick Perry's 2.4 percent is a significantly wide one.

But, to get back to the overall point, Fox is only allowing the top 10 to participate. Currently, this cut would allow Rick Santorum on the stage while barring John Kasich from participating. These two are separated by only 0.3 percent, though, a much tighter margin than (say) the difference between Christie and Perry.

What this could mean is a bruising battle for the final slots on the Fox debate stage. This might motivate all the candidates polling under five percent to begin attacking each other rather than the higher-rated Republicans, in an effort to secure one of the final debate slots. This might become especially acute when the final list of all declared candidates is known.

The easiest example of this might be if Donald Trump jumps in the race. Trump would be (quite obviously) nothing more than a vanity candidate, but just name recognition alone might vault him to over five percent in the polling. He'd certainly then make a tempting target for those candidates polling at two or three percent. Tearing down Trump's popularity might mean a coveted debate slot, in other words.

Even without an obvious target like "The Donald," though, there may be a fiercely-fought battle at the lower end of the Republican polling list. For a little-known candidate, debates can be crucial. They allow the candidate to make a big splash with one or two unique positions that get all the other candidates talking (and following a minor candidate's lead). Just on the name-recognition factor alone, debates can be the only real way to launch a little-known candidate into the national spotlight.

The other side of this coin is pretty grim, because it can be nothing more than a downward spiral. If a candidate doesn't make it into the debates, then they are seen as not really viable. Without the debate spotlight, it can be impossible for minor candidates to make any sort of splash in the public eye. This represents a real Catch-22 situation, because the only way to get a bump in the polls (and qualify for future debates) can be to make a splash in a debate. With no chance to share the stage with the big name candidates, this can become an impossibility. Which condemns the minor candidate to continued lethargic poll numbers, which bars them from ever attaining one of those coveted debate slots.

There has already been some worried talk from Republicans that the debate cutoff means their claims to a diverse selection of candidates will be reduced. Currently, three minorities are in the top tier (Cruz, Rubio, and Carson), but a big "diversity candidate" will be left out in the cold (Fiorina, the only Republican woman running). This is one reason why the Republican National Committee is relieved to have Fox News set the bar, rather than themselves (because they can then use "the people decided, not us" as a handy excuse).

Personally, though, I think it'll be very interesting to see how the Republican candidates behave over the summer, especially when we get closer to the beginning of August (when those national polls will start to qualify for the Fox cutoff measurement). If we've got eight or nine candidates fighting for two or three debate slots, they may all decide it's a better idea to start sniping at each other, rather than at Jeb Bush and the rest of the frontrunners. By differentiating yourself at the bottom of the pack, you might just gain a chance to launch yourself into the higher ranks. And that could prove to be irresistible, making the race at the bottom the fiercest part of the battle for the Republican nomination.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


28 Comments on “From The Archives -- The GOP Race At The Bottom”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    I'll be praying for your car to grow a new catalytic converter. Wow, i can barely remember the times before Donald turned politics into what it is now...

  2. [2] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    ... and on reflection, donald didn't really change politics per se, he just pulled the curtain back and exposed what it had already become.

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Joshua, is this site winding down, do you think? I never did get any confirmation that my last donation was received and comments are being turned off more frequently. Hoping it isn't the case ...

    Happy Memorial Day, everyone! Hoping y'all find ways to come together just like you've done on yet another debt limit crisis.

  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    I hope not too. CW is still the best political columnist in the universe, so the only excuse for this blog shutting down should be that he got a gig at the Times or a major book deal.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Well, that would be phenomenal!!!

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I have always hoped that this blog would expand its readership to include people of all political stripes that love to engage in a little fun back and forth without all the excess nonsense you can find anywhere on the internet(s) if that is what you're lookin' for. This place has had its moments over the years but has never really hit its stride.

    I have invited one or two people to participate - from both sides of the greatest border in the world - but I can't say I've been surprised they haven't stayed long enough to participate in a lively debate. Maybe that could still happen ...

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I'm sorry but, how many freakin' "spring offensives" will the Ukrainian people have to endure!? This is beyond ridiculous.

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    ... er, "spring counteroffensives". Whatever. It's still ridiculous. And, any military analyst or political leader in the Great West knows exactly what I'm talking about.

    On the bright side, the weapons manufacturers are working overtime and raking it in. Of course, the planet is becoming less and less habitable, anyways - war or no war.

  9. [9] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Ukraine have to defend themselves. Russia has never had to invade.

    Putin has been claiming since before the millennium that Ukraine as a nation doesn't exist, and has made it crystal clear that he fully intends to make that belief a reality. Yet, a fair number of armchair diplomats seem to regard the military expression of said intent as something which could potentially have been avoided with something other than armed forces. I regard this view as delusional, given a quarter century of evidence to the contrary.


  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    What's delusional is that Ukraine is going to come out of this mess in a better position than before February 24, 2022 as a manageable regional security challenge has been transformed into an international crisis with far-reaching consequences on any number of fronts.

    It is also delusional to ignore how the Great West is using Ukraine as a sacrificial lamb in its quest to weaken Russia and its economy. Economically speaking, Germany and Great Britain are currently faring worse than Russia. Ahem.

