And Then There Were 13... Or 10? Or Maybe 9?

[ Posted Tuesday, August 29th, 2023 – 16:26 UTC ]

Way back in 2015, late-night television's Stephen Colbert had a ritual bit he'd run every time a presidential candidate dropped out of the race. Using the impressive ceiling in his studio, he projected an image of the also-ran candidate à la how the deaths of each "tribute" in The Hunger Games were announced. He called it the "Hungry For Power Games." Of course, earlier this year, late-night television was the first to go dark when the Hollywood writers went on strike, so we can't expect this sort of thing in the current campaign until they are all back at work (and being paid better). Which is a shame, because the Republican presidential field is already beginning to narrow. Today, the mayor of Miami, Francis Suarez, became the first to officially drop out of the race.

You might be thinking to yourself: "Who?" -- and you would not be alone. Suarez wasn't exactly a national name to begin with, and after spending a few months campaigning for the highest office in the land, he still isn't (not by a longshot). He was pretty obviously running to raise his own profile in Florida, perhaps to run for a higher office there one day. In other words, it was a good way to build a little home-state name recognition, even if it didn't work to any noticeable effect north of the Florida-Georgia line. Unless he goes on to bigger and brighter things one day, Francis Suarez won't even make the cut as a future answer on Jeopardy! (although he could conceivably show up in the toughest of political bar quizzes... probably as the answer to: "Which obscure Republican candidate in the 2024 race answered an interview question about China by asking: 'What's a Uyghur?' and then later in the interview exposed his ignorance even further with: 'What did you call it, a Weeble?'").

The one truly salient footnote Suarez added to the 2024 race was to call for all candidates who do not make it onto the Republican primary stages (due to not meeting the Republican National Committee's criteria) to immediately drop out of the race. Suarez did not make it onto the stage of last week's kickoff Republican debate, and so it was truly incumbent upon him (pun most definitely intended) to faithfully follow his own advice. He has now done so, and by doing so he has set a sterling example -- one that all the other Republicans in the race who don't have a prayer of winning should indeed follow.

The Republican nomination race is now down to 13 candidates. Or perhaps it is 10? Or maybe 9? It all depends on where you draw the line between actual candidates (with an honest possibility of getting people to vote for them) and the vanity and crank candidates. Wikipedia draws this line at 13 remaining GOP candidates. The Real Clear Politics site only gives polling data for 10 of them, however. But only nine of them qualified for the first GOP debate (only eight showed up, but Donald Trump also easily qualified).

The difference between all of these lists is, at the present moment, trivial -- since not one of the four candidates who did not make the debate cut is drawing any sort of voter support. To put this another way, it doesn't really matter whether they drop out or continue their quixotic campaigns because it won't have any impact on the real race. The only one that Real Clear Politics lists polling info for, Will Hurd, has a current polling average of 0.3 percent and the highest poll number he has ever hit has been one percent (rounded up, no doubt). The other three Wikipedia entries who have precisely zero chance of winning the nomination are: Ryan Binkley, Larry Elder, and Perry Johnson ("Who?... Who?... and: Who?"). Their staying in the race versus dropping out isn't going to make a whit of difference, obviously.

But still, it would be nice to see them all make graceful exits nonetheless. If one or more of them followed the lead of Suarez and announced that there was no possible way they were going to qualify for the second debate and therefore they were suspending their campaigns, then it would pave the way for the next tier of candidates to drop out, when their time comes.

So far, this next tier is likely to consist of two candidates: Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum. They are the ones most in danger of not making the second debate stage. Hutchinson is trying to project confidence, announcing he saw a donor surge after his first debate performance, while Burgum can easily self-fund his own campaign and thus doesn't really have to worry so much about donors (other than clearing the "50,000 minimum donors" bar for the second debate). But if they don't make it, their decision to stay in or bow out is going to be a critical turning point in the GOP race.

I've written about this before. The only way any Republican is going to beat Donald Trump is if the race seriously narrows, very early in the primary schedule. And the only way that is going to happen is if the pressure on the stumbling candidates becomes intense -- from donors, from rightwing media, from the party establishment -- to drop out and clear the field for others who have a better shot at dethroning Trump. Pressure from other candidates who have already dropped out would only add to this mix.

There are really only six candidates who can conceivably be said to have such a shot: Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, and Tim Scott. And, for varying reasons, most of them (with the obvious exception of Christie) might not mind being a spoiler for any possible other non-Trump candidate. Some of them are pretty obviously running for Trump's veep nod, to state the biggest of these reasons.

Which is why even though he was and forever will be barely even a footnote, seeing Francis Suarez drop out -- and by doing so make good on a very tough campaign promise to keep -- was at least a little bit heartening to see. The real question is going to be who follows him, and how quickly they do. That's what the Republican presidential nomination contest is going to hinge on, because it will likely determine whether anyone will have a clear shot at stopping Trump from winning it again.


[Supplemental Note: If you didn't see them back then, or if you've forgotten how funny they were, here is Stephen Colbert mourning the loss of "Jeb!" Bush as a candidate in his "Hungry For Power Games" spoof. It's well worth the five minutes it takes to watch it!]

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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