We are coming up on the November debates — the Republicans on Fox Business Channel, the Democrats on CBS. The sheer size of the Republican field (and the impossibility of being fair to all of the candidates) continues to drive everybody mad. Arbitrary criteria lead to candidates being shuffled to the “JV” debate or excluded all together; and the shortness of time leads to candidates being upset about not getting a chance to make their points. On the other hand, with only five candidates originally and three candidates left now, the time issues are not that pressing on the Democratic side.
For the upcoming Republican debates, three candidates have been excluded from the JV debates (Lindsay Graham, George Pataki and Jim Gilmore). Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Santorum will take part in the JV debate. The main event will feature Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, and Rand Paul.
The number of Republicans running creates a potential paradox in the normal money primary. At this point in the campaign, trailing candidates routinely find themselves in a catch-22 — they need more funds to become competitive but they need to become competitive to get more funds. However, putting aside Carson and Trump (as most of the money folks seem to think that both will collapse), several of the candidates can point to a poll showing them within the margin of error of third place in at least one early state. However, it is highly unlikely that 15 candidates will make it to Iowa. I would not be surprised if Senator Graham decides that with Rand Paul not being a serious contender that he no longer is needed to assure that the Republican field takes an aggressive stand on foreign policy. If Gilmore and Pataki were actually running expensive campaigns, I would not be surprised for them to call it a day soon. Since they aren’t, they might just stick around. Santorum, Huckabee, and Jindal are all competing for the same slot — currently occupied by Ben Carson. At some point, the lack of funds will force one or all of them to drop out. The November JV debate may be the last chance for one of these three to become the alternative to Carson.
Chris Christie may be in the most interesting position of all of the candidates in the JV debate. He is currently polling around 8% in New Hampshire and is within 3% of Rubio. It is possible to spin a scenario where Christie could win a substantial number of delegates from “blue” districts in places like New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and California where moderate Republicans have substantial influence. But at some point, he has to make a solid argument why he should be the center-right candidate.
The other candidates that need strong performances are Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush. Fiorina is trying to straddle the line between outsider and establishment. However, she is not the first choice of either group. It is unclear how much longer she can wait for Trump and Carson to collapse. At some point, Bush needs to gain traction and stop the slow sink to just another candidate status. His super-pac has the money to allow him to run through early March, but at some point he is just no longer relevant to the race.
My hunch — for whatever it is worth — is that we will see three to five candidates withdraw between now and the end of the year, leaving ten candidates running in the February races. My hunch says that Graham and Jindal are the most likely to drop out, but beyond that it an open question. On the other hand, the initial primary field will almost certainly include Carson, Kasich, Cruz, and Rubio.
While the Republican debates are still about who will make it to Iowa, we seem to be set for the final field on the Democratic side. There is a theoretical possibility that Martin O”Malley will withdraw before Iowa, but I think that he will stick around as the “just in case” candidate, running a very low budget campaign. The Democratic debate will be if anybody can alter the perceptions of the field or whether the campaign will continue to solidify. There is always the possibility that some issue will arise that shakes up the field, but I don’t see either Senator Sanders or Governor O’Malley being likely to engage in the type of attack on Secretary Clinton that it would take to reset the race. If not, Secretary Clinton appears to be polling well in most of the early states and seems likely to win the majority of delegates up for grabs in February and March. With the support of the automatic delegates for Secretary Clinton, that should be enough to get Secretary Clinton the nomination.