The size of the 2016 Republican presidential field, 15 and growing, has created dizzying unpredictability in the race, making it harder for the eventual nominee to corral wide support.
From Jeb Bush’s vantage point, having 14 Republican rivals gives him a chance to look even-keeled and experienced among an array of attention-seekers and newcomers. For Marco Rubio, the older, whiter faces let him stand out as young, Hispanic — different. Donald Trump looks like a truth-teller (or a hothead) compared with the typically buttoned-up politicians running, while Scott Walker wants to come across as the most electable of the hard-right conservatives in the race.
For all of them, the size of the 2016 Republican presidential field is creating extraordinary opportunities to win primaries and delegates next winter with only slivers of the vote, contributing to the dizzying volatility and unpredictability of the race, and making it potentially harder for the eventual nominee to demonstrate a breadth of Republican support.
In Iowa, where the free-for-all will be on display Saturday as 10 of the Republicans participate in a forum in Ames, so many candidates will be competing in the caucus that one may win with a historically low 20 percent of the vote, according to predictions from Republican officials such as Gov. Terry Branstad. After that will come the New Hampshire primary, where several Republicans believe 25 to 30 percent of the vote could be enough to triumph, compared with 39 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012 and 37 percent for John McCain in 2008.
Declared GOP candidates
• Jeb Bush
• Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida
• Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
• Donald Trump
• Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas
• Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky
• Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon
• Rick Perry
• N.J. Gov. Chris Christie
• Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal
• Mike Huckabee
• Rick Santorum
• Carly Fiorina
• Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina
• George Pataki
McClatchy Washington Bureau
“The huge number of candidates is making this the most unpredictable nominating race that Republicans have ever seen,” said Phillip Straight, a New Hampshire state representative whose endorsement is being sought by several candidates. “It could be the year of the dark horse. All you may need is 25 percent of the vote to get all the political momentum that comes with being the winner of the New Hampshire primary.”
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The crowded field, which is expected to add Gov. John Kasich of Ohio next week and Jim Gilmore, the former governor of Virginia, in early August, is already yielding winners and losers. Bush, the former Florida governor, and Rubio, a senator from Florida, are ahead in scooping up the relatively limited supply of top Republican strategists and organizers in crucial states who have experience winning primaries there.
Those two men, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have also been the most formidable at fundraising. Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey are late to the game, by comparison, and finding that many top donors are committed elsewhere or are holding out to see how the race unfolds.
Several Republicans are expected to be excluded from the debates to make those events manageable and productive. And some candidates are simply struggling to attract attention from voters and the news media.
Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, has shown improvement as a candidate, compared with his stumbling performance in 2012. He has impressed several Republican state and county officials in Iowa, where he is campaigning steadily, but more of the buzz in the state is about Cruz and Walker (and Trump and Bush and Rubio and Ben Carson).
“I think Governor Perry could surprise people if he finds a way to break out of the pack,” Branstad said. “But so could Jeb Bush. His father and brother won Iowa, so Jeb knows what he needs to do — campaign in every county. Any candidate who works hard has the potential to win with 17 percent, 18 percent if the vote really splits.”
Jeff Kaufmann, the Iowa Republican Party chairman, said the caucus vote could be so fractured that the usual “three tickets out of Iowa” — political momentum for the top three vote-getters — may not apply in 2016.
“I think people will be able to say, ‘I finished in the top six or seven in Iowa,’ and turn that into momentum,” said Kaufmann, whose role includes championing participation in the caucuses. “The advantage of having such a big field could go to the less well-funded and less well-known candidates if they score a surprising finish. We could have a few people claiming that they ‘won’ Iowa.”
Bush, for one, is not widely regarded as an especially formidable candidate in Iowa, given his support for immigration overhaul and the Common Core educational standards, but strategists believe he has a strong chance of finishing in the top three — and perhaps winning — if the electorate is split among several candidates.
“We think we can get a fraction of the social-conservative vote, maybe 15 percent, and establishment Republicans and fiscal conservatives, and all of that may be enough to win, place or show,” said one Bush adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Vying for the spotlight
The Republican field is the biggest for either party since 1976, when more than a dozen Democrats sought the nomination. While no GOP front-runner has emerged this year, the possibility of a circuslike nomination contest is widely thought to benefit the candidate with the most money, staying power and appeal in delegate-rich big states, a profile that currently favors Bush.
Of the 17 expected candidates, about half are expected to compete fiercely in Iowa and half in New Hampshire. With so many Republicans expected to have money for television commercials and direct mail, either financed by their campaigns or super PACs supporting them, it will be hard for any one candidate to dominate on air and in print news coverage.
“There were news reports that Chris Christie plans to camp out in New Hampshire for the next seven months, which sounds like a bold move until you realize there will be so many other candidates camping out, too,” said Kevin Madden, an adviser on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns. “When you have so many people onstage, it’s like an orchestra: Whoever has the loudest instrument or the instrument out of tune, they’ll get noticed.”
Which is why, Madden and others said, second-tier candidates such as Carly Fiorina and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky might eventually follow the lead of Trump in crafting provocative statements to get maximum attention.
“There’s a faction of the electorate that just really hates the blow-dried, conventional politicians who feed them perfect sound bites,” Madden said. “What those voters are gravitating toward are folks like Trump who are talking off script.”
Andrew Smith, a pollster and an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, said Trump’s bluntness was working to his advantage in a field where so many others look cautious or starchy.
“Trump is tapping into blue-collar Republican frustrations about immigration in a way that the other candidates have been hesitant about,” he said.
If Trump stands out as he inveighs against illegal immigration, Rubio separates himself from the pack with his stories about his immigrant parents and his profile as the rare Hispanic running for president. Rubio advisers believe Republicans are increasingly aware that the percentage of non-Hispanic white voters is waning and that Rubio represents the future, a common refrain in his stump speech, but a point he will try to reinforce by projecting an image of youthful optimism in the debates.
Walker is trying to straddle the establishment, conservative, tea-party and evangelical wings of the Republican Party, a strategy that could garner him support, but one that might also alienate voters if they feel he is running to the right in Iowa and to the middle in New Hampshire. Walker paused a couple of seconds Thursday in New Hampshire when he was asked if he was a conservative or an independent.
“I’m an American, that’s what I am. I’m an American,” he said.
Soon after, he said he was not “running on” his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, a comment that might surprise some Iowa voters. “I’m a social conservative, as well, but my primary reputation comes from my work on economic and fiscal issues,” he said.
Safety in numbers?
Others see the size of the field as only helping candidates such as Cruz and Christie because they are memorable speakers who have a talent for making a connection with voters.
“No one has ever accused Governor Christie of getting lost in the crowd,” said Russ Schriefer, an adviser to Christie.
During a recent swing through New Hampshire, Bush said he did not know if the abundance of rivals was good for him or not.
“If you shake enough hands and you have a well-funded campaign with a good strategy and you campaign hard, you can win,” Bush said, adding: “I can’t control all the volatility of every other candidate. I can focus on me.”
Still, as one of the front-runners, Bush has many rivals who are trying to siphon off support. Marching in the Independence Day parade in Merrimack, N.H., he saw Straight, the state representative, and jogged over to say hello.
“I think of myself in 16th place now, but I want to work my way up to No. 1,” Bush told him.
After Bush rejoined the procession, Straight praised him, but like other New Hampshire politicians and even Bush allies who are holding out, also said he was considering Walker, Perry and Kasich.
“I can’t tell if having so many other candidates helps or hurts Bush,” Straight said. “But I guess if those other guys weren’t running, I’d be with Jeb already, and early endorsements can help a lot.”