With the first debate last week in Cleveland, the 2016 presidential election has entered a new, more serious phase.
During that debate, Sen. Marco Rubio said that the Republican Party had been blessed with very good candidates while the Democrats “can’t even find one.” Though intended as a one-liner, Rubio was absolutely correct: the current size of the Republican field is caused not by a lack of good candidates, but an overabundance of them. The depth and quality of the Republican field, and the inability of Democrats to find a serious challenger to Hillary Rodham Clinton, is no coincidence, but a natural result of the last several election cycles.
It may seem now that Republicans and Democrats trade off in dominating election cycles, but as recently as 2006, that was not the case. That year, as candidates were beginning to make plans for the 2008 presidential election, Democrats picked up six governorships and gained control of both houses of Congress. So, when the presidential campaign rolled around, Democrats had a strong and deep bench from which to draw both potential candidates and their supporters.
However, recent history has not been so kind to Democrats. Republicans did very well in midterm elections in 2010 and 2014, and Obama did not have nearly the coattails in 2012 that he did in 2008. These recent wave elections for Republicans have severely weakened the Democratic bench.
So, it is no surprise that the GOP has an enormous field of 17 presidential candidates, while the Democrats have only five. It is not necessarily a reflection of Clinton being an enormously strong frontrunner, but of the political reality on the ground in the states. Another Barack Obama might have been able to come along and forge a similar coalition to challenge Clinton for the nomination, but there isn’t another Barack Obama. The potential candidate most similar to him, Elizabeth Warren, has consistently and repeatedly disavowed any interest in the race.
The difference between 2008 and 2016 is not that Clinton has conquered those portions of the Democratic Party that bitterly opposed her, but that the Democratic bench has been so decimated over the past five years that the party faithful lack a candidate around whom they can unify. Though that is working to Clinton’s advantage, it is hardly a good sign for the Democratic Party as a whole. It may not, ultimately, work to Clinton’s benefit, either. In 2008, both parties had very competitive primaries; this year, the huge disparity in the fields may have a significant impact on the general election.
However long it takes Donald Trump to run his course, it is unlikely he will maintain his lead indefinitely. At this point in 2007, Rudy Giuliani enjoyed a similarly sized lead over…Mitt Romney. Eventual nominee John McCain was 17 points behind Giuliani, running in fourth. With a much larger field, an even more dramatic reshuffling could occur before this campaign is over. So, anyone who says with certainty whom the GOP will nominate should be taken with not a grain, but a bucket, of salt. It is an absolutely — even absurdly — open race.
For Republicans, having a contested primary with a large field might appear at first glance a curse, but it may well be a blessing in disguise. Having so many candidates running gives the party plenty of options for both the No. 1 and No. 2 slots on the ticket. It also gives the eventual nominee the chance to test his or her mettle before the general election, toughening up our nominee to face a difficult opponent.
Right now, Democrats are gleefully planning a Clinton coronation, but come next November, they may well wish they’d had a more contested summer.