(Update to the update: I Still Heart Pluto)
There's a few problems the Republicans are facing this 2016 Presidential cycle, above all their lack of a true Reagan-esque figure to shill for their increasingly unloved political agenda.
They're already facing the uphill battle over demographics, but everyone - including Mr. Strawman over there - knows that.
The Republicans have to cope with the current Electoral map that favors the Democrats in more states with more electors: all the 2016 Democratic nominee has to do is win the same states Obama did, which is looking more likely by the day. (and the only ones to blame are the Republicans themselves, responsible for such polarization in the first place).
There is, however, on top of all this a big problem the Republican Party cannot avoid.
They have too many candidates for President running in this primary.
We're technically up to fifteen (15), unless there's been any more announcements just now, and the common consensus is that we might have
These aren't just people floating their trial balloons. They have filed, they are lining up SuperPACs and fund-raisers, and they're fighting for position for the upcoming cable news debates.
By comparison, the Democrats are around five (5) names filing for contention with a potential sixth, and while one of them - hi, Hillary! - is a dominant name there's at least one serious competitor - hi, Bernie! - and one possible competitor who can rally by primary season in O'Malley to make something of a horse-race for the Dems. Throw in the likelihood of Biden and there's at least a reason to tune in and see who gaffes the most.
In theory, it's good to have choices. Especially in politics where diversity of views on different issues need to get aired out to the voters. That's why for the Democrats it's going to be a good thing to have front-runner Hillary Clinton face off against an obvious alternative in Sanders and a potential backup option in O'Malley (or Biden).
In practice, having too many choices clutters the field, creates too much chaos for people to make decisions. It may also create other problems, but for now let's consider the chaos.
For Republicans, last cycle 2012 they did have thirteen (13) names on the ballot, but it got pretty clear by the first month that it was all down to Mitt Romney and the Not-Mitt Candidate of the Week. Given the front-runner status of Mitt, the Not-Mitt option became less of an issue: all it did was prolong the primary season as the eventual Not-Mitt candidate in Santorum refused to drop out.
This 2016 cycle, the Republicans are lacking a clear front-runner. It's currently just Trump and Jeb Bush in double-digits... and neither of them are over 20 percent (by comparison, Hillary is polling at 51 percent over Sanders' 17 percent, it's shrunk but it's still a major lead). Part of it has to do with there being too many choices too early. While the remaining thirteen Republicans are polling at 9 percent or lower, they're still taking up space and they're essentially taking away potential voters from everybody else. Let's round every non-Trump/Bush candidate to 5 percent... multiply that by 13 names and that's still 65 percent of the field which is kinda how the numbers play out today. Neither Trump nor Jeb have momentum right now to claim a clear front-runner position that could stabilize the race.
Few other campaign cycles were this cluttered to my memory. Going back to 1980 when I was old enough to pay attention, the Democrats had just three (incumbent Jimmy Carter vs. spoiler Ted Kennedy - who apparently did no-one any favors - and I think Gov. Brown from California) and the Republicans had ten (eventual winner Reagan vs. Bush the Elder and Anderson as the main opponents), but even then the minor-league guys dropped out pretty quick by the first month of actual primaries, and you had an idea early on who was winning (at least it was down to two-three names). Most other cluttered races - even 2012's - had that scenario play out to where it went from thirteen names to nine to six to three within a couple of months. This time...
While Jeb is pretty much the Given (Establishment candidate with the deep-pockets) and Trump the Upstart (oy vey), neither of them at the moment can even claim front-runner. Both are seriously vulnerable even within the context of the primaries. Past them are the solid names with both credentials and credit within the media (Rubio, Rand, Walker, Huckabee) still not breaking into double-digits, and then the "why are they running" crowd (Cruz, Carson, Jindal, Christie, Santorum) who can still turn into wild cards, followed by the "why are they losing" crowd (the "serious" candidates like Kasich and Graham who can't stir up interest above the statistical error range). Thing is, by this point of a campaign - the early debates - at least SOMEBODY would buy a clue and drop out for the good of the party (and before they get caught in a worthless scandal). The other thing is though, the ones most likely to drop out - hi, Carly! - barely have a percentage to their names already, meaning any boost to gain that support would be below negligible. It would take a Rand or Rubio dropping out to cause a significant shift in the polling... and even then, it'd be about six or seven percent, still nothing to crow about...
The next problem related to all this: all the rules have changed. For one, the horse-race mindset of the media covering elections are pushing the election cycle further and further ahead of the actual calendar. The traditional point for candidates to really drop out - the early balloting that solidifies who's actually winning - is so far off most candidates can delude themselves into hanging on for months, keeping the field cluttered. There is no reason for Rand or Rubio or any of the less-than-a-percent crowd to drop out.