    The problem here is not with the armchair diplomats - it rests instead with the so-called diplomatic and geo-political expertise that ostensibly resides in the US State Department, not to mention the White House.

  11. [11] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    That's a straw man argument; no one would rationally argue that Ukraine could be better off for having been invaded. The regional security challenge was not all that manageable, however. If it were, someone would have managed to manage it.

    Neither armchair diplomats not real ones are the problem, whatever their beliefs about weakening the Russian economy. When Putin came to power in 1999 the die was already cast - his intentions were clear to anyone who listened to him speak. He's been telling us who he is and what he'll do for literally 24 years. No other error has been greater than our failure to believe him.

  12. [12] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    So the question remains ... why was the manageable security challenge not effectively managed. Why is the US not capable of providing global leadership. I could go on.

    Yes, Putin's intentions and demands have been crystal clear for years. His red line has always been that Ukraine not be in NATO. But, for decades, Biden and his neo con friends have been working towards that very prospect. Which leads us back to why has the manageable security challenge not been managed effectively. Three guesses and the first two don't count! :)

  13. [13] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    No, Liz. Putin's intentions are and always have been reestablishment of the Soviet bloc. NATO expansion has been a convenient excuse, but if it weren't available he'd have found some other pretext. His designs are neither regional nor manageable, and never have been.

  14. [14] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    NATO expansion, especially into UKRAINE, is all about curtailing the reestablishment of the Soviet bloc!!! So, the two are very much intertwined, in other words.

    If Ukraine's future membership in NATO - something that was very arguably NEVER gonna happen BEFORE Putin's invasion miscalculation - was NOT framed as being sacrosanct and decidedly 'off the table' by Biden and the rest of the Great West, then would Putin have invaded anyway? Who the Hell knows. But, Biden et al. damn sure guaranteed that we'd never find out.

    This has been my point all along and how this whole thing has been horribly mismanaged, especially by the guy who I had expected much better from.

  15. [15] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    By the way, I have never stated that Putin's designs were regional or manageable. Those are the words I used to describe the geopolitical situation in Ukraine before Putin's invasion ... just to be clear.

    Of course, I have been terribly guilty of overestimating the capability and ability of the US and Biden to manage much of anything, let alone a manageable regional security challenge. Ahem.

  16. [16] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    You've got your cause and effect backward. Since their 1991 declaration of independence, Putin has been single-minded in his goal of subjugating Ukraine again, by any means at his disposal. When Putin ally Yanukovych was caught cheating in the elections and lost control of the country in 2004, Putin immediately began concurrent campaigns of disinformation and saber rattling. His aggression drove NATO and Ukraine to consider membership, not the other way around, and one could hardly blame them, especially now that we see the ultimate result.

  17. [17] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    there was tension from the very beginning,


    The path to war began in 2004

  18. [18] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    It’s a pity that you never engaged with me whence I have REPEATEDLY pointed out how and why you’ve been so delusional about naked Russian revanchist. Therefore, I have to regard you as a Putin Apologist due to your ignorance.

    Slava Ukrini

  19. [19] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Stop wasting my time.

  20. [20] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    The roots of this war in Ukraine go back a very long way, before 2004 even. But, that doesn't mean that this war was inevitable.

    Who do you suppose was behind Ukraine's Orange revolution? You simply cannot ignore how the US has been working in overdrive since before 2004 to curtail Putin and his misguided vision surrounding his efforts to re-establish the Soviet Bloc.

  21. [21] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Well, it wasn't george w. bush's doing, that's for certain. the idea that ukraine's movement for independence from russia was a western plot is all in putin's head. he just couldn't process the fact that his concept of ukraine culturally being part of russia was mistaken.

    since 1991, ukraine has been pretty consistent in its desire to chart its own course, independent of russia. 2004 was a turning point, but it certainly wasn't the only one.

  22. [22] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Not a Western plot, Joshua, a US imperative. :)

  23. [23] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    And, certainly not a figment of Putin's imaginings.

  24. [24] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    What we need here, for starters, is a thorough look at the history of US involvement in Ukraine's desires.

  25. [25] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Plot, imperative, whatever label you want to use, do you have any evidence whatsoever that the US did anything at all to influence either the orange or euro maidan revolutions other than cheerleading from the sidelines?

    If so, kindly share it. If not, kindly retract your statement that US interference was "not a figment of Putin's imaginings"

  26. [26] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    based on everything I have seen so far, it absolutely was. But I'm open to being proven wrong.

  27. [27] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I just have the news reports I was following at the time and articles written in foreign policy journals by people who know more than I do. And, don't ask for references - it was a long time ago. But, I suppose I could spend time I don't have trying to find some. ;)

    In other words, all I've got is my, ah, informed opinions. If that's not good enough for discussion on this blog, then I'm sorry 'cause that's all I got. I haven't any personal experience or other tangible evidence that may or may not meet with your approval.

  28. [28] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    If anyone thinks the US was merely cheering from the sidelines on any substantial geopolitical issue, well, that surprises me.

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