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Handicapping The 2016 GOP Primaries

January 14, 2015

Each presidential primary contest differs from previous ones. But 2016 will be wildly different, starting with many more qualified candidates than in 2012. The field last time was among the weakest in memory; this field could be among the strongest.

The race is wide open with no commanding front-runner. Three times as many prospective candidates received 5% or more in Wednesday’s Real Clear Politics average than at this point four years ago. And while Republicans usually have more senators than governors running, it’s the opposite this time.

The Republican National Committee will sanction five to seven debates—far fewer than the 26 held in the runup to the 2012 election—limiting opportunities for candidates to carve each other up on national TV and for liberal moderators to focus on how exotic Republicans are.

Voting will start later. The RNC prohibited January primaries and authorized only Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada to hold February contests. Any other state that votes before March will lose all its convention delegates.

The number of contests increases in the first half of March, potentially including a Southern “Super Tuesday” with Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee. Early March states must award delegates proportionally. So while one candidate may carry more states, there may be only a small difference in the delegate count.

States voting in the second half of March and beyond can award delegates winner-take-all. This could quickly end the contest or, some suggest, make it harder for any candidate to pull away as several candidates split big blocks of delegates, resulting in a long battle that could go until the convention. I think the former outcome is more likely, though a long battle didn’t hurt Democrats in 2008.

The 2016 GOP primaries will take place in the fastest news cycle ever. As one observer puts it, “rapid response” has become “immediate response.” How candidates seize unexpected opportunities, handle moments of adversity or react in times of triumph could matter more than in any GOP contest in 50 years.

That raises the importance of “message.” Candidates who make it to the finals will be those who focus more on solutions than on problems, more on the future than the past, and who heed the words of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” To broaden the GOP’s appeal, virtually every hopeful is already fashioning a middle-class agenda to increase economic mobility and reduce government dependency.

In a large field, a candidate’s proficiency in bashing President Obama or Hillary Clinton will have surprisingly limited value. Anyone who spends an inordinate amount of energy assaulting other Republican contenders may damage himself. Fierce, especially personal, attacks will create a low ceiling for the assailant while benefiting candidates who stay out of the fracas.

The finalists are likely to be unifiers who win a dominant share of one element of the party and substantial support among others, much as last year’s crop of successful Republican Senate candidates did in their primaries.

Always important, money will be more so this time. With fewer debates providing grist for horse-race coverage, journalists may measure progress by fundraising. But big-money candidates like John Connally in 1980 and Phil Gramm in 1996 didn’t win. What counts is not only how much is raised, but what is left after expenses and how effectively it is spent.

By next January, candidates must have raised enough cash to fight all four February battles and enter March with money in the bank, no matter how confused the outcomes in the first four contests. The next test will be how quickly they can reload for expensive March big-state contests. Do those still standing after February have enough motivated bundlers, energetic direct mail- and telephone-responsive donors and active online contributors?

Successful candidates run national campaigns, rather than living off the land. That means strong organizations in more than the first four states. Candidates who wait until February’s results to organize states that vote in March and April won’t win.

Super PACs will play a much bigger role. Not subject to contribution limits, they can replenish their coffers faster than the candidates’ campaigns. A handful of wealthy backers can temporarily keep alive hopefuls who lack broad financial support.

There also will be amazing advances in how candidates reach prospective supporters. Hyper-targeting will allow campaigns to focus TV, cable, digital, mail, phones and volunteers with incredible precision on voters more open to their appeals.

This is likely to be the most volatile, unpredictable Republican contest most Americans have ever seen. Get your scorecards and popcorn: The race has begun.

A version of this article appeared January 15, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Handicapping The 2016 GOP Primaries and online at WSJ.com.

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