fb-pixel Skip to main content
Ground Game

Why is the GOP presidential field so large in 2016?

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is the latest candidate to declare a run for president. Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press/Associated Press

There have been jokes about the sheer number of Republicans running for president this year. Debate organizers have scratched their heads over who in the large field should and shouldn’t be allowed on the stage. Assignment editors have fretted over picking which top-tier hopefuls deserve attention.

How did we get to this point? The GOP field is the largest since the modern presidential primary system began in 1952. On Wednesday, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal became the 13th Republican to officially join the presidential race. Five more candidates are expected to enter the contest in the next month.

Driving the large field, experts say, is a combination of political history, the state of the Republican Party, and changes in campaign finance law. What’s more, based on previous cycles, it’s clear even relatively unknown, losing candidates can gain fame and political power by running for president.


“Our system of selecting presidential candidates is one riddled by ambition and not terribly controlled by anyone,” said George Washington University political management professor Chris Arterton. “It is a system completely out of control.”

History gives these Republicans a reason to hope they can win. Since President Harry S. Truman followed Franklin D. Roosevelt to the White House, only one other time has a member of the same party been elected following a two-term president: George H.W. Bush in 1988.

After two terms of a Democratic president, some Republican candidates may believe that, if history is their guide, 2016 will be their year to win the White House.

“The odds of winning are better than they were in 2012,” said Stuart Stevens, the lead strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “I think that Mitt Romney last time was seen as formidable, and probably some people didn’t run because he did.”

Two dynamics within today’s Republican Party point to a greater incentive for candidates to enter the contest.


The first, as Stevens said, is that for the first time in recent history, there isn’t a front-runner for the GOP nomination. Indeed, a few Republicans currently considering the race in 2016 took a pass four years ago, including, most publicly, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

“I think [Ohio] Governor [John] Kasich is right that he might as well run for president because Jeb Bush nor anyone else is the front-runner in this race,” said Stevens, who is not working with a candidate this cycle.

The second reason: After two losses for the presidency, Republicans are engaged in an open conversation about the direction of the party on social issues, and economic and foreign policy.

“Everyone who is running thinks they know the future direction that the party ought to adopt,” said Arterton. “The subsequent losses from [John] McCain and Romney, who Republicans were told could win, has created a sentiment from party activists that should not be dismissed.”

The GOP’s debate has also been full of optimism since the party won the US House and Senate in 2010 and 2014, respectively. Conservatives did well at the polls those years, and now the party’s base believes they can next capture the White House.

Lastly, the bar to entry has became lower for would-be candidates as a result of changes in campaign finance law. Before, candidates would have to recruit a massive team of fund-raisers who would raise a few thousand from a broad group of donors. Today, all that is required is the financial backing of one rich person willing to put money into a super PAC.


As many as 18 potential and announced candidates want to appear on the debate stage. Media organizers for the first two debates have decided to limit the main debate to just 10 candidates, using national polling to determine who will be included. Republican leaders in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have criticized these debate rules as unfair while also acknowledging that 18 candidates is too many for one stage.

Notably, the large GOP field contrasts with the mere five Democrats expected to run, including front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In previous years, Democrats have typically had a slightly larger field of presidential candidates.

“This looks more like a Democratic race than a Republican one,” Arterton said.

James Pindell can be reached at James.Pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell, or subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 presidential campaign, Ground Game, at www.bostonglobe.com/groundgame.