Donald Trump is far in the lead and Ben Carson is second (and moving up) in national and early state polls, but oddly enough that means plenty of good news for the rest of the pack chasing the Republican presidential nomination.
First, candidates who were once thought to be improbable but are more serious and knowledgeable than Trump and Carson look strong by comparison. Compared with them, in fact, political outsider Carly Fiorina seems like an establishment figure. And compared with someone who has no experience in elective office, a first-term senator like Marco Rubio of Florida or Texas’ Ted Cruz might seem more seasoned than he is.
Second, aside from the top two, the rest of the pack has flattened out. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is not in a much different position than, say, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Rubio, who some critics say has not engaged enough in the early states, is even with a candidate like Cruz, who has been at every cattle call and GOP gathering in the early states. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry might get a new lease on life by getting 2 percent to 3 percent in Iowa. In other words, the rest of the field is essentially tied and the contest among them effectively resets.
Third, especially with proportional early states, the distance between the candidates will be negligible until we hit the winner-take-all races. Carson could win the Iowa caucuses and not be more than a few delegates ahead of whoever comes in seventh or eighth. The proportional system (which goes through mid-March) gives candidates with wider appeal, better organization and adept fundraising operations plenty of opportunity to outlast summer favorites Trump and Carson.
Fourth, as the debate qualifying percentage goes up (to 3 percent or 5 percent) a bevy of candidates will literally disappear from view for the voters who get most of their primary information from the debates. With candidates so closely bunched, the line between inclusion and exclusion in a debate may be paper thin. A candidate with 3.1 percent may make it in, but a candidate with 2.9 percent won’t. Which polls are selected and the minimum level of support needed will be critical to determining the fate of some candidates.
Fifth, as the debates become more subject-specific and the number of attendees shrinks (both because a higher percentage of support is needed to qualify and because candidates drop out), it will be harder to bluster one’s way through a debate. If the answers go from one minute to two minutes, candidates will find it hard to rely strictly on sound bites, and opponents will have more time to plan a rebuttal. Likewise, if moderators or opponents can follow up, candidates who know the material will have the advantage over those tossing out one-liners.
Sixth, as we get closer to actual voting, candidates will throw more elbows at one another, run comparative (some call them “negative”) ads and try to attack adversaries in the debates. Candidates with more money, more self-discipline (to sustain a line of attack) and more equanimity will have an easier time of it.
Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post.