Not Your Father’s (or Grandfather’s) GOP Field

by Stuart Rothenberg February 4, 2015 · 9:54 AM EST

None of the top-tier GOP contenders for the party’s presidential nomination have formally entered the race yet, but it’s already clear the field will be unique in the party’s modern campaign history.

Most Republican fields since 1952 have begun with between two and five serious contenders for the nomination. This cycle’s field is almost certain to be both larger and better credentialed, creating a very different race that will end in Cleveland at the party’s national convention in July 2016.

Not all of the contenders now being mentioned as possible candidates will run or would start with the same stature, financial muscle and electoral potential. But almost a dozen current and former statewide elected officials begin as plausible contenders for the GOP nomination.

The list of potential candidates who could win the Republican nomination — or at least seriously impact the dynamic of the race — includes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich and, possibly, TV personality/former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Although he was in the 2012 race until the end of the primaries, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is unlikely to be a factor this cycle because of the makeup of the field. The same goes for South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George Pataki.

Ben Carson, a conservative commentator and former pediatric neurosurgeon who will get more than his fair share of attention from conservative talk show hosts, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in California in 2010, have not held elective office, which is a huge impediment to being nominated.

The last two presidential nominees without previous elective office were Republicans Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and Wendell Willkie in 1940.

Some candidates never elected to statewide or federal office have caused a ripple of excitement, of course.

Nobody quite knew what evangelical preacher Pat Robertson’s potential was when he ran in 1988, even after he won the Iowa straw poll in 1987. Businessman Steve Forbes made major efforts in 1996 and 2000, but he was always regarded as a quirky long shot. Businessman Herman Cain had a few moments of notoriety in 2012, but that was largely because half of the Republican Party was looking for anyone not named Mitt Romney.

Elizabeth Dole drew plenty of early attention in her bid for the 2000 nomination, but some of it was because of her gender and last name. Still, she had extensive government experience as secretary of Labor and secretary of Transportation, and yet she exited the race well before the primaries or caucuses.

Presidential campaigns changed dramatically during the two or three decades before 1980. Television became more important, and the number of primaries exploded. Fundraising became a key measure of potential. “Favorite son” candidates disappeared.

The nominations of two Democrats, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern in 1972 and Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter four years later, convinced politicians in both parties that even long shots could be nominated.

Beginning in 1980, Republican presidential fields started to become littered with less plausible candidates who hoped lightning would strike or simply wanted to promote themselves or their agendas.

Hopefuls such as conservative activist Alan Keyes, California Rep. Duncan Hunter (father of the current congressman), Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, California Rep. Bob Dornan, activist Gary Bauer, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and many others had little or no impact on their races.

Since 1980, GOP fields have begun with four or five serious contenders.

Former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, former CIA Director George Bush, Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, former Texas Gov. John Connally and Illinois Rep. John Anderson all seemed to be in the mix for the 1980 nomination. Kansas Sen. Bob Dole was also a candidate, but just four years after being the GOP nominee for vice president he was seen as a lesser contender.

The 1988 class of hopefuls was of similar size (George Bush, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, Roberston, New York Rep. Jack Kemp and former Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont), as was the 1996 class (Bob Dole, conservative activist Pat Buchanan, former Tennessee Gov./Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, Forbes and, quite briefly, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm).

In 2000, the GOP race was basically a two-man contest between George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain, though Elizabeth Dole, Alexander and Forbes received some early attention, and there were a number of other less plausible hopefuls.

In 2008, five candidates started with some potential in the Republican race — McCain, Romney, Huckabee, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani — though Thompson and Giuliani never got untracked.

Finally, the 2012 field was among the largest in recent memory, though it included only a few plausible nominees. The early exit from the race of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, one of the early hopefuls with the broadest potential of appeal, left Romney and possibly former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Perry as the only serious contenders.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman had credentials, but no route to victory, while third-tier hopefuls Santorum, Cain and then-Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota would never have been factors in any other year. And while Ron Paul amassed 154 delegates to the convention, he was never a factor in the race.

The 2016 Republican field looks like the 2012 field on steroids — with many more well-credentialed contenders who have the potential to excite GOP primary voters. The large number of likely contenders raises some interesting questions about the dynamic of the party’s presidential race.

But be clear about one thing: This is a very different kind of race than Republicans have seen in the past.