The process of winnowing the Republican presidential field to a few candidates is beginning to take its toll, though the first actual voting won’t occur until February.
In the past, the winnowing process was triggered by New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Those who finished first or second survived as viable candidates. The others could no longer raise money or attract media attention. And their campaigns were finished.
It’s an unforgiving process. A candidate can skip Iowa – next year’s caucuses are on February 1 – as John McCain did with impunity in 2008. But running in New Hampshire is mandatory. So all the Republican candidates will be there next February 9.
But there’s a new player in the winnowing process, the nationally televised debates. An unsteady performance in one or two debates is likely to put a candidate’s future in jeopardy. This is what has happened to Jeb Bush and John Kasich. Earlier the debates drove two major candidates out of the race.
Once the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker began slipping in polls in late summer, came off poorly in the first two Republican debates, and his fundraising dried up. He dropped out on September 21.
Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, withdrew nine days before Walker. He had failed to qualify, based on poll numbers, for the prime time debates. That undermined his effort to recover from a poor showing as a candidate four years earlier, causing his fundraising to nosedive. That, along with Donald Trump’s gobbling up of conservative voters, effectively ended Perry’s campaign.
Now four candidates are all but doomed by having been kept out of the prime time debates. They’ve been relegated to the preliminary debates with far few viewers and less prestige. They are Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, and George Pataki. Jim Gilmore wasn’t even invited to those debates, ruining the prospects for his campaign.
Those five are the walking dead, candidates with little or no chance of rising. Two others – Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie – were sent down on Wednesday to the number two debate. That may have been a fatal blow to Huckabee.
For Christie, there is New Hampshire, where reports indicate he’s picked up support. However, he is one of four candidates who are counting on the Granite State to lift them into first, second, or third in the race. Besides Christie, there are Bush, Kasich, and Carly Fiorina. They all can’t get a boost from New Hampshire, not with Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz standing in their way. Perhaps none will.
Trump, Carson, Cruz, and Rubio have done well – or well enough – in the four debates so far. They also have organizations in critical states and strong fundraising. But the Republican debate scheduled in New Hampshire on February 6 gives the trailing candidates an opportunity to break through.
And the large GOP field and no dominant candidate from the GOP’s mainstream wing means three or four candidates may still be alive after New Hampshire. But that would defy the pattern over the past four decades. In 1988, Jack Kemp came in a distant third to George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole. His candidacy was finished. In 1996, Lamar Alexander finished a close third to Dole and Pat Buchanan and his campaign died.
Yes, the campaign for the 2016 nomination is different. It’s not just the multitude of Republican candidates. The most important difference is the role of the debates and their consequences.