The second thing changing everything was Citizens United and other rulings making it easier for the rich to spend unlimited amounts of cash on campaigns. In this environment, even a third-tier candidate like Jindal and Santorum can find a deep-pocket "sugar daddy" to create a SuperPAC to cover most of the costs of campaigning. Just enough to keep themselves in the race all the way to the summer convention. Granted, the Democrats can work the same way, but for Republicans facing a crowded field the problem doesn't multiply it grows exponentially. How Santorum did in 2012 - lasting all the way up to the end, and even securing enough Primary ballots in the late rounds with Mitt a lock - is the harbinger of this trend.
So why is a cluttered field of candidates a serious problem for Republicans?
Because it increases the likelihood of a candidate over-reaching to pander to the base, and getting caught on live camera or microphone saying or doing something that can taint the entire field.
Call it the Todd Akin Moment. As a candidate for Senate, Akin made a massive faux pas commenting on rape, using ill-formed arguments and lack of knowing human biology that essentially killed his campaign. It reflected so poorly on Republicans - who were making insane claims about rape in other elections that cycle - in general that it hampered their attempt in 2012 to gain control of the Senate.
The Republicans run a huge risk of a similar Moment happening on the debate stage for August, or elsewhere as long as there's a massive field of candidates vying for podium space. Only this time it will involve their Presidential race, tainting most of the likely candidates they're hoping to sell to the general voters (the ones less impressed with base-pandering and more impressed with, oh, basic logic and competency).
Trump is already a huge warning sign. Just to get attention at his announcement last month, Trump went overboard insulting Mexicans in such a way that the much-needed Latino voter bloc is already refusing to look at the Republicans at all. What do you think the August debate - on Fox Not-News no less, home of the Far Right voter base eager to get pandered to - could look like?
What can well happen at the first August debate - even capped off to just the top ten polling names - would be a free-for-all pander-fest. You'll have attempts by the low-tier candidates with nothing to lose - Ted Cruz comes to mind right away - offering up bizarre statements and outright fear-mongering to get the audience's attention. Think Trump's insults towards Mexicans are offensive? Just wait until Cruz or Huckabee or maybe Jindal (if he makes the cut) say something about Planned Parenthood, or Gay Marriage, or bombing Iran. Easy winning topics for the base and likely to push them into double-digit territory with Jeb and Trump, very bad ways to insult the overall nation with more than a year to go before the conventions even happen.
And the thing is, the risks for the Republican candidates to do this are low. They have thirteen other candidates to beat. The urge to stay in the race long-term - the urge to prove themselves "winners" in a purity contest well up into July 2016 - guarantees that. Even Jeb is going to feel the pressure to pander early and often: maybe not on immigration, but certainly on something Far Right Religious. The benefits are high: expanded interest by their base audience, and an increased likelihood of winning enough GOP Primaries to become a player at the convention in case there is no clear winner (which is likely if five to seven candidates keep going all the way and Jeb fails to impress the hardcore base (which is very likely especially if immigration remains a sticking point, it's an issue Jeb honestly cannot let slide without destroying his own biography)).
And despite the short-term memory for most voters, you can be certain the Democrats are TiVo-ing / DVR-ing the entire debate for gaffe-worthy material to broadcast later on by their unregulated SuperPACs well into October 2016. Whereas given the smaller field of candidates for Democrats, they will run fewer risks of an onstage gaffe, as the risks of offending are higher and the odds of improving their numbers - Hillary is just too far ahead to run the risk - are lower. The best the Democrats can hope for is Hillary imploding on herself in a way that doesn't hamper Sanders or O'Malley (or Biden) in securing a solid nomination before May, or else Hillary securing the nomination in a way that appeases the Far Left base while playing well to the general public.
The Republicans are facing a hard August, one of their own making. As the major practitioners and supporters of the "unlimited money" campaigning that now clogs their system, this has to hurt in a real-ironic (not Alanis-ironic) way (although it's probably a bummer anyway). Because they set up the debate rules tied in so heavily to polling, they are going to see more candidates pander early - like Trump did - and in the worst, potentially offensive ways. That they're relying on their pander-propaganda network to do all this - hi, Fox Not-News! - makes it harder for the GOP to attempt any U-turns and re-adjust the rules to enforce some comity.
I won't necessarily crow about all of this. I genuinely believe the nation benefits when there's sane choices to make come election time. I worry that this current fiasco - that He (sorry Carly, you're just not gonna be in this race) Who Panders Most Leads Best is going to stay all the way into 2016 - is going to leave us with a Republican Party (tearfully behind the curtains) offering up a candidate in Ted Cruz who will cheerfully nuke the political landscape or else a Jeb Bush (whom I still view as an evil choice) trapped with a horrific and insulting party platform he cannot set aside.
While I hope for a decent Democratic candidate - yes, Hillary is evil but she is competent which is more than I can say for most of the GOP offerings - I do worry that a bad Republican candidate could win a contested and close contest - hi, 2000 Debacle! - that would put the worst panderer into our most important office.
It's gonna be a long year for the whole nation. Please stay sane, and please FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DO NOT VOTE REPUBLICAN.