By Zeke J Miller
May 28, 2015

Four sitting senators, four governors, four former governors, a legendary neurosurgeon, a trailblazing CEO–and that’s just the beginning of the list. There are so many Republicans running for President that party chairman Reince Priebus can’t even keep track. “We’re going to have 15, 18–who knows how many people are running,” he mused May 21 at a Republican cattle call in Oklahoma, where no fewer than 10 took the stage.

It is an embarrassment of riches, with more raw political talent with bigger bankrolls than either party has seen in one political cycle. But many inside the party fear that the crowded field could also be a liability, spoiling delicate plans to make the nomination process quicker and less tumultuous.

Despite a series of technical fixes, most observers now expect the 2016 nomination fight to be more competitive and go on longer than Mitt Romney’s 2012 battle. Some even see a greater than usual chance–though still small–for an extended mess ending in a brokered convention in Cleveland. And then there is the problem of figuring out how to take an accurate poll or produce a watchable debate with more candidates than can fit in on a stage. Here is a look at the four ways the GOP’s candidate overpopulation will make 2016 unlike any nomination battle America has seen before.


On television’s The Bachelor, 25 bachelorettes gather to compete for a rose, but Fox News, the host of the first debate on Aug. 6, has capped its stage at 10 podiums. CNN will follow suit with the same limit. That means at least a third of the field is unlikely to make the cut–which will be decided by averaging the five most recent national polls.

It’s a method that will reward candidates with high name identification and incentivize people to appear on Fox News. But some question its fairness. National polls, especially a year out, rarely predict the outcome, and pollsters complain that current sample methods can’t get a read on candidates who poll under the margin of error. “You can’t use polls to make very fine distinctions among candidates, such as who is in 10th place vs. 11th place,” explains George Washington University professor John Sides. At the CNN debate in September, those who don’t make the stage will appear at a separate forum. “Second-tier” never stung so bad.

Advantage: Candidates with Sean Hannity’s cell-phone number


After Mitt Romney emerged hobbled from the primaries, Republican officials shortened the primary calendar, making fixes that were meant to reward early momentum and cut short friendly fire. But the new rules, in a stronger field, will also allow more candidates to pick up delegates quicker, kickstarting a delegate race that could possibly go all the way to the convention. “The bad news is, this campaign is likely to go on longer than we’ve seen in a long time,” says Steve Duprey, the New Hampshire national committeeman who helped shepherd the changes through.

Four to six candidates are expected to emerge as a top tier from the four early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. The next set of states, many of which will award delegates to multiple candidates, could further the confusion. On March 1, for instance, more than 600 delegates are set to be awarded, taking off the table a major chunk of the roughly 1,235 delegates needed to secure the nomination outright. “Lots of people will be able to claim victory that day,” said one top adviser to a Republican candidate.

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Advantage: Dark horses with devoted followers

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When candidates played by the old rules, donations were well below $3,000 per individual donor, forcing candidates to hustle from lots of people to fund a campaign. Now candidates have a greater understanding of super PACs, which can take unlimited funds and are being used for more than just TV ads. A billionaire or two can go a long way.

Consider the case of Jeb Bush. He hasn’t yet formally launched a campaign, while his super PAC is expected to report as much as $100 million in fundraising this summer. By comparison, at the same point in 2011, the richest candidate, Romney, had raised only $18 million in limited donations, while his super PAC brought in an additional $12 million.

But the new money rules could ultimately hurt front runners like Bush. That’s because in the past, candidates had to bow out after losing early states when the money dried up. Now several candidates could have millions in the bank, regardless of what Iowa and New Hampshire decide.

Advantage: Early-state losers with wealthy friends

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Jeb Bush *




Too many candidates has also created a supply-and-demand problem that makes even free-market politicians queasy.

Bidding wars have erupted in early primary states as candidates fight over the few people with networks and expertise to turn out votes. Rumors have swirled that some key operatives could make as much as $35,000 a month, along with bloated titles and other promised chits, like access to the candidate. Outside groups, the super PACs and the nominally apolitical groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the League of Conservation Voters are also building new, often supersize teams.

“With the potential for 19 candidates, anyone who has a hint of a résumé gets to be a political director or a state director,” said an established political adviser who has four presidential campaigns on her own résumé. She, however, is sitting this campaign out despite repeated phone calls from presidential hopefuls and their staffs. “Their pitch was, ‘Whatever you want,'” she said.

It is enough to make a campaign get on its knees and beg. Literally. Such was the scene in early May at Rocket Man, a dueling-pianos joint in Columbia, S.C. Tim Miller, a top aide in former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s campaign-in-waiting, dropped to one knee and asked a respected South Carolina operative to reconsider her decision to join rival Mike Huckabee’s team.

Hope Walker, who most recently was the state director for the South Carolina GOP, told her suitor that she was sticking with Huckabee and there was no need for Bush to phone her. Miller shook his head, rose up and moved on to his next potential hire at the other end of the bar. Miller is still wooing that operative.

Advantage: Political hacks who want vacation homes


This appears in the June 08, 2015 issue of TIME.

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