To better understand the 2016 GOP presidential race, let’s consider some history. At a comparable point during the last nine Republican presidential primary contests, four had a front-runner with a double-digit lead in a national poll, and in five the leader was ahead by single digits.
In the contests with a clear front-runner, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller led Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater by 26 points in a March 1963 Gallup poll; Kansas Sen. Bob Dole was ahead of Texas Sen. Phil Gramm by 47 points in a March 1995 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll; Texas Gov. George W. Bush led Elizabeth Dole by 35 points in a March 1999 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll; and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was ahead of Arizona Sen. John McCain in a March 2007 CNN survey by 16 points. The front-runner went on to win the nomination in two of four contests.
In the five races where someone had a narrow lead, Michigan Gov. George Romney led Vice President Richard Nixon by three points in a February 1967 Gallup poll; President Gerald Ford was in front of California Gov. Ronald Reagan by one point in a March 1975 Gallup poll; Mr. Reagan led Mr. Ford by one point in a February 1979 Gallup poll; Vice President George H.W. Bush was ahead of Mr. Dole by six points in March 1987 ABC/Washington Post survey, and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was ahead of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by four points in a February 2011 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. In these cases, the front-runner won three of the five contests.
Combining the two sets, the front-runner—regardless of their lead’s size—won five out of nine times. If the front-runner actually ran, he became the GOP nominee in five of seven contests. So a lead now, even a small one, is something of an advantage.
Structural changes imposed by the Republican National Committee may make 2016 a different story. Only four states will have primaries in February—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. States holding primaries in the first half of March 2016 must award delegates proportionally. States in the second half of March can be winner-take-all.
Assume different candidates win each of the first four contests, which is historically the case. No one locks up the nomination in February, but the field narrows to three-to-five plausible candidates.
March’s proportional primaries further winnow the field, with the late March and early April winner-take-all primaries settling the contest. In this scenario, the quality of each candidate’s message is likely to be the most important element in determining the outcome.
But more so than in the past, momentum in early March, strong organizations in the March states, and sufficient money to spend effectively could seal the nomination.
Another scenario: The field is so jumbled following the February contests that the late March/early April primaries narrow the field but don’t produce a winner. The race continues through the spring, probably involving two candidates locked in fierce struggle.
In this scenario, if minor candidates win enough delegates in the February and early March proportional contests (which could happen given this field’s quality), no candidate might win a delegate majority before the convention. State laws and party rules would require delegates pledged to minor candidates to support them for at least a ballot or two at the July 2016 convention in Cleveland. Candidates would then wheel-and-deal to arrive at a majority, as often happened at conventions before 1952.
This scenario isn’t likely. The large number of candidates and the RNC’s determination to have a small number of debates may combine to deny some contenders the exposure they need to break through. It’s also hard to build organizations to qualify everywhere, especially in big states like New York, and to compete in all the caucus states.
Then there are super PACs. One major benefactor can keep a candidate going longer than they might otherwise, but if most big donors unite behind a candidate, it could prove decisive, if the money is spent well.
There is also a question of who the front-runner is now. There are more surveys this election than in the past. So while Wednesday’s Real Clear Politics average had Jeb Bush at 14.5%, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at 13% and Mike Huckabee at 11.8%, each man has led in a national poll in the past four weeks.
Republicans prize orderliness, so it’s unlikely the GOP will return to smoke-filled rooms, and deals over platform planks or cabinet posts to pick their candidate. Unlikely but not impossible. So there is still hope for political junkies who dream of drama and disarray.
A version of this article appeared February 26, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Republicans Could Be In For A Wild Ride In 2016 and online at WSJ.com.