2016 may be one of the most crowded presidential fields ever but does that matter?

History suggests it doesn't predict much

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Who knows if it’s a blessing or a curse, but there is an enormous crop of presidential candidates in this harvest. 

Republicans are especially abundant. Television producers fret over how many can fit on a debate stage and how to cull out the hopeless.

Republicans talk about the bumper crop like proud farmers, but worry that the overgrown field will make all the specimens look puny. Democrats hope and pray that’s true. And the consultants say ka-ching.

It is certainly true that this is one of the largest lists of credible candidates ever. It could even end up being a record-setter. But that in itself may not turn out to be very important or meaningful. Perhaps it will be just an answer to a trivia question someday.

Why? First, the 2016 list is large, but there have been plenty of lists nearly as long before, even in the period before primaries.

Second, history reveals that candidate gluts signify very little; they don’t predict the eventual election winners or broader realignments.

Third, the definition of a “credible” candidate is fluid and it has never been easier for a wannabe to become credible – at least in the media’s eyes and at least for 15 minutes.

There are 21 candidates in the race now if you count the undeclared but probable ones – 16 Republicans and 5 Democrats.

The grand total of 21 is big but not a record. There were 22 horses in the 2008 derby, 12 Republicans and 10 Democrats. In 1988, there were 17.

The real anomaly this year is the number of Republicans. In 1976, 13 Democrats battled for the chance to oust Gerald Ford. But this year’s GOP slate may be a record setter in the primary era.

It is harder to tally up lists of candidates in the time before primaries, when the national conventions selected the party nominees. In the era of conventions, candidacies weren’t always formal and official. Stalking horses, red herrings, home-state favorites and protest candidates often got chunks of votes on early convention ballots. And sometimes they won.

A very rough measure for calculating the number of “credible” candidates in those days might be candidates who received more than five votes on some ballots. 

For example, in 1868, the Democratic convention saw 12 candidates with five votes or more. After 22 ballots, the long-forgotten Horatio Seymour was nominated. In 1888, 18 people received more than five votes on Republican convention ballots. Sixteen Republicans got at least five votes at their convention in 1916.

These long slates, however, don’t seem to predict much of anything. Ulysses S. Grant shellacked Horatio Seymour in 1868. In 1916, the big GOP field also produced a loser, Charles Evans Hughes.

But in 1888, Benjamin Harrison bested a giant slate and went on to win. 1920 was hectic for the Republicans with 12 candidates, but the nominee, Warren Harding went on to win the general.

This prompted Connecticut Senator Frank Brandegee to quip, “There ain’t any first-raters this year…. we got a lot of second-raters and Warren Harding is the best of the second-raters.”

Some things never change.

What has changed is the how a presidential candidate acquires credibility, admittedly a subjective term.

In the convention era, a candidate became credible by being famous and popular, usually as a war hero, or through the support of other politicians and party organizations. Either way, in the end it was impossible to bypass smoke-filled rooms and fellow politicians.

The equation became more complicated in the long transition from a pure convention system to the complete reliance on popular primaries, which was complete by 1972. Primaries allowed candidates to partially bypass party bosses and machines, create their own organizations in early influential states and raise their own money.

But there were two huge limiting forces. Campaign finances were strictly regulated after Watergate. A candidate couldn’t raise $100 million dollars a week from individual donors and Super PACs. A candidate could not, in essence, buy credibility. They can now and do.

The “mainstream media” was also an imposing gatekeeper.  Cable began chipping away at the wall in the 1980s. The Internet blew it to smithereens by the turn of the century.   Before that, the three networks, three newsmagazines and daily newspapers gave scant attention to minor candidates and long-shots, at least until they did well in an early primary. 

The Internet, blogs and social media gave candidates a direct and cheap direct path to voters. That has changed what credibility is. 

A long list of Twitter followers or Facebook followers itself grants credibility – for a time. Any candidate who doesn’t swear a lot has unlimited access to cable news.

Polling has become cheap so there’s a new one just about every day in the 18 months before election day; one appearance in the top five gives “conventional” journalists an excuse to call the longest of shots “credible” and then inspires a slew of serious stories. Just ask Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann or Newt Gingrich.

Does the promiscuity of contemporary credibility inevitably lure in more and more candidates? Probably not. Hillary Clinton scared off all but a few troublemakers in an open election year.   

History suggests the Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky about this and the Republicans shouldn’t worry too much.  And neither should we. 

An oversupply of candidates isn’t a symptom of something worse. And there’s so much to dislike about presidential campaigns now, at least the long list of oddball candidates can provide some entertainment value.

[Also by Dick Meyer: We are practicing Groundhog Day politics]

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